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I first stumbled upon an Ace hotel in Portland in the fall of 2015. It was a crisp Oregon day and I had just arrived for what amounted to a 24-hour layover. After stopping in at Powell's books, I craved a classic cup of coffee and walked into what I thought was just a Stumptown. As I crossed the threshold of the door, the rarefied atmosphere of Ace hit me immediately. Situated in the old Clyde Hotel building right downtown, the feeling you get is one of familiarity and warmth—it's curated, sure, but there's an undeniable cool factor. After calling my friend to inform him that I would no longer need his couch, I paid for a room right then and took it all in.
The feelings you get at an Ace Hotel are not exclusive to the Pacific Northwest. Ace has been treating guests like friends in cities that span from Los Angeles to London and New York to New Orleans for two decades now. Even if you've never stayed in one, you know the feeling. There were boutique hotels before them, but Ace changed the game. And while there are now plenty of properties big and small attempting to mimic that paticular Ace vibe, no one does it quite like them.
The brand is celebrating its 20th anniversary this fall, so we thought it was the perfect time to look at what went into Ace's formula that produced such unique and ingenious hotel experiences. To understand all that Ace does right, we have to go back to the pre-Ace era when most hotels were doing things wrong. Without Yelp or TripAdvisor, it must've been tough to find a new hotel worth trying. So most travelers stuck to the old reliable mainstays. Bland corporate hotel chains promised accommodations and safety—a sterile room with no surprises and no social aspect. The landscape was primed for a disruptor. But how do you break the mold with an outsider spirit while still being approachable?
I figured a few cocktails and an insightful conversation with the Chief Brand officer, and long-time Ace employee, Kelly Sawdon may hold some of the keys to the success. Below is the formula that makes Ace the Ace—just add water (or maybe whiskey).
In 1999, Alex Calderwood co-founded Ace in Seattle by procuring a building that was once a boarding house for maritime workers. Instead of plastering over the history to sanitize the space, they leaned into it, crafting each of the 28 rooms with a relaxed atmosphere that was more like a stylish, bohemian apartment outfitted with Pendleton blankets, white-washed brick and handsome yet utilitarian furniture.
"When we started, we wanted to build a place for our friends to stay that felt like home and an extension of the things we cared about," says Sawdon. "Whether it was good design, strong coffee, our hyper-local communities or working with people we admired." This is the manifesto they still adhere to: activating each Ace as a community gathering place and throughway to the city. It's that authentic social pull that not only makes these hotels places you want to gather, but provided something of a roadmap for expansion.
Perhaps better than any other hotelier, Ace has a way of tailoring each property to uniquely celebrate its location. The communal living room in the original Seattle property was supersized and reimagined into New York's grand lobby, complete with library tables and a beautiful antique bar. But such a dark, wistful space wouldn't fly in a city like Los Angeles, where you gather not in the lobby, but on the splashy open rooftop and pool. At Ace in London, located in the city's once-gritty-now-hip Shoreditch neighborhood, the scene is downstairs in the basement bar where you're likely to catch a live performance.
"We think of Ace as a platform for others, inviting the city in and amplifying their voices, so you'll see a lot of local art and craft, from the larger pieces in the public spaces to in-room art," says Sawdon. Of course, you want a comfortable bed, high quality toiletries and free wifi, but if you're in a musical city, like Chicago or New Orleans, Sawdon says, "Why not have a turntable to spin some curated records or maybe a guitar in your room?" She makes a good point. Why have an ordinary hotel in Palm Springs, when you can reinterpret an old roadside motel into a relaxed, retro "swim club" built for sunset pool parties and desert stargazing?
"We never look to what others are doing, but are fueled by curiosity and look for unique projects that push us forward and speak to the things we care about," says Sawdon. This is not a hotel chain that follows the usual playbook. They follow their nose and make investments in both people and places—an ethos that stands alone in an industry that can feel sterile and impersonal. While other brands may be trying to copy what Ace has done, the creative team at Ace is busy focusing on the future and what makes sense for Ace Hotels in cities to come—including spin-offs like their sleek micro hotel, Sister City in New York.
Kyoto, Japan is the location for the next Ace, opening in early 2020, and the decision to expand into this legendary city was not one taken lightly. Modern Tokyo is a result of Japan's economic boom in the '80s and is a byword of high modernity and space-age technology. If Tokyo is Japan's statement to the world, Kyoto is its custodian of heritage, craft and culture. For the Ace team, Kyoto was the obvious choice—this where you go to experience a Japan known more to the locals than the visitors. After all, that is the true Ace way.
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“For our XX collection, we wanted to look back at some of our most emblematic and enduring projects from skateboards to wool blankets, and also wanted to have fun with nostalgic travel souvenirs.”