Creating the Hotel Indigo experience: A Q&a with design Director Henry Reeve

Henry Reeve is IHG’s design and innovation director, and the creative vision behind Hotel Indigo. We caught up with him to find out how he works.

You studied design and engineering—how important is that background in your role?

Yes, I studied mechanical engineering at Bristol University and then design at Central St Martins, which has actually been really useful, in everything from knowing whether you can cantilever a desk in a hotel room to being able to hold my own in conversations with engineers. It means that not only do we end up with good-looking hotels, but everything works too!

You worked for design agencies before moving to IHG…

I fell into event and retail design after university for brands like Lotus, Harrods and Uniqlo. I have always been interested in creating experiences for people, so the next step had to be hotels. I had worked with the IHG global strategic innovation team helping to define the brand and eventually, they invited me to join them and to ‘own’ boutique, in particular Hotel Indigo. I jumped at the chance.

How do you start putting together the design for a new hotel?

I visit the location, whether it is a hole in the ground or an old office we’re converting. I explore the neighbourhood and try to work out what makes it tick.

For example, we have Hotel Indigo Bath and Warsaw in development. Bath is a very historic city and my home town, so that was easy. Warsaw is more complex. It is very rich in history, but a history that the locals don’t necessarily want to be reminded of, so instead we looked for the new and exciting elements, the phoenix rising from the ashes, the amazing architecture, the sense of looking forward.

And our design for Hotel Indigo Warsaw really celebrates that—it’s a brand new hotel in a baroque style, immediately next to a contemporary office building full of straight lines and angular geometrics.

Hotel Indigo Bath

Hotel Indigo Bath

How do you know when you’ve hit on the right idea?

We need a story that reflects the neighbourhood, gives the design team something to work with, lends itself to a good restaurant and bar philosophy, and is on-brand. We usually know we have got it right when the story title makes people want to know more.

Bath’s title was ‘Romance and Mischief’. People know about Bath’s romantic side: Jane Austen, Mr Darcy, the Georgian architecture, but then you also have the scandal, people gambling away family fortunes, the invention of the gossip columns… That’s where the designers can start to have fun.

Once you have the idea, what’s the design process?

I create a very visual brief with found imagery and pictures I’ve taken on site. I share that with the design agency along with our ‘Look Book’—a bible of our latest and best hotels. Then I let them get on with their work, but it is an open, collaborative conversation throughout.

Once designs are approved, we start the model guest room, which has to be perfect, down to the pencil on the side table. The rooms are where the majority of the budget is spent, and each hotel has between 50 and 250, so if you get one wrong, you get them all wrong!

Once an agency nails the model room, they really understand our brand and the public spaces usually come quite swiftly afterwards. Following design approval, we support the project right up until opening night.

What’s your favourite part?

The first time I see a design is exciting and the model rooms are great fun, but my favourite moment is definitely when the hotel doors open for the first time, members of the public start enjoying the space. I love seeing people’s reactions as they walk in—that makes me so happy.

Which hotel are you most proud of?

Bath. It is not finished just yet, but it is my hometown and I was born just around the corner. It is Grade I listed, on a world heritage site, and a labour of love for the owners and Architects CT, who have worked on it for more than two years. It is going to be very special. There are some really lovely details. Because it is listed, every single one of the floorboards had to be taken up, cleaned, numbered, and put back down exactly where it was before; and we found 50 or 60 fireplaces hidden in walls that we integrated into the design.

Hotel Indigo Bath

Hotel Indigo Bath

How do you stay on-brand while reflecting different neighbourhoods?

The essence of Hotel Indigo is the neighbourhood, so as long as our hotel exemplifies its surroundings, we can’t go too far wrong. But there are subtle things all our hotels have in common: touches of whimsy and humour, little surprises, and layering is very important too—that depth of design makes the space feel more interesting.

What’s next?

Last year we opened two hotels and this year we have six or seven, the most in a year. Next year there are already three to four in the pipeline, so we are riding the crest of a wave a little bit. Right now, I am focussed on the next nine months, but then we will have 10-12 truly stunning new generation Hotel Indigo properties and I think that will drive some interesting growth.

We can start to look at secondary markets, which will throw up striking properties that might surprise people and enable them to use Hotel Indigo as a gateway. We know that once they stay in one they want to stay in another, so they might look at where we have hotels, and say “Oh, I never thought about going to Antwerp”. That will be really interesting.

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