Whenever Scottish designer Jim Hamilton flies, he stares out the window, mesmerized by the colors, patterns, and textures of the landscape below.
Once while flying over Minneapolis, Hamilton saw countless lakes and noticed how the terrain was markedly different than any other he had seen before. This inspired the abstract design of the Radisson Blu Mall of America’s colorful lobby rug, which depicts a topographical map of Minnesota.
As the second Radisson Blu in the United States, this 500-room property has high standards to live up to. Radisson Blu hotels are widely recognized for their thought-provoking contemporary style, from the giant, cylindrical aquarium at the Radisson Blu Berlin to the floor-to-ceiling wine tower at the Radisson Blu Zurich. “Part of the DNA behind Blu lies in making sure it’s relevant as much as it tells a tale,” Hamilton says of Carlson Rezidor’s edgy upper-upscale brand. “It’s important for it to be something people look at that excites them.”
There are plenty of hotels showcasing contemporary designs, says Carlson Rezidor’s President of the Americas Thorsten Kirschke, but he believes Blu combines bold modern looks with an element of surprise. At the 334-room Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago, for instance, the lobby wall features backlit glass bricks that are symbolic of the city skyline. “You have a uniquely designed place that sits comfortably and proudly within its market,” Kirschke says. “To bring that out in the details is the difference between being contemporary and just buying a carpet that’s a hip color.”
Hamilton took this all into account when he wove the design narrative of the public spaces at the Mall of America property in Bloomington, Minn., which opened on March 15. He had gone through a similar process creating the look for the first U.S. location, which debuted in November 2011 and takes up the first 18 floors of Chicago’s mixed-use Aqua skyscraper. Hamilton’s subtle design references to Chicago and Minnesota create a strong sense of place and authenticity at the two U.S. properties. “I try and implement some of that within the design so it doesn’t feel like just taking a building and sticking it in the same city,” says Hamilton, who works for the Glasgow-based firm Graven Images.
At the Mall of America, the ballroom carpet has a double helix pattern that references the Twin Cities. The hotel’s two sky bridges are a nod to the Minneapolis skyway system that connects various buildings downtown. And the reclaimed Minnesota barn wood in the restaurant brings a cozy, modern atmosphere with an indigenous feel. Some of the references may be a bit of a stretch, but the fact that these stories exist demonstrates the attention to detail behind every decision.
“Can you imagine what it does to a group of clients who are potentially booking a few hundred rooms with you for a conference?” Kirschke says. “If you show the hotel and you’re able to give these little stories, that gives them the sense of people caring.” At the same time, they don’t want design to overtake the hotel and make it not functional anymore. “Every hotel is a tailor-made piece of collective artwork, if you will,” Kirschke says, “and it has nothing to do with design for the sake of design.”
Construction of the $137.5 million Radisson Blu Mall of America began in May 2011 by Mortenson, a U.S.-based, privately-held construction services company. Carlson and Mortenson are equity partners in the hotel, which features 26,300 square feet of meeting and event space, a fitness center with an indoor pool, and the FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar. The hotel offers the only accommodations directly connected to Mall of America, the country’s largest indoor entertainment and shopping destination.
Gordon McKinnon, executive vice president and chief branding officer of Carlson Rezidor, says the project started like every one does in the company’s development wing, with them identifying the flashy design must-haves—like the ornate hand-cut brass wall that surrounds the lobby fireplace in Chicago—and then making compromises from there. Return on investment is always top of mind and McKinnon says the company typically takes about 10 to 15 percent out of the overall cost through value engineering. “We make conscious decisions to over-invest in certain areas even if that’s to the expense of other areas,” McKinnon says. “We’ve just about always pushed the envelope to begin with.”
Pushing the envelope is one thing but making the design work in the context of the environment is another. For that the team got some ideas from the Mall itself. The fact that the Mall of America attracts more than 40 million visitors a year fascinated Hamilton. His wife’s hairdresser traveled all the way from Glasgow to go shopping at the Mall last Christmas. “The desire of people to travel well out of their way to go to a shopping center was strange to me,” he says. Inspired by this unique set of circumstances, Hamilton designed a series of tiny windows at the entryway of the hotel that resemble fireflies when they light up in the evening—drawing shoppers in with their light.
