Going Boutique

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The avalanche of individual travelers has ignited a new trend in the Tel Aviv hotel scene: small hotels, some with only 20 guest rooms, that provide personalized service to each client. A look at the  different trends in this hotel scene, from the new attitudes to serving guests to the competition posed by the holiday apartments rented out via Airbnb.

by Yadin Roman and Heidi J. Gleit

Tel Aviv’s  Kalisher Street is just a few houses long. Gray and rundown, it appears to have seen better days. It connects Herzl Street, the city’s first road, with Nahalat Benjamin Street, another of the main thoroughfares of the pioneering Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood, which was founded just over a century ago and developed into Tel Aviv. The street is just off the Carmel Market, the city’s main outdoor market for produce and inexpensive house wares and clothing. The area is dotted with aging buildings constructed in the Eclectic Style in the 1930s that seem to be begging to be restored. The Brown TLV Hotel, which sits amidst them at 25  Kalisher Street, does not fit in with its modern, glass façade. It also seems to be located at a spot where no hotel entrepreneur in a city with a beachfront would put a hotel.

Contrary to all appearances, the Brown TLV Hotel actually is smack in the middle of the Tel Aviv scene and deeply connected to it. The trendy restaurants, cafes, and bars of Rothschild Boulevard are just a few short minutes’ walk away. The Neve Tzedek neighborhood with its colorful alleys, quaint jewelry and clothing shops, and the Suzanne Dellal Center, home of the internationally renowned Batsheva Dance Company, is in the vicinity. So are the streets of the heart of Tel Aviv, the complex of International-Style buildings from the 1930s that have put Tel Aviv on the list of World Heritage Sites. As for the beach, it is only a 10-minute stroll from the hotel.

The Brown TLV is owned by Leon Avigad and Nitzan Perry, a married gay couple who have a five-year-old daughter, along with a group of four private investors. Perry has a background in marketing and advertising, while Avigad worked in hotels, from bell boy to management, for 20 years. In 2005, Avigad and two partners opened a consulting firm for hotels that operated for several years, working with clients around the world that depended on the combination of their insider knowledge of the hotel industry and their theoretical knowledge of marketing and business from their MBA studies.

“Opening a hotel was a childhood dream,” Avigad says. “I always wanted to do this. Well, OK, first I wanted to be a Mossad agent and diplomat, but then the idea of hospitality interested me and attracted me. After four years of consulting, Nitzan and I went to Spain and decided to start with this while we were there.”

Avigad continues the story, explaining, “We knew that we wanted to host, we knew that we wanted to be intimate and do it in our style, which is vintage and eclectic and passionate. We wanted to get to know the guests and to welcome them and to have a rooftop bar and all the stuff like business facilities, a big lobby, 24-hour concierge service, and a spa so we could really host people in style.”

Finding investors and getting a mortgage to do all this was not easy.

“At the time, banks did not yet know what a boutique hotel is and did not understand the idea of a hotel in Tel Aviv that is not on the beachfront, but in an area that was not considered a good one then,” Avigad remembers.

They finally cobbled together a group of investors and enough bank loans and set their sights on a building near the corner of King George and Allenby streets.

“Every native of Tel Aviv above a certain age knows that building,” Perry says. “It was the grand Polishuk Building with the round façade. It was built in the 1930s and famous for the Pil [Elephant] children’s shoe shop on the ground floor. If you were a child growing up in Tel Aviv all the way up to the 1960s, you are bound to remember the store that gave every child a balloon after purchasing a pair of shoes.”

The idea turned out to be rather complicated to implement and so after some time, it was decided to sell the building. However, after many years of licensing and construction, the building is slated to open in a few months as a hotel designed by Karim Rashid. Avigad and Perry returned to the initiative as their company, Leopard Hospitality, will serve as the management company that will operate the new hotel.

Meanwhile, about five years ago, the couple set its sights on another location, a building that had previously housed Bank Leumi’s investment department and had stood empty for a long time. It was an unattractive building with a white marble façade. The two changed it completely to make it contemporary and unique, they say.

