Elements of modern style at Makati Shangri-La Hotel
CRAZY QUILT - Tanya T. Lara () - March 2, 2002 - 12:00am
If you’re a corporate executive, a seasoned traveler, a hair-splitter for efficiency and a fan of modern design, you may just find the right hotel for yourself in Makati. Perhaps in Hong Kong or Singapore, they’re at every other block like noodle stands, but not in Manila where, as far as hotel interiors go, you’re bound to get floral curtains and bedcovers, period chairs and ornate desks.

It was this market that Makati Shangri-La Hotel had in mind when it started renovating its rooms 20 months ago. "We’re in a modern, well known, international city in Asia and we’re in the right city for this product," says general manager Richard W. Riley. A large portion of the hotel’s clientele is American and Japanese – business travelers who make up quite a demanding market.

The hotel’s renovation is part of the $130 million investment of the Shangri-La group "to reinforce Shangri-La as the leading luxury hotel company in Asia."

According to Riley, 16 of the group’s 38 properties are currently being renovated. For Makati Shangri-La, they are hopeful that renovation of the hotel, including the public places and outlets, will be completed by the end of the year. The lobby will retain its marble flooring and grand staircase but it will have a completely different look when they’re done: more contemporary and "more beautiful than when it opened – and it is a beautiful lobby as it is."

Shangri-La put together a design team composed of hospitality designers based in Florida, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Tokyo – among them Bilky Llinas, Leese Robertson Freeman Ltd., Warner Wong, Wilson Associates, BUZdesign, Adam Tihany, and Alan Chang who is producing new guest room amenities.

With the design of the brand oriented toward elegant and contemporary, each hotel has unique elements it can claim its own. For the Makati project, the buck stopped with Richard Riley, who himself gave the direction and designed some of the amenities you see in the new rooms. He chose the materials, the fabrics, and picked from the many prototypes they produced. What a lucky guy. "That’s the fun part of being a hotelier," he says, grinning.

Riley is the first hotelier we’ve spoken to who knows as much about design as he does about the art of running a hotel, which he has been doing for more than two decades. Well, it also helped that he has opened and renovated several hotels in Asia, that he started working for a hotel in Hawaii at 14, that he switched from engineering to hotel management at Michigan State University and that he recently took a trip that took him around the world and into the best hotels, from London’s hip and cool boutique hotels to the Middle East’s luxury brands.

The brief Riley gave the designers for Makati Shangri-La was that he wanted rooms that would make people say: "I was in Manila and stayed in one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed in." Specifically, a design slant that was "warm, sunny, fresh, with more curves, sexier and away from hard edges."

Focus group discussions were done. Guests wanted a bigger work space, better Internet connection, comfortable bed and chair, and good lighting. The renovation gave them much more, like a larger bathroom, a bigger desk with the telephone and data ports and plugs on top, an ergonomic chair in leather, 40 lights inside the room (did somebody say something about good lighting?) and a bed you’d be crazy to get up from at 7 in the morning.

"Ninety percent of hotels have the six-light formula; we have 40 lights per room. Of course, they aren’t turned on all the time; probably 20 of them are for effect. The others are for functionality, so you won’t strain your eyes. One light is dedicated to your pillow for reading without disturbing your companion. And if you compare the new, larger bathroom with the old one, you’ll think it was daylight in the new one and night in the old one."

Now for the bed, which Riley insists you cannot compromise on. First of all, it’s not set square against the wall as is the usual practice. The bed’s at an angle so you don’t feel like you’re inside a shoebox. Riley sat down with the designers of Simmons, a manufacturer of luxury beds, and gave his design. The usual hotel bed has a skirt around it and you always wonder what’s under – at least Riley does and, it seems, so do a lot of people. "The first thing I do is to check if it’s dirty." At the new Shangri-La rooms, there’s no bed skirt, you can see right through because the wooden frame has steel legs, which goes with the brushed steel of the soft furnishings. If in the future you see a sign underneath the bed that says, "Yes, we cleaned here, too," you know whose idea it was.

For the linen, they chose the Italian brand Frette, which is used by the top boutique and chain hotels all over the world, and only the top quality German-Swiss duvet. A mix of goose down and goose feather (75 and 25 percent, respectively), the lighter but warm duvet went through four types, with five Shangri-La people testing them for a period of two months to see which was best for Manila weather and the new air-conditioning system of the hotel.

The renovation wasn’t just a matter of putting Canadian maple paneling to give the rooms a modern but soft look or enlarging the bathroom, but also about getting the accessories right. You know, the small things that make the big picture, like drawer pulls to go with the brushed stainless steel amenities – the wireless coffee pot ("don’t you just hate having to unplug plastic pots?"), the mugs, ashtrays and fruit bowl and the lamps.

And let’s not forget the glass-and-steel bathroom scale. "People remember certain things when they travel," says Riley. "We know the success of that scale because we’ve had people calling about it and we’ve sold a number of them to guests. One guest even stole it — and it weighs a ton! The idea of that came from a Beijing hotel and everyone was talking about the damned thing. We’re the first to use it in Manila."

Also being renovated are the lobbies by the elevators on each floor. Here, the contemporary look is interpreted with Zen touches. A water-and-glass tabletop fountain is backgrounded by hewn wood in silver for a water effect. This theme extends to the room, where the sheer fabric design looks like water running down glass. "I feel very good around water and I think a lot of people are that way," Riley says.

Undoubtedly, it is the hotel’s attention to detail that has made the project a success. "What we realized is the corporate market we cater to is looking for something like this: warm, contemporary and relaxing," he says.

Ironically, when a guest tells Riley, "You know, it felt like I wasn’t staying in a hotel, but in somebody’s cool house," it’s actually going to make his day.

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