Ahead of Independent Hotel Show Amsterdam, SEVERS+JANSEN join adventurous developers and accidental hoteliers Suzanne Oxenaar and Igor Sancisi for a conversation on design.
To meet Suzanne Oxenaar and Igor Sancisi at an ordinary office space is almost unthinkable. Instead, we join the co-initiators of the unique SWEETS hotel project at one of the bridge houses which play a leading role in this concept.
At bridge house 'Nieuwe Amstelbrug', the space is cosy. Igor and Suzanne are sitting on the stairs leading to the bed, the two chairs are ours. For the next hour we listen in full admiration of their drive and passion.
SWEETS hotel is an initiative and co-creation of Space & Matter architects, project developer Grayfield (Igor Sancisi) and Seven New Things (Suzanne Oxenaar and Otto Nan, founders of the Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy as well as hotel The Exchange).
First Concept, Then Design.
In 2009, the municipality of Amsterdam decided that all bridges had to be operated remotely and Igor Sanscisi initiated a pitch for the existing bridge guard houses.
During the crisis and vacancy of a lot of buildings, the SWEETS hotel concept was developed and fully embraced by the municipality, but, several years later, the sentiment turned out to be totally twisted…
Between the initial idea and opening the first hotel, it’s been eight years. How have you been able to retain energy in the SWEETS hotel project throughout this time?
Igor: It sometimes seemed like a relay run. Fortunately, our team was strong and determined, and we kept each other going. The development turned out to be much more complicated than initially conceived.
The basic idea for SWEETS seemed simple – to deconstruct a hotel – stripping it out to 28 hotels with rooms throughout the city. But the reality of the project is 28 independent bridge houses for which 28 individual permits had to be applied for. On top of this, each bridge house comes from a different period meaning they each require a customised approach.
Suzanne: In such a process, keeping an open mind is essential but sometimes you must simply shift focus on to other projects to keep your drive going. Look at Igor who has since become a hotel developer with Novanta, a hotel in an abandoned Italian village!
These buildings, some of which are really small, each sit in different neighbourhoods. Do these elements have a distinct impact on guest experience?
The dimensions are always the major challenge for architects; that is why we always start with a “design picnic” where everyone shares their vision of the space and its layout. In each house, extra space is being sought after without adding new elements to the exterior.
The experience originates in the limitation though. The nice thing about the bridge houses are the restrictions, because that makes them unique - it is literally developing at camping level.
It turns out that staying in one room, entirely for yourself, is unique. Usually, everyone sleeps in a place as part of a larger building, often isolated from the outside environment. In a traditional hotel, the layers around it are even more dominant: the restaurant, the bar, the entertainment, sometimes you don't even have to leave the hotel. Here in Amsterdam, the essence of the bridge houses is the panorama.
Igor: You really sleep differently. There is a world around you. For your breakfast, you can choose from many places in the neighbourhood instead of walking directly to the breakfast restaurant.
What challenges have you experienced in the phase from concept to actual implementation?
Suzanne: There are plenty of challenges. Just the fact that every house must have a unique address for Google maps is something we had not thought about at all!
Is any building transformable into a concept with a hospitality heart?
With enough creativity, empathy for the guest experience, and a strong vision you can turn any building into a hotel. Personal drive and a hefty dose of naive optimism helps too!
It is not just about the experience of the guest, but also the passion of the owner. A personal spirit can create a natural fit with your guests.
Suzanne: I showed hundreds of students around at Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy, but if you ask about their dream, they hesitate or just don’t have an answer. My advice is to teach young people to put dreams into words, this can lay the foundation for significant future developments.
Thanks to the SWEETS hotel project, Igor looks at his current work with different eyes. The role of a developer on projects is an excellent starting point. As a developer, you often deliver a project and then hand it over to the owner. The moment the building is brought to life you are no longer part of it. And when you are so attached to your own work, like me, you want to experience it too. The artisanal process of inventing and really creating something and then using it yourself is a huge motivation, I recommend it to anyone.
Do you see permanent room for independent hoteliers in the current – competitive - hotel market?
Suzanne: Independent hoteliers are so unique because they are partly craftsman, partly creative, partly organiser, somewhat developer, partly operator. And it's about ambition.
Looking back on my time at Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy, I had no experience at all in the field of running a hotel. But we had a vision. Start from your own perspective, use your knowledge and look for people who fit your ambition.
Do you, as an independent hotelier, have to be an adventurer?
Both, loud and clear: yes!
Igor: What I know is that there are a lot of buildings that are in desperate need of creative or smart solutions. People should take that as a starting point. 28 houses as one hotel did not seem obvious either, but when asked by the municipality: How many do you want? Our answer was: Well, all 28! Why leave one out? Every hotel has better and secondary rooms.
At the same time, it is always about finding balance in the reality check & fantasy check. Stay close to yourself, you must still want to be the guest of your own project.
And now, the central question we ask all hoteliers: What is your "holy grail" for guest experience in 2019?
Suzanne: “There is no such word as can’t.”
Igor: To all those independent hoteliers out there, start with a building that inspires you to create a unique concept. Do not hesitate to come up with a distinctive product in this market - there is an increasing demand for this.
Scaling up your business is considered a challenge in any industry, so whether you’ve got 28 properties like the team at SWEETS or are looking for your second, make sure to be a part of the ‘Expansion Plans’ session in the Social Business Space at Independent Hotel Show to get access to vital intel on how to pick your locations, obtain funding, navigate the red tape, keep brand integrity - and how to somehow be in several places at once!