The Brown TLV opened its doors with 30 guest rooms in October 2010.

“The hotel became popular very quickly, attracting the exact type of sophisticated, in-the-know clientele we were aiming for. It received extensive coverage in the international media, including in Wallpaper, Time magazine, and the New York Times, and that helped spread the word,” Perry says.

One of their advantages, Perry explains, is that, “we ourselves are Tel Aviv residents. We know what is going on in the city and where to send people – to the right places at the right time. That is what we do here. The Brown TLV is the hotel of the scene. This is where DJs, trendsetters, and up-and-coming actors stay when they visit Tel Aviv. This is the place to be. And the word is spread by word of mouth, or to be more exact by Twitter, Facebook, and all the websites where you learn about the best secret parties, cityscapes, and fun trends.”

Tel Aviv has a very special vibe and the two try to connect their guests to that vibe. So the first floor of the hotel has one of the city’s trendiest bars. In addition, every Tuesday, the hotel hosts the opening of an art exhibition that attracts tourists and Tel Aviv residents alike. The hotel is a kind of urban hub where things connected to nightlife and art happen.

“We are not only about accommodation,” Avigad says. “We create visitors’ experiences, we connect people, create new friends. We have a small rooftop Jacuzzi that is always full even in the small hours of the night.”

The Brown TLV is not necessarily for young party hoppers.

“We hosted some guests from Finland in their 70s who wandered around Tel Aviv trying to understand what this city is all about and enjoyed every minute of their journey of discovery,” Avigad says.

The Brown TLV is not just a city hotel, it is a hotel for a location inside Tel Aviv: the neighborhood extending from Nahalat Benjamin Street to Rothschild Boulevard.

“When you travel to an unknown place, something new and wild, you want to make sure that you have all the basic amenities. But in places that are known, a modern urban cityscape, you want authenticity and coolness and to be able to connect to the place,” Avigad says. “Today’s travelers are savvy, they have been around, many times, and they want to get to the scene that makes a place tick.”

“I was a concierge at the King David Hotel,” Avigad says. “Here every member of our staff is also a concierge. We train them to do this and we hire people who are connected to Tel Aviv and who search for what they like and want to show off Tel Aviv.

“We have a neighborhood approach, so for breakfasts, our guests can choose to dine at one of a handful of cafes in the neighborhood. The idea is to immerse guests in the city, so we also cooperate with the gym next door, offer free bikes, and also have free entrance passes to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for guests. Also people from the city come to our events and our spa mainly treats people from the city, not guests.”

The basic idea guiding Avigad and Perry is to create a number of boutique hotels in the cities of Israel.

The Brown, true to the changing hotel scene, gets its reservations from the internet.

At a hotel, usually 15% of guests make reservations via the hotel’s website, another 15% via phone, and the rest come from travel agents and corporate. At the Brown in contrast, 70% of reservations are made directly through its website or by phone. About a quarter of the Brown’s guests hail from the US. Many guests also come from German-speaking countries. Most are traveling on their own, though they sometimes host small groups.

The number of private rooms available for short-term rent in Tel Aviv has grown extensively in the last few years, largely in response to the rise of Airbnb. Some figures place their number in Tel Aviv as high as 7,000 rooms, which is also the number of hotel rooms in Tel Aviv.

“A room or apartment is not a hotel. It does not take care of you, it does not cater to your needs,” Avigad says. “The Dan Hotel’s mode of operation is, ‘We will take care of you – above and beyond your expectations.’ It was ingrained into all the chain’s 3,000 and more employees. Our approach is the same: we will not only take care of you, but also show you our city and introduce you to other people, guests at the hotel and residents of the city. You can not get this at an apartment, as fancy as it may be.

“Here we escort our guests to their rooms, show them all there is to know about the hotel and the city. Everything is on a first-name basis and everything is personal. And for the savvy individual traveler, this seems to be what they are looking for. About 30% of our guests are repeaters, so we must be doing something right.”

