Building brilliant boutique hotels on a budget


I was inspired by this gentleman, says Qbic Hotels’ founder and CEO Paul Rinkens, pointing to Ian Schrager on the cover of September’s Boutique Hotelier on the table in front of us.

But after an hour of chatting with Rinkens and managing director Paul Janmaat, it’s obvious that Qbic is more than just another copycat of Schrager’s original concept. The budget boutique brand is a unique creation, with many aspects cultivated from the experiences, frustrations and inventiveness of the Dutch duo.

The structure
Since Rinkens’ early days in hospitality, he’s been making mental notes on what impresses guests, what doesn’t and what can be done differently and for less.

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“I got inspired by a four-poster bed when I was a slave working for someone else many years ago,” says Rinkens, jokingly referring to his time at the Hyde Park Hotel in London, now operated by Mandarin Oriental.

“So many guests we checked into rooms with four-poster beds would be like ‘aww I love it!’ so we thought if we can create this ‘wow’ experience for £60-80 then it’s something interesting. So I started drawing these four posters,” recalls Rinkens.

Asked if he has a design background, he says laughing: “No, we proved you don’t need to have that”.

“We thought if we can make something simple, flat-pack like from Ikea that you can put in a room you can use it in social housing or somewhere where there is a housing problem. So that was the idea, but we got involved with hotels because people read about it, understood it and thought it was logical, but at the end of the day they wanted to see it, feel it.”

The result was the Cubi, a cube-shaped living space that forms the centre of the Qbic Hotels concept, which launched with a hotel in Amsterdam in 2007, followed by the brand’s UK debut with the opening of Qbic London, backed by Bridges Ventures, on October 19.

The Cubi offers various practical configurations usually incorporating an extra-long, hand-made Hästens bed, Philippe Starck-design bathroom elements, work-and-dine sets, LCD TV and an internet connection.

These spaces have panels that enable the guest to choose their favourite backgrounds — for example, the London hotel Cubi panels feature a selection of blown-up photographs taken of people in the local area — and select different colours of lighting depending on their mood.

The Cubi distinguishes itself from hotel ‘pods’ currently popular in Asia, according to Janmaat: “There’s a different building order.

“It’s a modular system so you can add different loose elements — bathroom, kitchen, work area, cocktail bar — to form the final cube. The last thing to install in a room is the Cubi, so the infrastructure — plumbing, floor finishing — is already there”.

The design enables fast conversion of buildings into hotels at a fraction of the cost, he says.

The total investment for Qbic London works out at £37,000 per room and Rinkens expects to see a return on investment within three years, and that’s with room rates starting from £50 — said to be around 40% cheaper than a comparable hotel.

“It speeds up the development, we’re building hotels in six months and we could do it in five,” says Janmaat, revealing plans to reach 18 or more Qbic hotels within the next six years. He says the next property is likely to open in Paris, followed by three more hotels in London covering the different areas of the city.

“The more traditional way of building a house or hotel is very old fashioned, we turned around the processes and looked at it a different way,” continues Janmaat.

The logic
Qbic has also applied this “logical” approach to materials and skills, reclaiming existing resources and putting the guest at the centre of the concept for a new take on luxury.

“The older I get, the more I learn that what is interesting in life is the simple things and simple things are usually logic and that’s disappeared in our industry. I can’t understand a lot of experiences in buildings they call hotels anymore,” says Rinkens.

“I was at the theatre and in two hours I saw four stage sets and I thought you can create something interesting for not such a rich wallet.

“If you look at what Edition by Marriott and Ian Schrager is doing, and a lot of others, it’s all at the high end of the market. And in a regular hotel we plonk everything in, it is packed with a lot of things we don’t need.

“I did a survey through our housekeepers to check how many times the desk and cupboards were used and found that in a year, they were only used between 12% and 15% of the time. So we thought let’s kick them out, waste of time and waste of money.”

Rinkens found a sustainable, space-saving alternative called the Dressboy designed by Holland’s Sander Bokkinga — as featured on this month’s cover — which doubles up as hanging space and a luggage rack.

“He’s an artist living in Amsterdam who has a great vision on life and wants to use existing materials.

“I visited one of his shows and he had a chair with a seat made from hose pipe along with another project, and I said ‘can you combine them?’ and he came up with the Dressboy.

“Each hotel will have different designers and different products, but that’s in every room in London, the smaller rooms have a ladder version flat against the wall,” explains Rinkens.

