E39: Context & Friction: Developing Relevant Lifestyle Brands with Jeremy Selman
December 8, 2022
Dustin Myers: Hey Jeremy [Selman], thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today.
Jeremy Selman: Hey thanks Dustin and Jeremy Wells for having me.
Dustin Myers: Yeah. So we’ve had the pleasure of getting to know you a little bit and just knowing a lot of the work that you’ve done and as a lot of our listeners will recognize as well, just some really incredible projects and just building things that impact a lot of people. And so for us to get to dive in today with you is a great honor. And we’re excited to just get into the interview. So maybe first things first, just start by giving us a little bit about your background and the industry and kind of how you’ve gotten to where you are today.
Jeremy Selman: For sure. So I’ve been in the lifestyle hotel business, and I’m sure we’re going to cover the lifestyle designation as the part of the hospitality that I am focused on and maybe many of the listeners are focused on. But I started in the lifestyle hospitality business about 20 years ago now, working for Andre Balazs, who I’m sure most people know, but for background, responsible for the Chateau Marmont and the Mercer Hotel as well as the Standard brand. So I started with him about 20 years ago. At the time, he had a partner named Andrew Zobler, who was responsible for business development and legal and all sorts of the more kind of business end of the business and I was working directly for Andrew.
After doing that for a few years, he and I decided to break off and start what would become the Sydell Group. And as part of Sydell Group, we developed brands on our own account. We started off working very closely with the Ace team, having owned and developed the Ace’s in Palm Springs and in New York, and then ultimately the Nomad was the first brand that we really created holistically on our own. We went on to create or participate in about six different brands. So on our own account, we had the NoMad, Freehand, LINE, and Saguaro. And then in partnership, we had Park MGM and The Ned, which we were instrumental in creating through some larger strategic partnerships.
Jeremy Wells: That’s really cool. In that 20 years, that’s a lot to cover and I’m sure there’s a lot of interesting stories. Maybe we’ll dive into some of those today and would love to hear more about any of those projects. But as you look back over the last 20 years and all that you’ve been a part of and all that you’ve been able to accomplish in that timeframe, what would you say is one of the most formative projects you’ve been able to be a part of and work on in that time span?
Jeremy Selman: I’ve been really lucky to have participated and in many cases lead some really phenomenal projects. So I think the two that stand out to me in particular for different reasons are the Freehand Miami in particular and the Park MGM in Las Vegas. And they are vastly different projects but interesting in their own right. So Freehand, as many people may know, was our vision of a lifestyle elevated hostel experience.
Historically, the US had made up something like 30, or at the time, this was back in 2012, ’13, the US had made up about 35% into the global hotel market, but only two to three percent of the global hostel market. And we had seen this rapid growth in the acceptance and then proliferation of lifestyle hotels. And especially at the kind of the more value end of the spectrum what happened in our experience was that brands like the Standard of the Ace, two brands that I was particularly close to, would get some level of recognition, a very high level of success, and with that would come opportunities to build new and to build better. And ultimately, it would marginalize the sort of core consumer for those products, which were young, creative people.
And so while the first of these tend to be kind of very interesting and innovative, with success came the need to appeal to a higher paying customer at the expense of the sort of younger creative customer and that made it interesting in the first place. So Freehand was both an opportunity to explore the idea of hostel as a kind of a growth institutional hotel product or hospitality products, but also from our standpoint, creatively, it was an opportunity to create a product that definitionally always would be accessible to a younger creative audience. And that’s what really fascinated me with the idea was less about hostel and more about how do we maintain this balance of guest to continue to have really interesting hospitality experiences as you grew the brand.
And so Freehand was the first brand that I participated in and that Sydell created with the idea that we would scale it beyond the first one.
Dustin Myers: That’s really cool.
