As head of Design Hotels AG, Claus Sendlinger shaped the hotels we like to stay in when we are abroad. After 25 years as CEO, he is now switching to a consulting role – we met him on Ibiza.
A cool breeze wafts in off the Mediterranean, caresses the hills and sets the shade-giving pines by the 200-year-old farmhouse swaying. A man with a bushy beard, sporting straw hat and poncho, strides across the open space. His eyes betray a strict but kind nature as he directs the Spanish workers busy bringing the building and garden up to scratch. The La Granja is putting on the style for the coming season – although “style” is the wrong word. The 11-room hotel in the north of the party island of Ibiza is, of course, an amazing place to stay, with its L-shaped pool, heavenly views, and rooms done out in the simple luxury of the Japanese wabi-sabi style. But the place aspires to greater things: to serve the creatives of the modern working world as an ark; to bring calm to hectic lives in which stock-market worlds collapse and shit storms rage.
This refuge was created by the man with the beard, Claus Sendlinger, 55, founder and CEO of Design Hotels AG. An excavator rumbles over the ground, shoveling away the gravel with its hefty bucket. “It’s far too gray, makes it look like a parking lot!” barks Sendlinger. The man is a perfectionist, austere simplicity is what gladdens his heart. As head of the global consulting and marketing platform, he has seen countless hotel dreams blossom and fade in the past 25 years. His exclusive club started out with ten members, and by the end of 2018, it had 330 hostelries vying for guests under the Design Hotels banner. They pay good money for membership, and based on their contribution, they receive marketing and consulting, a corporate design or an interesting story in the company’s internal media. Quite clearly, this is a win-win situation.
When this story is published, Sendlinger will no longer be in office, having relinquished his boss’s chair to a long-serving manager from the Marriott Group. The U.S. hotel group has already been the majority shareholder since 2015. The old boss has now switched to a consulting role, initially for two years, meaning it’s time for a résumé – and a conversation about the important things (in life).
Mr. Sendlinger, on the surface, La Granja looks like an exclusive boutique hotel. What do you see in it?
A mix of members’ club and agritourism, farm-to-table restaurant and feel-good oasis. But most of all, a place that enriches and inspires. Take a look at the terraced beds sloping down from the main building: We have artichokes and cucumbers growing there, lots of different types of radishes, and kale, which recently joined the superfoods. All organic, of course. The chickens are clucking, and the scents of lemon and basil waft across the gardens. Only Coco, our domestic pig, doesn’t smell so good, but that is also an experience for the senses.
You’ve already had many guests from Silicon Valley here, big names who got rich digitalizing the world. What can a converted farmhouse possible offer them?
What we’re talking about here is a group of guests I like to call the “Utopian elite.” They are the drivers of the digital revolution, the children of Californian hippy capitalism, people who, if they spare a thought for money at all, then only as philanthropists. They have radically changed our work environment and in the process became nomads themselves: Because a laptop and a stable WiFi connection is all it takes, surroundings have become a more important factor. These people are more interested in experiences than possessions, in a sense of community than going it alone, and in a certain spirit that manifests itself in places like the Burning Man Festival, in Berlin clubs and on the beach in the small Mexican town of Tulum.
Can you explain what you mean by spirit?
You find it in places that radiate spirituality. I am a great believer in geomancy, that’s the art of recognizing and sensing good places. Take Ibiza, for instance. Before it became the symbol of party tourism, it attracted dropouts and free spirits, people searching for meaning encountered healers and shamans. Then came the techno disciples and together they celebrated rituals and worshipped nature. These days, there’s a great longing for this kind of thing because being online nonstop leaves many people with a sense of emptiness. With projects like the La Granja, we try to fill the void. What we are aiming for here is a holistic concept of hospitality, where body and soul come together again.
At the La Granja, guests can also book a perfectly ordinary massage, but we take wellness a lot further. On a sand-colored stand hewn from local natural stone, we pay homage to the setting sun. We hold slow food workshops at the chef’s table in front of the open kitchen. A meditation room reverberates with sounds emanating from singing bowls. And the predominant color in the spacious rooms is an ash gray reminiscent of a monk’s cell. Stylish asceticism for upwards of 350 euros a night – always fully booked. And that is precisely why it would also be wrong to take Sendlinger for an unworldly esoteric. He is first and foremost a businessman, constantly on the lookout for the next big thing – and so far, his instincts have served him well.
You founded Design Hotels AG 25 years ago with the idea of marketing small, superior hotels with a good story. Where did you spot the gap in the market?
It was a terrible time for hotel guests back then. The U.S. chains were expanding, so that every city in Germany ended up with its American “embassy”: poor design, a squishy club sandwich, and faceless rooms like so many identical shoeboxes. My partners and I were organizing training camps for professional soccer teams at the time. We also held raves in the Augsburg area featuring top DJs from Frankfurt, Detroit and London. These people hated their hotels. That’s where we spotted an opportunity.
