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Andre Balazs - Anything but Standard
3rd Jun 2004
Party-goer, skinny dipper and eclectic entrepreneur, previously married to Katie Ford of Ford Models, and now dating sword-wielding, Tarantino chick Uma Thurman, Andre Balazs is as infamous as the hotels he rescues from the gutter and puts back on the must-stay list.

Ruggedly good-looking a la Clooney, but smoother, the Florence Nightingale of the hospitality industry has reversed the malingering fortunes of Hollywood icon Chateau Marmont and The Raleigh, Miami, and has created a whole new category of hotel – hip, high-tech, but refreshingly affordable - with The Standard siblings in LA and the new Standard Spa in Miami. And he shows no sign of stopping. GSA takes a look at the glam entrepreneur and his real-life game of hotel Monopoly.

The impecunious, the individual and those into history have reason to be grateful to Balazs and his unerring knack for catering to their every whim. In a world where the five star, big chain hotels are having to pull out all the stops to attract their customers, potential guests are increasingly looking for something surprising, different and fun - and Balazs delivers.

He started with the Chateau Marmont, infamous throughout celebrity circles as the place to conduct extra-marital affairs, marital affairs, or commit suicide, but which had steadily run itself into its scandalous grounds following the decline of the Hollywood area in the 70s. Balazs scooped it up, renovated it while embracing its past and present, and delivered it back into the arms of the 90s mega-models and super-celebs, hungry for its unique charm, and deliciously hedonistic history. Where once Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe, Ringo Starr and John Belushi had lived life (and death) to the full, now it is Robert De Niro, Courtney Love and Britney Spears who are carrying the torch into, one hopes, a future as outrageous, but less mortal.

Same thing with the Raleigh Miami, an infamous-among-the-famous hotel in its heyday, at the opposite side of the country. Renowned for its seductively curvy pool, which was once filled with seductively curvy celebs, the hotel has been coaxed into the 21st Century while retaining its 50s art deco glamour. These days the pool (“One of the most beautiful in Florida” Life Magazine, “One of the sexiest hotel pools in America” Conde Nast Traveler) welcomes the 21st century Atkinsed, Zoned and toned, skinny celebs, and, allegedly, Balazs himself, sans so much as a pair of Speedos. This guy knows how to party, knows how to throw parties and knows how to make people at that party blush!

Up the coast in NYC, he has again beaten the big-chain crowd, but this time with more sobriety, by lovingly transforming an old SoHo warehouse into The Mercer. High ceilings, exposed brick walls, a place where space is as significant a feature as the Christian Liaigre design, this oasis of calm in the middle of one of the most exhilarating cities in the world has a loyal following.
So far so high end, but back West, just over the road and round the corner from the Chateau Marmont squats a very different Balazs hotel. The hotelier with a historical heart brought The Standard Hollywood out of retirement, quite literally, as the previous Thunderbird Motel had morphed into an old folks' home. Now one of an unidentical pair along with The Standard Downtown LA, it plays host to the real people. That’s not to say that both Standards don’t attract stars, they do: Matt Dillon, Tobey Maguire, Naomi Campbell and the Osbournes have all stayed, to name a few, and of course the Hollywood hotel hosted that memorable episode of Sex and the City (Brazilian waxes mandatory)…

But what wins the hearts of those eking out a meager to medium salary, those who are usually banished to a bland step up from chaotic hostels, is that both Standards have prices and appearances which are anything but. For a mere USD99 you can stay at a hotel which has a scantily clad model reclining as art behind the reception desk, carpet which runs along the floor, up the wall and across the ceiling of the lobby which turns night club in the evening, on Sunset Boulevard. Alternatively Downtown, finish your work on the longest worktables in the industry, and kick back by reclining in a middle-of-the-room bubble bath or on the rooftop's vibrating waterbeds while you watch midnight DVDs projected onto the building opposite. And now there is the new Standard Spa where you can be majorly pampered at minimal cost. These aren’t just places to sleep. These are places you don't have to be on an expense account or well-heeled to have fun, to hang out and (ahem) make new friends…

“My interest in the idea stemmed from my experience with luxury hotels," says Balazs. "So many people come and stay if it is on someone else’s dollar. While in the old days, and I’m talking two to three decades ago, the luxury market was for older, more sophisticated clientele. They appreciated it more. In the last two decades, especially the last one, the consumers of culture – arts, fashion, music, whatever – are younger people and they are now far more sophisticated than older people.”

A pioneer of this affordable chic, Balazs elevated the quality of service, ambiance and design, elements usually seen in high-end hotels, and poured them generously into The Standards. “That is what is unique. That is what The Standards are. Anything but standard.”
Balazs himself, embodies this adage as much as his hotels. He went the entrepreneurial route from an early age, as club owner, biotech company director and publishing house owner before plumping on the hospitality market. Experience at both extremes of the conventional scale has given him a commanding position in terms of adhering to, and breaking, the mould. And it’s an approach which works well. “We invest far more in design, concept and management although the actual construction costs are not much due to the creativity into finding inexpensive ways of doing it. The extra time in design and management is justified because success is such that occupancy levels are higher than usual. The strength in terms of the loyalty of our customers is also another tangible value that is created. It does pay off.”

Working on the concept he admires most in hotels, their individuality and reflection of surrounding context, Balazs has brought out different aspects of each Standard. “There is a common attitude that runs through them, but each one is uniquely conceived and executed, reflecting the city, even neighbourhood they are in and the architecture of what we are working with. The Standard Hollywood on Sunset Strip - well, it is what it is, and so there’s a very voyeuristic, playful element. The Downtown Standard is in a very serious financial district in the former HQ of one of the world’s largest oil companies. It has a very different tone and feel. The Standard Miami is on a bay, is tranquil, and it’s a spa in a different kind of 1950s era building. The language, the design vocabulary, is distinct and unique.”

When asked if The Standards reflect not only their geographical situations but also the character of the man who transformed them Balazs doesn’t say yes or no, but, “they are very playful, very sexy. They assume that people enjoy each other, enjoy company, enjoy their bodies. And yet they are very much a business hotel.” Draw your own conclusions.

A phenomenally busy man, Balazs chats calmly across the miles while in the back of a NYC taxi cab on his way to his next appointment. He seems to demand as much from himself as he does from his hotels, working hard and delighting in making his customers happy. But it goes further than that. Believing that the requirements of the guest changes dramatically every ten years he is looking forward to giving hotels a bigger part to play in modern day America, in the next decade. “Hotels are going to return to a central role in the life of a community, a little like what people experience to some extent in Hong Kong. Generally there people have smaller apartments and find a sense of luxury and stability in the big international five star hotels. After WWII, America’s hospitality became lodging. The industry has been a real estate based business. They sell rooms. Hospitality was largely neglected until about ten years ago. Now I think hotels are going to be more of a central part of each community where we live out certain aspects of our lives. Like in the time of Cesar Ritz.”

It is clear that, like Ritz, apart from enjoying the good things in life Balazs has a great passion for the hospitality industry. “I love it,” he says univocally. “I do what I do because I love it. I like to travel, I love experiencing different hotels. About 20 years ago I stayed in The Regent Hotel in Hong Kong just after it had opened. I thought it was the perfect hotel for the culture of Hong Kong. Very dramatic.”

“I’d love to do something in Asia,” he enthuses. “I think people would love popping in and out of a Standard as they do existing hotels there. I would be very interested in doing something like that but I’d need to find a good development partner. The development aspect would be very difficult to do without one.”

The offer's on the table. Anyone interested?
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