Jeremy Selman: Yeah. So Park MGM was almost the exact opposite. It came much later in the trajectory. Park MGM was originally the Monte Carlo Hotel, which was a 3000-room hotel. It was built right around 2000, a little bit before then, and had become over time some of the best underutilized real estate in Las Vegas. We had forged a relationship with MGM because they were always looking for interesting brands to partner with and bring into Las Vegas mostly on the culinary side and in the entertainment side. But as they look to create a neighborhood, which is somewhat new to Las Vegas, they wanted to bring in a partner that really understood how to contextualize hospitality experiences.
And so we were brought in to do that. Originally, it started with the idea of putting a NoMad on the top of the building and ultimately we did. But as we worked together, we thought there was a kind of a broader opportunity to holistically rebrand. And so while on many other projects, we kind of did everything. On Park MGM, we were really brought in to think about the guest experience from a culinary design and marketing standpoint and less about the sort of development of the physical property.
Jeremy Wells: Yeah. So like you mentioned, those are pretty two stark differences between the Freehand and MGM, and like MGM being like a 2000-room, I think, hotel.
Jeremy Selman: 3000.
Jeremy Wells: 3000, okay.
Jeremy Selman: Yeah.
Jeremy Wells: And then Freehand being much different. So you’ve kind of seen all different spectrums of…
Jeremy Selman: Yeah. I should also say I think the hotel that I just opened in Los Angeles is another really interesting sort of case study in hospitality because the property, which actually had originally developed as the NoMad, we acquired in the weave there are my partners at HN Capital, in particular Vipin Nambiar, and sure I’ll touch on this in a little bit more in the future of our conversation here. We had to come back in and take a nearly kind of complete, really well executed hotel and think about how to reposition it in a way that felt incredibly different, but was very efficient on Capital. So it was kind of a fascinating challenge and one that was very new to me.
Dustin Myers: Yeah. I’m curious, kind of going back to the Freehand Miami project and what you created it to be and then kind of some of the challenges that you saw with the ideal customer profile that you’d created, like what were some of the specific evolutions that kind of helped, I guess, balance out and stabilize kind of what you wanted it to be and then what is practically possible and kind of where it evolved?
Jeremy Selman: So I think looking at the Freehand brand mower holistically and ultimately before we sold the brand, we had four of them, is probably a better way of addressing this question. Miami was very specifically chosen as a sort of Petri dish for the concept. It was in a market that we knew would have appealed to hostel travelers, which was particularly important for the first one. And it was at a price point and had existing programming that we thought was kind of easily adaptable to the concept.
And so it really involved a lot of experimentation. I used the word elevated in reference to the hostel experience. And I think defining what elevated meant was our biggest challenge. We had some really examples from Ian Schrager and Andre Balazs and others about what a value product could be and the balance between investment in rooms versus public spaces. But in doing a rent by the bed versus rent by the room, it really kind of challenged the idea of what should the room experience feel like, what should the sleep experience feel like.
It was much more obvious to us what the public space experience was going to be, and a lot of the things that we aspired to in the more traditional hotel model in terms of having public spaces where locals and travelers could coexist and both experience something rich and wonderful, we knew we would bring that type of appeal over and really kind of break the security wall, which was so typical to hostels at the front door. We knew that that sort of “security wall” would happen at the rooms, not in the public space. But the question of what should the room experience be was a really critical one and one that continued to challenge us with each project.
So for example in Miami where service can be a little bit more challenging, the mere idea of having a bunk bed at that price point was a challenge, especially when you kind of look at the demographics that would tend to gravitate towards a lower price point room, we put restrictions on who could stay in the rooms in terms of where they live. So if they live in Miami, they couldn’t stay with us. And so that was a very kind of artificial way of cultivating an audience.
In New York, we were presented with a very different challenge. In New York, you’re not permitted to rent by the bed. You could only rent by the room. And so we had to address the question of what is the shared accommodation in an environment where you’re limited legally to the number of occupants that don’t know each other in a room and the ability to sell those rooms individually. So that was a much more obvious way of elevating the experience because we were actually able to offer a high degree of privacy.