The Norman

Norman Lourie, the founder of the Habonim Zionist youth movement in South Africa, first arrived in the Land of Israel in 1944 while serving as a military reporter attached to the South Africa Engineering Corps. The corps was employed in building the railway tunnels under the cliff of Rosh Hanikra, to complete the rail connection between Cairo and Istanbul.

While he was on assignment, the train Lourie was riding stopped at a sleepy little station at the Jewish settlement of Shavei Zion, on the beach south of Nahariyya. Jewish families from Germany had founded this small farming community in 1938. At the end of the row of small houses along the beach was a large 10-acre plot with a 12-room hotel. The hotel even boasted “running water in each room.”

Following his stint of duty in Palestine, Lourie, who was also a film producer, established Palestine Films and produced two full-length feature films on Jewish aspirations in Palestine and at least one promotional film for the Jewish National Fund, which was shown in all the Jewish schools in the United States in the 1940s.

In 1950, Lourie was back in Israel and purchased the small hotel with the 10-acre plot in Shavei Zion that had captivated him a few years earlier. He built the first luxury hotel in Israel on the plot and named it the Dolphin House. The schedule at the Dolphin House revolved around swimming and horseback riding during the day, and dancing and music around the swimming pool in the evenings.

As Amos Freulich, the veterinarian from Shavei Zion, who was a child when the hotel was built, told the media long ago, “There wasn’t a president, king, movie star, or famous businessman that didn’t stay at the Dolphin House.”

Israel’s first three presidents, Chaim Weizmann, Izhak Ben-Zvi, and Zalman Shazar, all stayed at the Dolphin, as did film stars such as Danny Kaye and Kirk Douglas. It was during a stay at the hotel that Douglas discovered a young native of Shavei Zion, Daliah Lavi, and started her on an international film career. Paul Newman and the cast of Exodus stayed here, as did Sophia Loren, while filming Judith.

Lourie ran the Dolphin House for 15 years, while becoming an advocate for tourism to Israel from around the world. In 1965, it was sold to hotelier Haim Schiff, who marketed the hotel via holiday packages for organized groups, diminishing its exclusive appeal. In 1970, when the Histadrut’s health fund acquired the hotel at Shavei Zion and turned it into a convalescent home, the place lost all its appeal. In the 1980s, the Dolphin became an absorption center for new immigrants, and later it was closed down.

Back in 1960, while the movie Exodus was being filmed at it, the Dolphin House came to the attention of Ivor Wolf, who portrayed a British soldier in the movie. Originally from South Africa, Wolf later settled in Israel and aspired to restore the site’s glory. He put together a group of investors to try to purchase and renovate it. While he has not yet succeeded to achieve his dream, Wolf has managed to build a series of bungalows called the Dolphin Village on a small part of the 10-acre plot that Lourie purchased long ago. The hulk of the old Dolphin House still stands, abandoned, next to the sea.

Meanwhile, in 2007, Lourie’s son, who lives in the UK, bought a beautiful 1920s house in the heart of Tel Aviv at 23 Nachmani Street by King Albert Square. A few months later, the building alongside it, another palatial structure from the 1920s, also was put up for sale and so he bought the second property as well. Perhaps influenced by his father’s experience with the Dolphin House, he decided to transform the Nachmani properties into a boutique hotel. Both buildings, like all the 1920s buildings surrounding King Albert Square, had been slated as historic buildings, meaning they required preservation.

Even though the two buildings are completely different in style, according to municipal records, they were designed by the same person: Moshe Czerner, one of the foremost architects active in Tel Aviv in the 1920s. Nitza Szmuk, the architect who headed the Tel Aviv municipality’s conservation team and was the leading force in getting Tel Aviv’s architectural treasures recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, was intrigued by the anomaly of two adjacent buildings built in the same year (1925) by the same architect in two completely different styles.