Hamilton designed the back wall of the two-story lobby, on the mall entrance side, to look like tissue paper coming out of a giant shopping bag. Behind the shiny, white Krion façade guests can peek into the restaurant. He also wanted the hotel design to provide some contrast for the travelers who’ve spent three or four days cruising from store to store and are looking for a break. “You also need quiet spaces and something you look forward to going back to that’s significantly different from the mall experience,” Hamilton says.
A sky bridge connects the hotel to the mall, and a second bridge joins the hotel’s meeting spaces. “By adding a bridge to the front of the building,” Hamilton says, “it allows us to take the flow of people going to meetings and events away from the bar and restaurant and hotel lobby.” Hamilton had this in mind when he established a gallery concept at the Chicago property as a buffer zone between the public spaces and the meetings and events spaces. Now, the concept has become a part of the Radisson Blu design DNA, he says. At the Mall of America, the gallery features mainly pieces from Minnesota artists, with a Glasgow artist thrown in for good measure, and a 40-foot table surrounded by red designer chairs.
As of fourth quarter 2012, there were 272 Radisson Blu hotels in operation across the globe, the bulk of which are located in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), and 86 more in development. The Blu pipeline in the United States is small compared to Carlson Rezidor’s total of 616 hotels in operation in the Americas, spread heavily between its Radisson and Country Inn and Suites brands. That’s partly because of economic circumstances at large. There is still a weak lending environment, Kirschke says, especially when it comes to new construction. In the early days of the brand’s growth in the Americas, the company has been selective about which properties it wants to flag as Blu.
By late summer 2013, the Radisson Plaza Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia will be converted to a Radisson Blu after a $17 million renovation. The existing hotel has been performing well comparatively in the market, Kirschke says, but Carlson Rezidor saw an opportunity to reposition it and potentially leverage its revenue per available room (RevPAR). “If we can convert from green to blue and command a 20 or more percent premium on RevPAR, that makes the calculation very easy,” he says.
Conversions create a before and after effect not possible when building new. “It’s almost like you’re taking the speed of a tennis ball coming at you and reversing it because people would have seen what it is before the conversion,” Kirschke says. “You can leverage that in a fantastic repositioning of the asset altogether, which is what we’re doing right now in Philadelphia. People know this historic building, they have seen the inside, so they are accustomed to that and when they see the transformation I think that’s going to be a massive leverage in the market and the result will be even more appreciated.”
The company noticed a similar prospect with the Radisson Plaza Hotel Minneapolis, which will be converted to a Blu in 2014. These are the only concrete projects Carlson Rezidor is willing to announce so far but executives say New York City is on their wish list, and they are in discussions to bring Blu to Canada.
To help streamline time and budget considerations, owners and investors who are developing Radisson or Radisson Blu hotels have the option of choosing from five ready-to-go guestroom styles: Naturally Cool, Mansion House, Ocean, And Relax, and Urban. Mall of America has 29 Mansion House suites, 54 Naturally Cool business class rooms, and 417 Urban standard rooms. The room packages are not mandatory, they are intended as a tool to help position Radisson hotels and achieve the appropriate level of quality in design. “It’s choice. That’s all we want to provide,” Kirschke says. “That’s why the room styles have been successful for us.”
OUTSIDE THE BOX
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to hotel design or operations, Kirschke says. “Sometimes I think everybody believes you can build a hotel and operate it and be done and good with it. I mean, rubbish,” Kirschke says. “That’s why we have all the garbage in our industry. The worst thing I heard when I came to the States was people talking about a hotel as a box. And whoever speaks about a hotel as a box probably has one.”
Hamilton envisions travelers like dots on a map that move from city to city across the globe. “I’ve always been fascinated by the transient nature of hotels and that at any one time in the world, there are millions upon millions of people staying in hotel rooms,” Hamilton says. When designing hotel spaces, Hamilton keeps in mind how hard it is for travelers to be away from the comforts of home or the embrace of loved ones.
“For me there are too many times when people don’t really pay any respect and just create factory boxes and roll them out,” Hamilton says. “Given that I’ve traveled so much in the last 20 years, it’s really important to make these things pleasurable, make them something.”
Kirschke despises the notion of hotels as boxes because he sees it as an affront to one of the noblest industries in the world. “If you stop at design, or you stop at any of the important things,” he says, “then it’s better you don’t even start.”