On a business trip in Beijing last week, I stayed at the Marriott, a hotel that is new to me. I have been staying at the Sofitel for a while. It met my needs and was within my budget. To most of my friends and colleagues, staying in a hotel is never an issue. They are easy, they say. And most of them are. For me, it can be a breeze or it can be a big problem. If you think I want the five-star treatment with all the amenities, then we are not on the same page, so to speak. I know of celebrities who walked into a hotel lobby and walked out immediately. Their entourage would have to book another hotel on the spot. I do not have the leverage to walk out of a hotel. But I know you can tell and feel the quality of a hotel just by being in its lobby. I am fascinated by hotels. Their heritage, their facade, their aura of service and the thing that draws me in, is how each hotel creates a home away from home. I must admit I am also drawn to a level of opulence, but as I experience more and more hotels, I start to see beyond the comforts. I start to see each hotel as a friend. A close friend. A rich friend. A mere acquaintance. Even a life-long friend.
I used to check out all the new hotels in Singapore. It was a hobby. I used to have a favourite hotel in each city. It was another pass time. However, in the last decade, I have lost track of hotels. I have been overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude, the sheer number of hotels mushrooming, and in some cases, by how some hotels are linked to shopping malls or casinos. The individual charm I was looking for in a hotel was missing. I have also been aghast that the Raffles Hotel, our pride and joy, is now in foreign hands. In the last two years however, I started to notice hotels again. There are some smaller hotels with character. In Beijing and here in Singapore. These days I see hotels quite differently. How some meet our wants, while others meet our needs. On a vacation, I may want to spoil myself. Travelling on business, I focus on my needs. I do not need the five-star amenities because I have no time to use them, and so they will be a waste of money. I look primarily for cleanliness. A good bed. A good shower. A good space I can work, read or watch a good film. But whether on holiday or business, I still look for that special something, a good feeling in a hotel. One that comes from the finer touches.
Sometimes when you meet someone, you do not think the person can be a friend. But as fate will have it, you start to see values you admire. And both of you become good friends. I was in a part of town with no hotel that I would like. Or so I thought. Then I chanced upon a gem. Situated next to the kind of culture you look for in a fast developing city. With the kind of shops and eateries you find in the heartland. This is not the kind of hotel I would have liked. Yet when I walked into the lobby, the double volume space was inviting. The reception was warm and cosy. It is a boutique hotel for business travellers. Typically, such hotels are hard, utilitarian and pedestrian. But this hotel has clean yet unorthodox design structures. With small, tasteful and refined details which speak volumes to someone like me. To top it off, I spotted a painting in the lobby by my artist friend Justin Lee. This painting was one of the main features at his solo exhibition last year. When I was shown the rooms, my jaws dropped. Did the designer take a brief from me? The hotel has invested only in luxuries that matter. A more than good bed, a more than good shower, both impeccably placed in a small but effective space with state of the art features to work, read and play. I was told the concept was to provide the best basics in a small space for business travellers who spend minimal time in the room but when they are in it, their needs are more than met.
As usual, I shared a great find with friends. I took them to the rooms. I took meetings at the quiet wine bar. My artist friend Justin was pleasantly surprised when I showed him his painting in the lobby. “Oh, so this is where it ends up being,” he exclaimed. In December during the festive period, I chatted up a hotel guest from Japan. He was here on business. He looked relaxed and told me he like this part of town, along Middle Road. “It is really in the middle of everything,” he said happily. I told him it has a mix of both the old and new Singapore. I asked him what was the one thing that attracted him to this hotel. “The name!” he replied without missing a beat. “We Japanese are used to small hotels,” he continued. “When I heard there is a business hotel called ‘Big Hotel’, I was curious. This is my second stay. I am impressed by the concept of the rooms. This is not a regular hotel. The rooms are small. But the room has everything I need for my business trip. Most important for me, I feel comfortable in the room.” I asked him why, thinking I might know his answer. His reply was what I thought he would say. “I feel at home.” For a small hotel room catering to the business traveller with only the basic fundamentals, this is saying a lot. So, this is a small hotel with the big idea. Like a good friend who knows exactly what you need. This is indeed the small hotel that could…