We made the decision very early on that one of the non-negotiables was that we would not have shared bathrooms on a floor. So each bathroom would be en suite. And that’s something that we applied to every Freehand going forward. And we thought in doing that we wouldn’t put an artificial ceiling on rate which proved to be accurate. In LA, for example, we had a lot of challenges because we were in a heavy business travel environment in downtown, which could be averse to the independent hostel traveler who tended to be younger, not business oriented, traveled for longer length of stay, had more luggage required a different type of engagement in terms of learning the neighborhood. And so our challenge there was not marginalizing the business traveler. And so we really focused there on the check-in experience.
So in downtown LA, we offered a different experience for check-in for business travelers that was much shorter. Whereas the hostel traveler, we directed more towards a south check-in and/or a kiosk experience. But because we brought design in great culinary, it sets a relatively high experiential bar. And so we were able to kind of play around with these sort of levers of service in the room and kind of in the sleep experience.
Dustin Myers: Yeah. That’s super fascinating how even within that concept and that brand, there’s so much contextualizing that needs to take place and even evolving constantly, which aspects need to be present and what’s going to drive it forward.
Jeremy Selman: Yeah. It’s a tough challenge because for a lot of urban hotels, they live and die on business travel. And business travel and the business traveler is a little adverse to the lifestyle traveler. Now there’s a lot of crossover. I’m sure when the three of us travel, we’re seeking out hotels that kind of have a broader creative appeal. That’s rarely the bread and butter of business travel. So that balance was the trickiest thing as we were thinking about what markets can this go into and how do we scale it because we want to continue to invest in the asset. And I think the reason why you see so many hospitals in the US and in Europe, simply kind of skimp on the capital spend is because they can’t afford to. The way we can afford to is by having a business travel is by being appealing to a business traveler. And so that’ll allow us to spend more, but it becomes a challenge hopefully.
Dustin Myers: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s a cool kind of compromise in creating something new when we have both of those types of travelers in mind and figuring out what’s going to work between everybody to make it a success. What’s your philosophy when it comes to creating a brand, creating a hospitality experience?
Jeremy Selman: I think you need to have a pretty good understanding of the consumer and the experience to want the consumer to have. Having that lens is super important. And it happens in the beginning and it’s not an issue of being stubborn about it. You can get into a process and say, “Well, this is my customer, this is the experience that I want them to have.” And then you don’t really kind of allow the process to create magic. And what we do is all about creating magic, and that magic does require freedom for the creative team and some level of experimentation. The risk is too much of that, and you end up with a non-disciplined project that never gets finished or has some fundamentals that are missing.
So for me, having a really good kind of baseline, planning outcome, meaning like you have some kind of document that kind of establishes the creative and business imperatives of the project from demographic profiles to a P&L and an understanding of like what can you afford to do in terms of programming. That’s the really most important initial building block. And for me, I think it’s really about having a team that understands the importance of brands in the development process. And I think that’s really where Sydell in particular and it also can be a bit of a pitfall, so you have to balance the two things. But we really hired throughout our organization, whether it be a development person or an operations person, we hired for people that had a strong understanding and appreciation of the importance of brand and creative in the process of building something. And I’m specifically not using the word creating something, but in terms of building something.
If you want a formula, Marriott’s been doing this for a very long time and they really understand how to do it. And I’m not being disparaging in any way whatsoever. it’s a very reliable formula and one that seriously de-risks most projects. But I think if you want to appeal to a lifestyle consumer, you’re generally not moving in that direction. And then it’s really about understanding and hiring a team that can infuse the entire development process and pre-opening process with that creative and that culture because what you’re doing is sort of building something and then handing it over to an operator and that operating theme knows how to run rooms and then you’re kind of layering on top of that, the sort of creative thing, that’s sort of a recipe for marginalizing experience.
