Design Hotels – Connecting the Dots



Twenty years ago, Claus Sendlinger became aware that the demands on luxury hotels had begun to change. Guests started focusing on architecture, interior design, a relaxed atmosphere, and uncomplicated service. Today, the Berlin-based company Design Hotels markets 240 independently owned hotels in roughly 50 countries.

When Claus Sendlinger strides into one of the Design Hotels member establishments – as he does in Das Stue in Berlin on this summery afternoon – one could easily mistake him for the hotelier. The employees recognize him immediately, come up to greet him and exchange a few words. Even the guests seem to take note.

Wearing dark jeans, a black knit jacket, and carrying a black leather bag, it isn't his apparel that draws attention when he enters a room. Fifty years of age, with a beard and a deep tan, Sendlinger looks as though he could have just returned from a long holiday in a camper van; these last couple of years Sendlinger's second home after Berlin is located in Tulum, Mexico. But, although Claus Sendlinger looks more like a tourist in the middle of an enjoyable vacation, and just as relaxed, he is very alert and focused on whoever he's talking to, and he greets us with a steady eye and a firm handshake.

It would seem that, as an individual, Claus Sendlinger incorporates all the characteristics his concept is based on. Relaxed, yet attentive to the needs of guests, with the right experience, the requisite know-how and the focus needed to manage a hotel. People often assume that the hotels actually belong to Design Hotels. "But that's not the case at all," he reveals.

We connect establishments with the same ideology and provide them with a mutual platform.

What Design Hotels packages, and how it packages it, requires more than just a good eye, despite Sendlinger's naming this as the key ingredient in his company's recipe for success – along with lots of hard work. He describes Design Hotels as an umbrella brand for hotels with a unique identity, innovative establishments whose proprietors think outside the box. "The hotels we work with want to remain true to their style and identity, yet participate in the global market," he says.

Sendlinger orders a white tea. A faint accent betrays his roots in the southern part of Germany, although it has been a long time since he lived there. His offices in the Stralauer Allee, on the river Spree, are about 8 km as the crow flies from where we are meeting today. "It's just an office with desks and computers. Das Stue is a much more exciting location," he explains. This hotel, which opened in early 2013, is a real gem in the Berlin hotel landscape. Centrally positioned in an idyllic location with a view over the leafy Tiergarten, formally the city’s royal hunting grounds, yet close to the Brandenburger Tor, Berlin-Mitte and Charlottenburg. The classicist structure dates from the 1930s and once housed the Royal Danish consulate; its name is taken from the Danish word for living room. Today, the historical building has been revitalized and has a modern extension added on.

Whether a hotel like Das Stue fits in with Design Hotels’ strategy depends on different factors, including the actual structure itself, the size of its rooms, its layout, who the architect is, and who owns the hotel.

Design Hotels receives approximately 300 applications a year. The hotels that meet the stringent guidelines first sign a licensing contract; upon paying an annual fee, they are allowed to use the label "Design Hotels" in their communications. Then, a hospitality marketing agreement is signed, and a customized services package based on the establishment's requirements is drawn up for global sales representation, strategic marketing and/or public relations.

Last year’s turnover amounted to 12.6 million euros with a staff of 90. Since 1999, the Berlin-based company has been listed on the Munich stock exchange. It has several branch offices located in London, Barcelona, New York, Singapore and Perth.

It all started in the early 1990s, when Sendlinger had what he calls a brainwave. He became convinced that a hotel’s design, its architecture, interior decoration, and its service concept would soon be viewed very differently by guests and gain in importance significantly. Previously he had worked several years in the event organization of raves and experienced firsthand the era of the first techno DJs in Berlin, Chicago and Detroit. He also has a passion for globe-trotting that started during the summers he traveled by train throughout Europe in his youth – without a penny in his pocket, sleeping on beaches, at railway stations, or even on the street. Following his practical training in the public relations department of the German air force, Sendlinger launched a traveling and event management start-up that specialized in unusual company events for clients like Hamburg-Mannheimer, a large insurance company.

As the first boutique hotels appeared in New York, Sendlinger’s diverse experiences fused and sparked his awareness. He reasoned that the clients who enjoyed techno and liked his unusual events were part of a growing movement that would result in a whole new generation of tourists. Regardless of how much money these people would ever earn, they would never become your classic Grand Hotel client. Based on his conviction that individual, service-driven establishments in beautiful, comfortable locations was a concept worth investing in, he founded Design Hotels Inc. in Sausalito, California in 1993.

It wasn't the first time I’d put all my eggs in one basket. From my travels, I knew that it’s always possible to find a place where you can lead a good life without spending a lot.

Always knowing where the trip takes you, "connecting the dots" as Sendlinger calls it, is what motivates him – analyzing trends and linking the zeitgeist to a certain lifestyle. He describes himself as the research department of his company. "I have to take new trends into account all the time, be they in the area of fashion, art, or technology," he says. If his enterprise is to remain innovative, he has to continue to identify new trends, societal developments, understand what pressures are being applied to society, and what society itself requires. "Most people don't pay enough attention to such details," he says. The core question at the top of his list has always been: Where are we heading now? And Sendlinger doesn't just sense what the current direction is – he knows.

Design is no longer the driving force it once was; its place has been taken by the issue of sustainable environmental management.

In a few years, Sendlinger says, it will be a basic requirement that hotels handle their resources responsibly. In order to anticipate this development, Design Hotels cooperates with leading environmental certification providers such as Earth Check, and organizations like Finding Infinity, a project that plans unusual events to demonstrate the use of renewable resources. This collaboration will kick off with a road trip through Mexico to provide support to people dealing with limited resources. All Design Hotels members will undergo an Earth Check that analyzes how they can increase their efficiency while minimizing their environmental impact. This, of course, also gives the Design Hotels members the opportunity, to once again be at the forefront of a large movement.

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