The first building, 23 Nachmani Street, right on King Albert Square, was called Beit Shifran. In style it belonged to the Tel Aviv “dream houses” built in the 1920s by the influx of middle-class families from Eastern Europe. Tel Aviv of the 1920s was a boom town, with the city quadrupling in size and population in four years. The Jewish immigrants that flocked to Tel Aviv wanted to fuse west with east and Jewish with Islamic in the architectural elements of their homes, Szmuk explains in her book, Dwelling on the Dunes. This new style that they created was called Eclectic and thrived briefly until the International Style took hold. Today only about 500 Eclectic buildings survive.

As Szmuk has written, “These houses were the fulfillment of the dreams of the middle-class families who settled in the new city of Tel Aviv.”

Czerner was one of the more prominent architects who created Eclectic buildings in Tel Aviv and Beit Shifran had been preserved almost intact thanks to its classic façade and the quaint King Albert Square in front of it. It served as a backdrop for many movies and television series.

It took Szmuk a long time to solve the riddle of the adjacent house at 25 Nachmani Street. The building was a harbinger of the modern movement, in which form follows function, in Tel Aviv. This new style was all the rage in 1920s Europe. These buildings did not boast any outer decorations or elaborate classical styling; instead, every feature of the building fulfilled a necessary function. For Tel Aviv, the main focus of the functional design was building houses that were adapted to the weather. Slanted cornices over the top and the side of the tall narrow windows of 25 Nachmani shaded the rooms inside from the bright sun and facilitated the circulation of air in the rooms that cooled them in summer. The strange new shape of these windows, long slanted lines leading to the ground, were a novelty in Tel Aviv and the house was quickly nicknamed “the falling house.”

Even though Czerner was the architect who signed the plans, Szmuk simply could not believe that he designed both of these houses. After a few years of research and chasing rumors, she finally found a family at Kibbutz Ma’ayan Harod that revealed the story of the second building and discovered a long-lost architect in the process.

A Jewish German architect named Leo Adler designed the building at 25 Nachmani Street for the parents of his wife, Sophia Romanov and named it the Romanov House. His in-laws were wealthy Eastern European wheat merchants. They had immigrated to the Land of Israel in order to spend their golden years in sunny Tel Aviv. The Romanovs moved into the house in 1925, upon its completion, while their daughter and Adler were living in Berlin.

“Adler belonged to the modern movement in architecture,” Szmuk said in an interview with the Israeli magazine Calcalist. “In 1925, the modern movement was at its height in Europe in general and in Berlin in particular and so the use of elements from classical architecture was considered passé. Adler, who was an architectural theoretician and had a PhD in architecture, which was rare at that time, planned a functional apartment building, designing it to suit the requirements of the local climate.”

In 1933, eight years after the house in Tel Aviv was completed, the Nazis arrested Adler because of his cultural activities, she continued. Family connections got him released after only one night in prison, but Adler took this as a warning as to what was in store in Nazi Germany and immigrated to Palestine. He and his wife moved in with her parents in the house that he had designed. Money was scarce in Tel Aviv following the 1929 economic crash and Adler found it hard to make a living. His mother-in-law died in 1933 and his father-in-law passed away in 1940, two months after being wounded when a bomb from the Italian airforce attack on Tel Aviv landed on the house. The damage from the bombing made it necessary to board up the cellar, which was only opened up again during the current renovations of the building.

Adler wrote an architectural encyclopedia and published a few articles, but did not manage to fit into his new country. In 1953, Adler and his wife had to sell the building and left Tel Aviv for Kibbutz Ma’ayan Harod, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Their granddaughter still lives at the kibbutz.

Not many Eclectic buildings survive in Tel Aviv, Szmuk explained, because the city architect wanted everything converted to Bauhaus. So Tel Aviv sports 4,000 Bauhaus buildings and only 500 Eclectic structures. The houses surrounding King Albert Square are the heart of Eclectic architecture in Tel Aviv, reminders of a very special period in the life of the city.