When you can use every aspect of the development process with brand and creativity, it will result in something that’s much more powerful. And that’s quite honestly a challenge at Per La. Not because we didn’t have a team that understood it, but because we were just so compressed with time. And that creative development requires some breathing room. So when you’re developing something that has a two to three-year cycle, we started the creative process very early on and made allowances in the development processes to allow for some change to adapt to that discovery.
When you’re doing it on a very, very short timeframe, it can be more challenging. And I had that experience in places like Palm Springs. When we did the Saguaro in Scottsdale, they were really good executions from a time in a business fundamental. But we didn’t have the time to let the brands kind of breathe and be born. It’s like pregnancy is a nine-month process, right? So you think you’re birthing a hotel, you kind of want to allow it to gestate and have a pregnancy. And so that’s really the biggest challenge I think of some of these sort of quick turnarounds is like you don’t have brand destination before the thing opened.
Jeremy Wells: Yeah. Yeah. I think you brought up two great phrases. You mentioned is during that development process, letting the process create magic. I just love kind of the thinking that goes into that. And I know it’s hard to like pin down exactly what that means, but it’s something that I think is so important is staying open to things changing throughout that process. And then I think an extremely important thing is, and a lot of people miss this when it comes to brand development, but I think brand development does include team and culture development and having a team that just understands the vision and what we’re trying to accomplish and getting everyone on the same page is so vital. And I love that you put that kind of first and foremost in your developments and I think that’s really smart.
One thing I’d like to cover while we have you on the interview here is you mentioned this in our kind of prior call of this idea of relevance in the developments that you’re involved in and the properties and experiences you’re creating. How do you define what relevance is and why that’s important? How does the concept driven by that in decision making and all of that?
For me, relevancy is something much more attainable and also intuitive.
Jeremy Selman: Yeah. So the idea of relevance, which is something I sort of latched onto, was a response to my general space of the word authentic. It became somewhat meaningless term of art within the hospitality business. And I think it’s a wonderful buzz word and we all want authenticity. And I sort of challenge myself to define it and then I really had a hard time defining it. Is Chinatown in New York authentic? And if so, when did it become authentic? Because it wasn’t authentic at the turn of the century when it emerged, so when did it become authentic? Relevant, I think for me, it’s something much more relevant.
For me, relevancy is something much more attainable and also intuitive. And so I kind of live my life by the balance of intuition and analysis. Some people are overly one or the other. I try and support my intuition with analysis, but I have a pretty good intuition for what is relevant. I don’t have a good intuition for what is authentic. Again, is the muffuletta in New York authentic? Because it could be really delicious and it’s super relevant, but it’s probably not authentic.
And so that’s sort of how the idea of relevancy as the aspiration for lifestyle hotels. It emerged for me. I need some kind of context and friction in the creative process personally. And I think that’s why I’ve always gravitated towards historic buildings because those buildings are the sort of purest form of context, right? This exists already. So anything that you’re going to do that’s new is by definition intervention. And the intervention is by definition friction. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is friction. And so relevancy is sort of another way of helping me to contextualize a decision. Am I going to put an ’80s motif into a 1920’s building? And how is that going to feel to a guest?
My instinct is that a guest is going to come in and feel like something is off. Whereas if we try and introduce an aesthetic that feels a little bit more organic into a 1920’s building where you expose the structure and you expose the sort of architectural differences between 1920s and 2020s in a way that feels connected, then I think guests can be drawn to that and understand the relevancy of why we did what we did. And it’s always this balance between trying to make the process opaque, but also letting the guests in on a little bit of the thinking and the thoughtfulness.
I’m struggling to give you a concise response, but it was really my own personal response to space for the word authentic.
Dustin Myers: No. That definitely resonates and I think it’s an important and very interesting nuance to kind of unpack. True authenticity is really hard to attain. And so I think people like the idea of it, but that term gets misused probably 80% of the time that it’s used, whereas relevancy is a much better target. So I appreciate you kind of getting into that because that’s really fascinating to me. One thing I wanted to ask you about, it’s very difficult to create a great brand experience and to truly hit on all cylinders across the entire project, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to scale that and to repeat that. And some of the projects that you’ve worked on I think have done that extremely well. So I would love for you to just maybe share with us some of the lessons that you’ve learned and being able to scale brands and experiences like that.
