Nothing standard about it

Amar Lalvani's Standard hotel chain is dedicated to interaction, discovery, and informality, and it's pushing onto the Thai hospitality scene

Amar Lalvani in Bangkok.

Having worked as the assistant of hospitality for trailblazer Barry Sternlicht when the Starwood empire was just getting launched, Amar Lalvani was right at the birth of the whole "cool lifestyle hotel" movement as it came into fruition 20 years ago. "I was there since the beginning and I loved it," the California-born hotelier recalls. "I didn't seek it, but when I saw it, it encapsulated everything I liked to do so I just stuck with it."

Today, he is the CEO of another hotel brand known to capitalise on its stylish and playful culture. Immortalised by Sex And The City's Carrie Bradshaw stint in LA and playing host to the Met Gala after-parties, the five Standard hotels in the US have always fancied themselves as a vibrant setting that always seems to be hip and happening. As the first Standard hotel outside of the country gears up for its grand opening, which is to coincide with fashion week next February in London, the brand of hip hotels is also taking shape in Thailand. Thanks to Sansiri's investment into the company last November, the brand has been growing more seriously and aggressively around the world, with locations on Koh Samui and in Phuket already secured. The "bohemian retreat" slated to come up on Samui at the end of 2019 is said to be situated between the Four Seasons and W Hotel. Meanwhile, the project at Phuket will see an existing 50-room hotel getting renovated, with 150 more rooms and a next-door residence building added. Further projects of Standard-branded residences are in the works in Bangkok and Hua Hin, with locations for Paris and Milan likely to be completed within the next three-four years.

What does this mean for the Thai hospitality industry? In Elite's exclusive chat with Lalvani, CEO of Standard International, we talked about how he perpetuates his business of fun and what to expect when The Standard eventually opens its doors in Thailand. Below, we pinpoint five take home messages that reflect how Lalvani's affinities -- food, drinking, design, art, music, culture -- come together to create The Standard's culture.

 

The Standard East Village, New York.

1. Before anything else: Standard hotels are made in a way that finicky millennials and locals will love -- the party-loving and high-profile ones included.

"From the beginning, the brand has always been involved with the Met Gala after-party, pre-Oscars party in LA, Coachella or things like Fashion Week. We just build places and spaces that people and the community happen to like and we do things that are connected to those worlds, so it makes Standard a natural place to hang out. It's never something that we try to pull in or pay for. It's not trying to be the hottest place in town, but it's the place where people recall the great times they've had there. We really want locals to like it so much that visitors will feel they are going to a special place when they go to that city. Travellers like us don't want to be at a place where there's just foreigners, they want to be somewhere that local people think is cool, too. The best thing about hotels is it can bring people together in unexpected and fun ways. 90% of our food and beverage earnings are actually from locals and the really nice thing about The Standard is that it's got a mix. At High Line [in New York] the beer garden has masculine, trader kind of guys drinking beer and watching sports on TV. Le Bain is very international, it tends to be very gay, youthful and there's dancing to a visiting DJ from France while across at the Boom Boom Room, you've got very sophisticated people from 35 to 50 having a US$20 [656 baht] martini looking at the sunset. Within that building we have a mix of crowds and that is what keeps it sustainable. I realised we have great hotels, but they're not the most luxurious or with the best rooms. Everyone loves Standard Hollywood but the walls are quite thin, the air-cons not that great, but people love to stay there. People aren't staying there for the actual room. People are staying there for what they feel. What they feel is about what we're about."

2. Informality and chit-chat is not supposed to be obnoxious.

"To me, the ultimate luxury is just being comfortable and being yourself. You're still having the best food and things you like, but the informality in some way is the new generation of luxury. We like our staff to engage with guests in a different and not serving way. The service is not waiting on you in a formal way, but is someone who is with you. Of course, it's still a respectful relationship. We were at a beautiful hotel bar [in Bangkok] and the woman bartender was perfect at what she was doing, but almost seemed taken aback when we asked her about whisky. She says she knows more about gin but even so, we almost had to coax it out of her before she talked about it extensively. That's what we do at Standard very well but not so much here, so changing that dynamic would be very interesting. We need to find a way to empower the people working to bring their personality to the table. As people become more interested in things like culinary, mixology and spa, people want to learn about all small details. Having a guide that can tell you can be the next level of discovery. I want to bring back something that's missing today, too: it used to be a beautiful thing about a hotel lobby where you could meet or run into somebody. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen anymore because everyone's on their phones. One thing we're doing is developing ways people can interact with each other again. We're launching something soon that allows you to use your phone to know who else is staying at the hotel so you can engage with each other. We're getting technology to get people to put their phone down."

3. Expect to see things you've never seen before.

"What I want Standard to be known for is for people seeing something that surprises them, that they've never seen before. What are we doing now that we haven't done before? Has anyone ever done an entire grocery store made out of felt? We always talk about it. We had an art installation by Lucy Sparrow, where she made a whole grocery store made out of felt. Why are you buying that felt!? It's the weirdest thing -- it's the craziest emotional connection you can have to a piece of art. Those are things that keep it fun and fresh. We have to keep evolving -- every year we feature a different art installation at the plaza of our flagship hotel at High Line. But at the winter, we turn the plaza into a skating rink for the community, so there's always a reason to come back."

4. This is a calling for all creative people because it's not going to be just a hotel -- it's a platform to showcase creativity whether you're an artist, chef, DJ, mixologist or anything in between.

"We try to find interesting people and characters who don't come from the hotel business. We want people that only want to work for Standard because they love lifestyle. We find people to collaborate with, usually someone up and coming. Someone who has done something very interesting, but is ready to have a platform to go to the next level. When I go see a chef who I think is very talented, I know they can open a new restaurant, but we can be a platform that lets them focus purely on their craft and that becomes really attractive. By understanding what people want to bring to the table and how they could fit to the brand, we give them a platform to express their creativity. When they do, you as a guest see something you wouldn't have imagined before. We also keep bringing in new people that can attract new crowds and new ideas."

5. A tangible attempt to contribute to social issues -- which will probably be executed in an amusing manner, too.

"Sometimes we can go too far. When [US President Donald J] Trump was elected, there was a lot of anxiety with the young people in the office and they didn't know what to do about it. I saw they were posting black screens on Instagram. They were very angry, but to me, that didn't do anything. It's not helpful. How do you give young people a voice who've never had one? We put a phone booth outside all of our hotels where you pick up the phone and it's a direct line to the US Congress, which is cool. We didn't tell them what to say, but we gave them a script: My name is blank, I care about blank issue, Please do whatever. Millennials won't write letters to congressmen. They still want to have their cocktail and fight for causes at the same time. To me, I'm very proud that we found a new way to give people a voice. Even in our rooms now, you can pick up the phone and dial to Congress. It became a big PR thing but more than anything, it started from a genuine foundation. That's something a big company would never do, because their shareholders won't let them."

Celebrity-packed parties amid a smashing backdrop is a typical sight at The Standard.