Small Wonder – Yotel’s Big Ambitions

30th June 2007 (Last Updated June 30th, 2007 18:30)

Yotel 's new concept of luxury in miniature could represent a genuine revolution in hotel design. Phin Foster reports.

Small Wonder – Yotel’s Big Ambitions

A grand foyer, a spacious room, a pleasant view – these are the benchmarks of any quality hotel room. But such standards are becoming increasingly difficult to meet for mid-range new builds.

The price and scarcity of real estate for prime city centre locations has resulted in a spate of identikit hotels unable to innovate, afraid to take risks and lacking that elusive wow factor. Perhaps it is time for some new perspectives. One company has turned to Japan and the skies for inspiration, emerging with a new style model: luxury in miniature.

“The premium cabin may be less than half the size of a standard hotel bedroom, but that’s still bigger than the mattress in a tube you can expect in Japan,”

Yotel’s attempt to combine a variant of the Japanese capsule concept with the comfort and functionality of business-class air travel is certainly novel. However, the Yo! brand has a history of setting rather than following trends and has rarely been wrong-footed by its target market.

Priestman Goode, the design company behind the Airbus 350 and 380 interiors, was brought in to design the Yotel Luxury Cabin. (It was while flying with BA that Yo! founder Simon Woodruff first hit on the idea of a hotel chain along similar lines.) Heading up the design team as lead consultant for the overall project was the Manser Practice. The west London based firm, along with Conran and Partners, was also charged with designing the Standard Cabin.

“It’s quite easy to design luxury into a room if someone gives you a nice big space to play with,” explains associate director and project architect Phil Waind. “This challenge was actually far more enjoyable than being asked to achieve a similar effect with a 30m² room.”

POD PREMIUMS

Although Waind freely admits that this was “unlike any project [he] had undertaken before”, the Manser Practice did not arrive as complete novices. “Podded bathrooms have been with us for quite a while,” he explains, “and we have been seeing a increasing amount of pre-manufactured and podded architecture in the office. This was the first fully podded bedroom we had done, but we at least had some grounding in the concept.”

Much of the early discussion revolved around where and to what extent Yotel would differ from the Japanese capsule hotel. “Over there, pods are designed clusters, with each cluster held together by a secondary steelwork frame,” explains Waind.

“We are offering something truly new for the same price as a Travel Lodge.”

“That means if someone bangs his little capsule at the top, it will reverberate right at the bottom. The logic is that clusters are often rented out to groups of businessmen or families and the pods are single occupancy. We have moved into double occupancy and it was essential we overcame these acoustic problems.”

The real difference, however, is one of space. “The premium cabin may be less than half the size of a standard hotel bedroom, but that’s still bigger than the mattress in a tube you can expect in Japan,” he chuckles. “The bed area for the standard cabin is getting quite close to a pod hotel, but linked onto it is a dry area where you’ll find a desk for work and beyond that a bathroom.”

Such extras might seem like the lap of luxury for visitors from Japan, but surely a discerning Western guest expects a little bit more? “You’d be surprised,” counters Waind. “Both room types manage to accommodate the audiovisual facilities of a much larger room, and everything you might expect from something double its size is there. We’ve just had to be smarter about how we integrate it.”

Both standard and premium cabins boast a techno wall, workstation, flat screen LCD television, hand sprung mattresses and luxury bedding, mood lighting, quality bathroom fittings and a surprising amount of storage space.

SENSE OF WONDER

For Yotel to incorporate all these features, functionality and integration were key. “There was no room for whimsical design,” says Waind. “We were constantly referencing yacht design. In the most expensive vessels you will see beautifully designed and detailed interiors, but when one looks closer it becomes clear that every feature has been painstakingly positioned for optimal use by the crew.”

This all sounds very worthy, but it doesn’t sound like much fun. Yotel CEO Gerard Greene couldn’t disagree more: “One can’t call functionality a boring concept. Look at a Mini or the first time you fly business class – it has that sense of wonder that can make you feel like a small child. When people enter one of our rooms, there is that feeling of ‘what does this do?'”

Greene admits that it has not all been plain sailing. The design process took a long time, and the opening of the first two Yotels at Gatwick and Heathrow airports are running slightly behind schedule. “To take you through the 150 or so drawings we went through to get to our final design would take forever,” he laughs. “There have been problems, as with any project, but we are treading new ground here. This is a concept that is different from anything else out there.”

POD PROGRESSION

It has that sense of wonder that can make you feel like a small child. When people enter one of our rooms, there is that feeling of ‘what does this do?

Greene had been on the lookout for something new, tiring of the lack of imagination being shown in certain areas of the industry. “Innovation is the big thing for all of us,” he enthuses. “We’d prefer to do just a few projects that are really ‘wow’, rather than several just offering another example of opportune branding. We are offering something truly new for the same price as a Travel Lodge.”

And what of the future? A lack of external windows should allow the concept to use spaces unavailable to other hotel chains, and there has been plenty of talk of expansion before the first venture has even opened its doors. “The standard product lends itself to other sites with only minor alterations,” claims Waind. “Yotel is certainly here to stay.”

Greene is slightly more restrained, but his excitement is unmistakable. “Who knows what will happen in six months time?” he asks. “We’re looking at major city centres, but Yotel doesn’t have to be a 10m² room with windows looking out onto corridors. It needs to be a luxury experience that’s affordable, and as long as people are getting excited and inspired, we’ll be happy.”