If you don’t have people that live and breathe it, it’s likely not to scale successfully from a guest experience standpoint.
Jeremy Selman: For sure. So a lot of people like to use an 80-20 rule and a much less beholden to the specific percentages, as I am to the idea that once the brand has been established, whether it’s established on paper before a property opens or it has opened already and you’re thinking about sort of taking it on the road and scaling it. It’s understanding those things that really make up the brand and those things that make up the brand at that specific location. And so 80-20 feels like a pretty good balance there where you look to repeat 80% of the building blocks of the brand and you specifically force 20% of them to be very specific to that location. And then equally important, having a team that really understands that balance and is given the freedom to explore the 20% because the 20% is not always the same.
You may say in a certain market, this, whatever it is. This uniform works in both locations because of climate, because of whatever. Or a pallet. A pallet is even a better example. Sometimes the pallet is transferable. Sometimes the palette isn’t transferable. Sometimes you don’t want the palette to be transferable. So at NoMad, we made a very specific decision that the NoMad brand pallet, not the architectural pallet, but the brand palette would evolve in every location. And so the color story for NoMad, though subtle, was a very important part of the brand growth. And we had a team that was very kind of invested in the brand that shepherded as we went along. And so for me, the scalability question comes down to what a sacrosanct and what do you want to change and who is championing the brand.
If you don’t have people that live and breathe it, it’s likely not to scale successfully from a guest experience standpoint. It may be a successful business venture. But from the guest experience side, it will feel off in some way. And the other part of it, and I’m sort of just harkening back to it, and this is something that we really learned, especially as we got busy and we were developing multiple properties under multiple brands, the brand team got involved at the same time that the development team got involved.
So the brand team, once the deal became real, meaning we knew it was happening, the brand team would get involved. And we had a person on our team that did nothing but brand project management for our development. And it was her job to interface with the development team and make sure that we were communicating well, but equally important interfacing with the brand teams so that they have the opportunity to really think about how we were interpolating that brand at that new location. But that integration from a very early part of the process was super important.
And that’s why when you went to a Freehand, it was unmistakable as anything but a Freehand. When you went to a NoMad, it was unmistakable as anything but a NoMad. And it was more than just the interior design, it was the ethos.
Jeremy Wells: Yeah. That’s really fascinating. it’s obvious, I think, to anybody listening to like the way you approach things is very smart, very methodical in the decision-making you have. And getting to that point over the last 20 years of lessons learned and oftentimes getting to the point where you’re at now and just the experience and expertise you have and everything can often mean a number of failures along the way as well. So what are some of those hard lessons you’ve learned over that timeframe and scaling brands? Do you have any kind of specific stories or things that you’d like to share?
… failure and success is all about the guests.
Jeremy Selman: Yeah. Look, I think the Saguaro is a pretty good example of underinvesting. I think that’s really my sort of big lesson is when you approach a project, you really need to make sure you have the resources and the resources as we’ve discussed extensively together go beyond the sort of dollars and sense to build the thing. The resources are really about, “Do you have the time and investment to shape experience for the guests?” Because failure and success is all about the guests. And so you may not always truly understand the guest before the property opens. But if you’re not thinking about them every step of the way, you’re going to make some mistakes, and that requires time and investment.
So it’s really about how do you set up the project more than anything. And there’s plenty of things that you can’t control. You can’t control the market and you can’t control all the timing. But you can control the product. And so don’t go in if you’re under-resourced from those two sort of critical elements.
Dustin Myers: Yeah. That’s really cool. So we’ve talked a lot about some of the projects in your past, but I know you’re currently working on some cool stuff as well. So I’d love to hear maybe some of that and then just how you see the hospitality industry evolving kind of post COVID in the next few years.