Qbic London – at a glance

• Menu creations by Michelin-starred chef Leon Aarts
• Hotel and uniforms styling by Eva Coppens, Forest London
• Key designs: Dressboy and other items by Sander Bokkinga
• Community partnerships with Bikeworks and Foodcycle
• In-room: 180cm x 200cm NaturalMat mattress
• Mood lighting, reading lamps, dress mirror, window with view
• 32” LED Smart TV — Skype ready
• Bathroom with rain shower
• Complimentary wifi

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The people
“We wanted to prove that you can build an experience for less money. By experience we mean everything, the building, the materials, the products, but most important of all, the concierge. We don’t have any other staff roles in our hotels,” says Rinkens.

“I don’t need people to walk around with cups and saucers, I can buy a robot for that,” he says, adding that a self-service coffee machine, using locally-sourced beans will be available on each floor and drinks will be served in recyclable paper cups.

“In Holland you have a zoo from where you can rent chimpanzees and the nice thing about chimpanzees is they always smile, and in hotels that’s not always the case. So we need people who will connect you with somebody, an idea or a product,” continues Rinkens. “So we don’t need to have a person three floors down doing the washing up. That person is now in the lobby so instead of having two people I only need one, and I can pay him or her more and train them better. This is how we have automised service.”

Janmaat adds: “What is luxury? In hospitality, if someone wants to add luxury they just add more people. The more stars, the more full-time staff. We’re trying to automate the processes not entirely linked to added value”.

Kiosks have been installed for check-in. F&B wise, guests can help themselves to menu items created by Michelin-starred chef Leon Aarts, incorporating locally-sourced produce, around the clock and pay using self-service machines.

“Our guests, the independent travellers aged between 19 and 55, don’t want so-called luxury because at 10:30am in a five-star hotel breakfast is finished.

“We call it ‘cut the crap’. Guests have the freedom to do as they choose, at the pace they want to do it. The number of times they want to do it and our staff are there to solve problems. For example, last week I only had 30 minutes for a meal. I was in a small village in Holland and found a restaurant by the railway station, which I learned afterwards was operated by people with special needs. I asked if I could eat something small, but the lady explained that there was only the dinner menu as it was evening. She said ‘If I do it fast, I’ll give you a steak. How do you want it and what do you want to drink?’ Twenty minutes later I was outside and it was the best service I have had in 2013.”

Qbic hopes to create this fuss-free sort of service at its hotels. What the group saves on numbers of staff, it is pouring into recruitment and training, but not necessarily retention.

“We put an ad on Gumtree for staff and we got different people doing it that way. The idea behind Qbic is to use the existing. So we recycle everything from real estate to talent and skills”.

In fact, 30% of Qbic London’s staff base will come from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to Rinkens.

“We want to take on people who for any reason went a bit off the main road, so some have been drug addicts or have been in a criminal environment and decided ‘I don’t want this anymore, I want a second chance’ and these people are very interesting,” says Rinkens.

Rinkens also manages a professional football club in Holland and approached recruitment there in the same way, but Janmaat says “it can be difficult to convince people we’re not doing it as a marketing tool”.

“We think about nature and we need to take care of nature and save it but we don’t reuse people, we leave them behind and that’s strange. We’re looking for characters for concierge and it’s interesting to have a mix of different worlds,” he adds.

This can cause recruitment and training challenges: “You need 10 people to find two and we have mentors and specialist support,” says Rinkens.

“But training these people is also a learning curve for colleagues. A lot of people don’t know the kind of world they’ve come from and our guests are also from different backgrounds. They come in at five o’clock in beautiful clothes and at 2am that person can be completely different. A hotel is a 24-hour society in one building, everything that happens at home happens here.”

Once trained, these staff can bring so much to the experience, says Janmaat. “The skills they have is suprising, we met with the London concierges yesterday and there was one person good at repairing computers and thinks of it as a hobby, so we’ve given him space in the basement to do that for his own customers, there’s another who wants to become a film director and we’re helping those people.

“We do realise that they won’t stay forever and they shouldn’t. I don’t want to say ‘get a life’ but if they’ve worked for Qbic for two years it’s time for the next step and we’ll give them that little extra to make the move smoothly and we’re helping each other,” adds Janmaat”.

Qbic is the latest offering in the growing ‘luxury-for-less’ hotel segment. Its focus on sustainability and the community vaguely resembles that of fellow East London newcomer Ace Hotel from the US: “I stayed there and had breakfast there this morning,” says Rinkens, who admits that the concept is similar, adding, “but their price range is a bit different to ours, it’s double”.

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