It took eight years to renovate the two buildings on Nachmani Street and turn them into a hotel. Leading designers from Israel and around the world played a role in the painstaking conservation, renovation, and interior design. The result is a 6,000-square-meter, 1920s-style luxury hotel named after Norman Lourie that opened last summer in the midst of Operation Defensive Edge. It has 50 guest rooms and suites, a library bar, a brasserie, a rooftop Japanese restaurant, and a wellness center with a treatment room, gym, and swimming pool – also on the roof. The guest rooms and suites are king size, ranging from 22 to 90 square meters. The hotel also has a duplex penthouse that is 250 square meters.

“The Norman is a full service luxury hotel that provides a luxury product, from the linen to the cups – the best of the best with good taste,” General Manager Yaron Liberman declares. “We worked to create a very residential homey, boutique feeling. Every room is different and the service is personal.”

The hotel is very focused on service, Liberman emphasizes, saying, “If we charge $500 a night, we have to deliver on service. We really cater to the guests. We do not have a standard basket that we place in the guest rooms to welcome them upon arrival. We ask what guests want – so we brought knafeh [Middle Eastern cheese pastry] for someone and black label Johnny Walker for someone else. I write a personal welcome note to each guest.”

He and the staff also make an effort to help guests plan how to spend their time in Israel.

“Today guests don’t want to visit the Western Wall and Masada. They want to go on a hot-air balloon ride above Tel Aviv and then fly to the Golan in a private plane to have lunch at a winery,” he says. “Today the tourist is searching for something different and we want to give this to him. We suggest things to people. For example, if a guest is interested in art, our art curator, Tamar Dresdner, can take him on a personal gallery tour to meet selected artists.”

“Proximity to the beach used to be vital for hotels in Tel Aviv,” he adds. “That is no longer true today – except among French and Russia tourists. Hotels now are located in the center of the city because people want to be in Tel Aviv. It is also our fault because we neglected the beach.”

The statistics indicate that the Norman’s approach is working.

“We have 30% repeaters and the hotel is full for months ahead,” Sales and Marketing Manager Yael Steinman says.

“We are fully booked. We are overbooked to a certain degree. Occupancy is over 90%,” Liberman adds. “Returning guests tend to contact us directly and return frequently.”

About 45% of guests book directly with the hotel, whether via phone, email, or the Norman website, they say. Some 35% of guests book through agencies, including the 15% that come from reservation websites, which really are agencies in all respects. Guests hail from the US, Britain, and Israel, among other places. The Norman, which is a child-friendly hotel, hosts small groups, mainly extended families, that book 10 guest rooms at the most. Business guests usually stay at the Norman for three or four days, while tourists stay come for seven to 10 days.

“We’re doing well because the economy is booming right now. The repeat guests are businesspeople, presidents and CEOs of large firms who travel frequently,” Liberman says.

The Norman represents a new kind of boutique hotel – the upper end of the market.

“A hotel of this class was missing in Israel,” Steinman says.

While the guests at boutique hotels tend to take an interest in fine food, few of them request kosher cuisine or are deterred by lack of kashrut certification. The inability to enjoy freshly prepared hot drinks and food on Saturday is a greater deterrent.

“The Norman does not flaunt not being kosher and we do not serve pork – but we are definitely are not kosher,” Steinman says.

This actually is far from a new trend. Norman Lourie himself addressed this issue in 1955 in a letter to Commentary magazine after an article made an issue of the fact that the Dolphin House was not kosher.

“As Chairman of the Tourist Committee of the Israel Hotel Association,” Norman Lourie wrote, “may I mention that of the ten luxury class hotels in Israel, six are kosher and four are not. Statistics show that not more than five per cent of visiting tourists (to say nothing of the Israelis) make a specific issue of kashrut. Nevertheless, no bacon or ham would be served, or anything done to upset the traditional feeling of our guests. On several occasion, special arrangements are made for kosher facilities for groups and individuals, as when the president of Israel, Mr. Ben Zvi, spend his summer vacation at the Dolphin in 1953.

“The Israel hotel industry is in a position to cater to all sections of the Jewish community, according to taste and the best traditions of our people,” Norman Lourie concludes.

The hotel that carries his name is a true successor of the luxury and uniqueness that was the Dolphin House – the first and foremost luxury hotel in Israel.

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