Jeremy Selman: For sure. So I touched upon this before and I don’t think we’re going to go into too much detail here, but partnerships are so important. Very often the lifestyle hotel comes down to recognizing one person and I am a person with a tremendous amount of lifestyle hotel experience, probably more than pretty much anybody in the country at the moment, though I’m not very well known as an individual. And that was for a long time largely by choice. But partnership is a really, really important thing.
And so I’m lucky enough today to have a really great partner on the hotel side named Vipin Nambiar. He has a company that was formed in 2017 called HN Capital Partners. And we partner on lots of hotel things together. So Per LA was our first partnership. But we’re working on some other projects in Upstate New York. We recently acquired The Mansion in Dallas. HN also owns the Virgin in Dallas and The W in Dallas. We’re very long on Texas. HN is actually based in Dallas. And we also have a really wonderful general partner there, the Hunt family, Hunt enterprises. So the HN is Hunt and Nambiar. And so they’re our sponsor on the hotel side. So I think that that building blocks is really kind of fundamental. If you don’t have people that are like-minded or at least respect each other’s sort of skill sets and expertise, the likelihood of success is really low and the likelihood of efficient success is almost impossible.
So that partnership is something that is kind of growing very quickly. And I’m excited right now where we continue to be pretty nimble. I don’t want to say small. We’re actually not small, but we’re nimble. And so it’s allowing us to really do interesting things. So we’re currently working on a project in Upstate New York, in Columbia County, which is where there’s a lot of growth, but we’re very excited about it. It’s a historic warehouse building that we’re converting into a hotel with some other great partners and just generally looking into kind of high growth to do more of this kind of thing.
Where I see the future of hospitality going post-COVID is a really interesting question. It’s actually where I’m probably spending most of my time today. It’s sort of thinking about not what does the next 12 months look like, because I think there’s a lot of market concern, but post that, what does that look like. I think you guys are working on a project that I think fits really well into the sort of post-COVID world. I think more and more people are going to look for experiences. I think lifestyle hotels are going to continue to grow as a market segment, but it’s really about giving consumers, the ability to giving consumers the power to sort of choose their experience.
I think more and more guests want their own decisions to influence their experiences.
The front desk is a perfect example of this, one that gets a lot of conversation. When we were looking at this question at Sydell five or six years ago, we always sort of stumbled with, “Well, we want that human connection.” And ultimately, the response we had to that question was like, “Well, not everybody does.” And so how do we create an experience where the guest is empowered to make some of those decisions on their own. And it’s a delicate balance, right? We are creating a 360-degree world for a night or two nights or three nights. And it’s a very kind of controlled thing, right? The hotel is such a highly controlled environment. It controls what you smell and what you touch and what you taste and how you sleep and all these other elements. At the same time, I think more and more guests want their own decisions to influence their experiences.
So I think the travel industry and hospitality in general is going to be about empowering the guests, and I think technology is going to be a really valuable tool in that. But I think if technology is viewed as a tool to save money, it’s going to fail. I think if it’s viewed as a tool to empower the guests and to shape experience, it’s going to be one that’s going to be really well integrated.
Dustin Myers: Yeah, I think the future is bright and knowing the projects you’ve been involved with in the past and just kind of looking to the future and what we have to look forward to, I think it’s pretty exciting view. Well, we are super grateful for this conversation and just the insights that you’ve got to share with us. We could go on for hours, I’m sure, but we’ll have to wrap this one up for today. But if people are interested in learning more about what you’re working on, how can they find you?
Jeremy Selman: For now, best place to find me is on LinkedIn. My name, Jeremy Selman. That’s one L, S-E-L-M-A-N. We are updating our website. So best to find me there and I’m pretty responsive.
Jeremy Wells: Awesome. Jeremy, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a huge pleasure. Thank you.
Jeremy Selman: Thank you, Dustin and Jeremy. It was great.