Niki Leondakis on Boutique Brands & Commune’s New Projects

There are more players in the boutique and lifestyle space than ever before, but Commune Hotels and Resorts CEO Niki Leondakis sees competition as a good thing. As small independents and big box chains introduce new boutique and lifestyle brands, consumer awareness grows even stronger around this booming segment. She says that in order to stand out from the crowd, hotels need to create a genuine sense of discovery and uniqueness for their target customers. Commune’s three lifestyle brands—Joie de Vivre, Thompson, and Tommie—all celebrate local communities and cultures while offering highly inspired design and caring guest service. Leondakis has plenty more to say about the company’s latest projects, including its first two Joie de Vivre properties on the East Coast and the upcoming debut of Tommie in New York City.

Can you tell us a little bit about the two new Joie de Vivre projects in the works—The Hall in Miami Beach and 50 Bowery in New York City? The Hall, formerly known as Haddon Hall, is a classic 1940s Art Deco-style building at 14th and Collins that’s being creatively renovated. It’s been closed down for the better part of a year now and is opening this summer. It’s going to have a beer garden, a retro snack bar, and an exciting pool area, as well as playful, colorful, and approachably designed guestrooms.

The Hall looks absolutely nothing like 50 Bowery, which is on the edge of Chinatown. At 50 Bowery, we honored the Chinese roots of the location, but it’s done in a very modern way. If you’re paying attention to subtle details, it’s nuanced rather than overly thematic. The consistency of the Joie de Vivre brand comes more from services and a spirit—it’s about how it feels, not how it looks.

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How does Joie de Vivre differ from other boutique brands? One hallmark of Joie de Vivre is the caring, friendly staff that goes out of their way to create personal experiences for the guests. That’s a real differentiator from a lot of boutique and lifestyle hotels that take a different approach, where super cool or edgy design is the price of admission. In some cases, there’s less emphasis on the service and employees engaging with guests in a genuine way. That part of hospitality is an opportunity in the boutique and lifestyle segment that Joie de Vivre really brings to the table.

Thompson Hotels opened a property in Miami’s Mid Beach in November. That market really seems to be thriving. It’s really vibrant. We all know South Beach is very happening, energetic, and fun, but Mid Beach is getting developed and brought to life with a lot going on, and our hotel is a big part of that. Downtown Miami is even booming, so it’s not just about the party scene in South Beach anymore, it’s a world class market. The whole area is drawing so many people from so many different places internationally.

What draws people to Thompson Miami Beach? We did a really good job of creating a hotel that’s geared toward the local community at Thompson. All of the partners are local, from the nightlife partners and interior designer to the restaurant and even the hair salon. We partnered with James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein, who has a huge local following, to open a restaurant called Seagrape, which is doing gangbusters. It’s a huge locals place. One of the sticking points for the locals coming to the beach for food or drinks or any kind of enjoyment is the parking. We only charge $5 for locals to park.

How’s progress on the new micro-hotel concept, Tommie, and who will it appeal to? Our first one opens this summer in Hudson Square in New York City and our second one opens in 2016 in the NoMad area of New York City—that one has been incubating for about two years now. A lot of people are talking about millennial travelers. We didn’t create Tommie specifically for millennials. We took into consideration a lot of the attitude and traveling preferences of millennials, but we approach all of our hotel brands from a multigenerational standpoint. It’s more a youthfully minded traveler or someone who psychographically has certain lifestyle preferences. We hope millennials like it, but we also think that Gen-Xers and Boomers will like it too.

What factors contribute to this cross appeal? The definition of luxury has changed. I’m not suggesting that Tommie is a luxury product as much as I’m saying people in general value different things. It’s not necessarily about how big is my room and how many thread-count sheets do we have. It’s more about giving people what they want when they want it, and time is more precious than anything.

With Tommie, we’ve tried to eliminate any amount of friction the guest would have during their stay. We want to make this time efficient for the guest, and make it so the guests can compose their own stay, rather than have us being prescriptive about it. So if you want, you can use technology to check in and get your room key without having to talk to anybody. Other times, you might want to engage with a human being. We’re giving people a choice with Tommie.

How do you keep the rates affordable? We don’t have room service as part of the operating expenses, so we can afford to give the guest a room rate that is approachable. In New York City, we’re still expecting $250 rates. A lot of the micro hotels today are limited service, but we’re not. This Hudson Square location has a full-service restaurant, bar, and nightlife. The guestroom is really space efficient and comfortable, but you’re not paying for a 400-square-foot room in New York City, which would cost you crazy money. This traveler likes to be around other people, so the public areas of the hotel become the living room. It’s not just millennials who like to sit in the lobby and do their work today—a lot of people do.

How do you adjust the formula for your brands based on the market? We do have certain brand standards that we know guests care about, but we don’t have brand standards just for the sake of consistency. Our guests want each hotel experience to be a discovery, and they want it to feel like something that’s unique, artisanal, and handcrafted, not a formula. We have standards around things like good quality Wi-Fi and service, but the look and feel of the physical plant is completely unique and individual and has its own soul.