Hospitality innovator Ace Hotel blazes a new trail as it turns 20

Two decades ago the Ace Hotel Group and its founders – Alex Calderwood, Wade Weigel and Doug Herrick – re-envisaged hospitality for a new millennium. Ace disregarded many of the tenets of traditional operations: favouring idiosyncrasy over uniformity, focusing on communal experiences, energising public spaces, and ultimately applying the kind of brand-building principles that were more commonly associated with jeans than hotels. The ‘hotel as lifestyle’ idea is now common currency but, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ace’s independent spirit was both a challenge to the major players and something to be studied and assimilated. Now, with 1,718 rooms across 11 properties (including newly launched sibling brands, Sister City and Maison de la Luz), it is an influential force in the sector.

Ace’s consistent shirking of convention is a reflection of the brand’s unconventional beginnings, of course. The first Ace, in Seattle, was arguably more social enterprise than business endeavour. With just 28 bedrooms, the property was intended to provide an affordable base for the founders and their friends – primarily gigging musicians. From a commercial perspective, there was nothing by way of blueprint or established model. Calderwood had previously established Neverstop, an ‘experiential agency’ that pioneered guerrilla marketing and pop-up concepts, and in many ways Ace Seattle was another project to be appreciated on its creative merits.

He was not necessarily a hotel visionary, but a hospitality and cultural visionary,’ says John C Jay, consultant to the Ace Hotel Group and long-time friend of Calderwood. ‘Ace was based on a democratic gathering of interesting people. Alex’s background was not in architecture, but rather the art of bringing eclectic and creative people together.’

In a period when hotels were defined by tier pricing, standardised amenities and name recognition, Ace’s success came in translating the loose notion of ‘community’ into a new product proposition. It was the first to reframe the hotel as a neighbourhood hub. But while Ace was considered pioneering, it was hardly a significant player in terms of bums in beds. Its real growth spurt began in 2007 with the opening of Ace Portland, but its expansion has largely been in the US, with openings in New York, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Chicago. It broke out internationally with Ace London in 2013 – tapping local firm Universal Design Studio to oversee the project. Known for its retail and office spaces, the studio hadn’t previously tackled a hospitality project; it was another example of the group’s efforts to seek out those unencumbered by established hotel practice.

‘We approach design in a deeply curious and intuitive way, seeking out people with the same willingness to experiment within creative collaborations,’ explains Kelly Sawdon, chief brand officer and partner at Ace, who joined Calderwood’s Neverstop in 2000. ‘We view each property through a new lens, which has taken us down unexpected and interesting paths, like putting record players in the rooms, working directly with local artists and craftsmen and opening venues unique to each city.’

While Ace ‘invites the city in’, Sister City is described as a ‘recharging station’

London has remained Ace’s only international property for six years, but late 2019 will see the milestone opening of Ace Kyoto. While Calderwood passed away in 2013, bringing Ace to Japan is the realisation of one of his biggest ambitions. Jay and the architect Kengo Kuma have long been discussing potential locations.

For Ace, Kyoto is Japan’s ‘cultural epicentre’, rooted in creative dynamism and with a rich tradition of craftsmanship. It also embodies something of the outsider spirit, much like Ace itself, and Kuma and the brand’s frequent interior collaborator Commune Design have realised a version of Ace that straddles Japanese restraint and a more freeform worldliness. A historic 1920s building, designed by Tetsuro Yoshida and originally the city’s telephone office, meets a dramatic new build inspired by traditional wood grid systems. A central courtyard will host a dense urban garden, exemplifying Ace’s commitment to community spaces, but in a distinctly Japanese style. Indoors, paper lamps, futon-like seating and austere lines reflect the design vocabulary of the region – but the signature Ace elements remain, such as record players in the rooms.

Ace Kyoto will arrive at a time when the hotel industry at large is increasingly segmented. The likes of Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International, Accor and InterContinental Hotels Group have diversified their businesses – attempting to corner distinct markets with individually conceived brands that speak to differing audiences, with varied price points and identities. And Ace is responding.


Read full article over at Wallpaper here