On the outside of London’s new Citizen M hotel, a multicoloured billboard created by the artist Mark Titchner booms out its message in 4ft-high letters: “Another world is possible.” Although Titchner has used the phrase often before in his work, it is a fitting motto for a hotel that sees itself not just as somewhere to sleep but as a manifesto for the future of hospitality.
“The consumer has changed and the meaning of luxury has changed,” says Michael Levie, chief operating officer of Citizen M hotels. “These people are interested in art and high culture but travel in jeans and T-shirts; they drink champagne but take the bus home. Luxury for them is less about chandeliers, more about opening a laptop and finding free, high-speed wi-fi.”
Citizen M is designed to offer such travellers (“mobile citizens of the world” in the company’s pseudo-socialist jargon) a new style of “affordable luxury for the people”. All of which you might dismiss as marketing spiel but for the fact that Citizen M, a Dutch start-up launched mid-recession in summer 2008, is enjoying precocious success. Already it has two thriving properties in Amsterdam and one in Glasgow. The London hotel opened in early July and a further six are in the construction or planning stage (two more in London, two in New York, and one each in Paris and Rotterdam).
Waking up in one of the 192 all-white bedrooms of the London hotel, it’s not hard to imagine myself in a cabin of the starship Enterprise. Instead of the usual clutter of trouser-press, kettle and alarm clock, there is only a sleek tablet computer. It controls the electric blinds, television, air-conditioning and adjusts the lights to create preset “moods”, from “business” to “romance”.
The room is undeniably small – only 14 sq m, including the frosted glass pod that contains the shower and toilet – but is certainly comfortable. The linen is Frette, the Hansgrohe shower is powerful, the toiletries are by perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri; movies and wi-fi are free.
Moreover, the idea is that guests spend little time in their high-tech cabins, gathering instead in the lobby downstairs. In fact, “lobby” doesn’t quite do justice to the open-plan ground floor space which is split into zones resembling a bar, restaurant, lounge, office and kitchen (Citizen M calls them “integrated living areas”). It works brilliantly, managing to be both stylish and homely. There are photographs by Mario Testino, a portrait of Andy Warhol by Gavin Turk and a video installation by Hans Ob de Beeck in the lift. Shelves are packed with art and fashion books, and the room is full of furniture from celebrated designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Verner Panton, Jean Prouvé and Isamu Noguchi.
All this, in a great location close to Tate Modern and the South Bank, costs as little as £99 per room per night. Many grotty bed and breakfasts on the outskirts of the city charge more. It seems like a giveaway and yet Citizen M’s real innovation is neither its tablet computers nor funky lobby but a business model that permits low prices and luxury touches while still achieving higher margins than conventional hotels.
“When you look at the net returns in this industry, they are pathetic!” says Levie. “Our big advantage is that we could start with a blank sheet of paper and rethink the whole model.”
So the rooms, for example, are all identical, which is marketed as being “more democratic” but has the happy side effect of streamlining the booking and check-in process. They are prefabricated off-site (in Liverpool), then stacked together like Lego, allowing this hotel to open just 11 months after work began.
Online booking avoids commission payments to travel agents; self-service check-in terminals avoid the need for receptionists; the help-yourself, 24-hour canteen avoids the need for waiters. Even that expensive furniture comes at a discount, thanks to a partnership deal with manufacturer Vitra, which has been persuaded that the hotels will act as “living showrooms” for the products.
If this is a hotel revolution, then Citizen M is not alone in the vanguard. In New York, Yotel and the Pod Hotel have pioneered the combination of small bedrooms with large, stylish, communal areas. A second Pod Hotel opened earlier this month and both companies say they are planning expansion into other US cities.
Back in London, the Hoxton Hotel, which shares many of Citizen M’s characteristics – from free wi-fi and cheap snacks to a buzzing lobby that operates “like a public members club” – is poised for a rapid international roll-out after being bought in May for £65m by investment firm Ennismore Capital. “It’s a phenomenal brand and we want to scale that globally,” says Sharan Pasricha, managing partner of Ennismore Capital. “Put simply, budget doesn’t have to be boring any more.”
● Double rooms at Citizen M (www.citizenm.com) cost between £99 and £199.
● Doubles at the Hoxton (www.hoxtonhotels.com) cost between £49 and £249.