Hotel manager Timo Bures on ‘balancing freedom’ in architectural collaborations

German-born, classically trained hotel manager Timo Bures doesn’t believe in hotels as “homes away from home.” As the general manager of the design-led The Old Clare Hotel in Sydney, by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, and the former general manager of Canberra’s Hotel Hotel, he’s a fan of hotels that are fun and exciting, which allow guests to connect with new people and experience local culture. Ahead of his keynote at the Eat Drink Design Talks forum he spoke with ArchitectureAU about the role of design in today’s hotels, and the importance of giving architects freedom to create.

You’ve opened two hotels that put design front and centre: The Old Clare and Hotel Hotel. How important is good design for hotels and for hospitality today?

It’s incredibly important. In particular, for the smaller and independent hotels to have a differentiator is incredibly important. One of the things that I think really stands out is just that freedom to do something exciting and do something that’s fun with the design – something that is more in line with traveling. People have been traveling for a long time, because they want to see new things and different things and enjoy themselves. And we have always strayed away from the home-away-from home idea, and instead have something that is unique and that you go to see.

And this is something that’s really sprung up in the past 10 years, isn’t it? This idea of creating an experience in these kinds of smaller hotels that have more individual, unique designs?

Definitely. I mean, definitely in Australia – if you go back more than 10 years and try to find a design-led hotel you’d be struggling quite a lot. In Europe maybe it’s been around for a little bit longer. But it is also not something that was spread evenly across the different levels of hospitality. In the past if you found a design-led property it was often a three-star, maybe three-and-a-half-star property, potentially a four-star property. But now across the whole spectrum, up to five-star luxury hotels, you’re finding design-driven concepts and really individuals and independent owners, who really want to have a very, very good, luxurious hotel, for want of a better word, but it’s still heavily design driven.

Could you talk a little bit about what it was like working with the architects on Hotel Hotel and The Old Clare? What the process was like? How closely were you working with the architects there?

In Canberra [for Hotel Hotel], I will say my work with the architects was a little more restricted than it was here at The Old Clare. I guess in both projects it was really the idea that an architect will come as a creative onto a project, and in order to deliver the best results, [an architect] requires a fair bit of freedom. There has to be a certain amount of brief, but it was really important on both projects, and even more so on The Old Clare, to not go in and over brief – to really allow someone to be inventive, to have someone be creative, you know, to really accept that if you’re doing a design-driven hotel, not everything will in the first round be as operationally efficient as you would like it to be.

It’s about getting that outside influence and just having someone have the idea of what a great hotel would look like.

You do often hear about these design-led projects in hospitality not working that well for their purpose. Maybe there’s not enough room for waiters to move around, or for the staff to do their work. So do you have to make compromises there one way or the other, from a design point of view or a utilitarian point of view?

I definitely think there have to be compromises on both sides. And this if actually a large part of what I want my keynote to be about [at Eat Drink Design Talks]. Hospitality, and in particular the food and beverage side, the restaurant side, is one that we know works with such small margins. But it’s also [a part of the industry] that is very happy to embrace, for want of a better word, crazy designs, and things that are really standing out and things that are really cutting edge and unrestricted almost.

So there’s a big responsibility on all parties that are involved. You know, on the owners, on the operators and on the architect. Because I’ve been involved with a couple of restaurants where maybe one side or the other has got a little bit too much freedom. It is something that is very hard and very expensive to correct in the end.

I think it’s really important to get it right. Design is the idea to do something for a particular purpose. I think you can not forget about that, a restaurant, a hotel, a bar, whatever it is that you’re building has a base functionality and you can not impede that.

You mentioned before that Australia was somewhat behind Europe in terms of embracing boutique, individual hotel design. Do you think Australia’s catching up?

It’s certainly catching up. If you look at what has come into the market, what new hotels are looking into, what new restaurants have opened and so on, you can certainly see that the percentage of design-led properties, boutique properties in particular, has ramped up.

Catching up is always going to be difficult. Two of the things that don’t help Australia in that regard is the cost of property. And then the cost of running a hospitality operation. It’s very hard to run a small operation profitably.

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Obviously in Australia the property developers have been, salivating over the last decades with property prices soaring. But you will see them wanting to build a 20-storey or 30-storey tower rather than three-storey building on five-storey building, or god forbid restoring something that has heritage value and comes with all these additional costs.

Whereas, if you’re looking at the designers, they obviously love working with the fabrics that are there. And The Old Clare is a prime example of that, of having two heritage listed buildings to work with that made it very complicated. It made it also very, very expensive to do. That will always put the brakes on Australia really exploding in that regard. But having said that, looking at new hotel openings over the last couple of years, looking at something like Paramount House [by Breathe Architecture] for example, there are some really beautiful properties that are coming out.

Hotel Hotel and The Old Clare have been great successes for you. Do you have plans for another project in the future?

Always, always. At the moment I’m running the hotel and that’s a completely different job from from creating a hotel from the ground up. And while they’re both very fun, I would love to look at another project or multiple new projects. We’re always looking for spaces. Again, the competition is very hard, and someone that is going to build a large tower or someone that is happy to entertain the gambling machine licenses is always going to be there with a bigger bag of money. And so that makes it difficult. But no, absolutely, there’s always the desire to look at new projects, be that a restaurant, or a hotel or a bar.

Timo Bures will be presenting a keynote at Eat Drink Design Talks on 12 November at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia in Melbourne. See the program and purchase tickets to this half-day hospitality design conference here.

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