But DJs are a very small demographic…
…but an immensely important one! Techno was making the long journey from underground to mainstream back then. The heads of that movement, people like my good friend Sven Väth, all came from the same set from which all the important trends still emerge to this day. The U.S. sociologist Richard Florida dubbed them the “creative class”: musicians, media makers, and artists. There’s a strong sense of community within that group, and we put it to good use in the first design hotels: We revitalized the lobbies, played good music and developed bar and restaurant concepts that resonated with the neighborhood so that the hotel became a social venue. There was nothing new about the idea: Think of the Waldorf Astoria in New York and the Adlon in Berlin back in the Roaring Twenties. Hotels were once the center of social life.
So far, we have talked about people and their needs, not about facilities and furnishings. Why did you call your company “Design Hotels”?
For one thing, our target group had a keen aesthetic awareness, and for another, we had role models like the Paramount Hotel in New York, for instance, which was reopened in 1990 by Ian Schrager, who once ran the Studio 54. The French designer Philippe Starck was responsible for the entire interior design – a sensation. People would pay any price for a room! The third reason was more prosaic: We lacked the money to promote an invented name. The term “design hotel” was already out there, but no one was called that. We recognized that and shamelessly capitalized on it. From then on, every journalist writing about a well-designed hotel was doing free PR for us.
Today, there are hundreds of hotels from Göttingen to Bali under the brand umbrella,. The majority shareholder is the Marriot Group, a giant in the industry and naturally fixated on turning a profit. How can it still be possible for all of these hotels to share a common identity?
We receive membership applications from around 400 hotels each year. Only five percent are accepted. The human factor plays a very important role for us at every stage in the selection process. What’s behind the concept? Who will be the face of the hotel? Does that person fit into our truly very large family? Our slogan is: “Made by Originals” – because every house party is only as good as its host.
What other criteria are there?
Design is still relevant but nowhere near to the extent that it used to be. You’ll find every Motel One has an Arne Jacobsen chair in its lobby today. So what? We go for a mix of art, architecture and the desire to follow our own path. How does the hotel restaurant aim to influence the city’s gastro scene? What kind of relationship will we have with the neighbors? Are we landing a UFO on a district or will it be an exciting place that enriches local life? These are some of the questions we have to ask the applicants. After all, it’s our credibility that’s at stake.
Sendlinger has invited us to dinner at his home. Reporter and photographer climb with him into an old Land Rover Defender. On the short drive, he talks about his most recent trip, to the Kingdom of Bhutan. The country made a deep impression on him. Can he actually switch off on a trip like that? “I had my cell phone in flight mode for two weeks,” Sendlinger claims. That’s hard to believe of a CEO, but leadership really does seem to work through trust with him. He has every faith that the 100-strong team staffing his Berlin headquarters has everything under control.
A little later, José Catrimán, the Argentine head chef of the La Granja, is cooking up a storm at the stove in Sendlinger’s old finca. He serves up fennel soup with almond milk and edible flowers followed by hummus-filled celery ravioli, lemon chicken and papaya cheesecake. Sendlinger’s Spanish girlfriend, Lorena, a nutritionist, fills our glasses with organic wine. Alec and Neo, Sendlinger’s two sons from his now-divorced Russian wife, are flitting around. Lorena and the cook speak Spanish with each other, the sons speak English with their father, and he responds to interview questions in German.
The concept of “Heimat,” which has no exact equivalent in English but denotes a sense of belonging, or home, is celebrating a comeback in Germany right now. There’s even a federal “homeland ministry” devoted to it. What do you, a notorious cosmopolitan, associate with the word?
The feeling I get when I step onto a Lufthansa airplane after an exhausting day in Delhi.
Absolutely. After all the noise, all of the intense smells and impressions, that’s when I feel I’m coming home.
Thank you, the Lufthansa crews will be pleased to hear that.
Otherwise, Augsburg will always be my home. I have the great good fortune that my parents are still alive. I try to visit them as often as I can with my kids. I want my sons to get to know it all: typical regional specialties, like Spätzle mit Soß’(a kind of pasta with sauce) and schnitzel with potato salad, the mountains, the language – and of course, FC Bayern, my soccer team.
Does a global life need a local anchor?
Good question. I am a great beneficiary of globalization, which is why I am in favor of the process. But it also needs to be well presented and properly implemented or people soon feel left behind. And I regard a sense of or connection with home as something that should be cultivated and not thrown away. Regional identities aren’t just a matter of emotional value for people. Take UNESCO and its seal of Intangible Cultural Heritage, for example: A seal awarded for a custom, a tradition or a dish also gives its native town or region an advantage on the world tourism map.
There is currently a rising fear of mass tourism in many parts of the world …
Overtourism is a huge problem. Sadly, many regions have not learned from the mistakes of others. History is repeating itself. Many coastal strips in Southeast Asia are simply being built up in the same way as southern European coastlines were when tourism boomed after World War II – a sad development.
What can be done to prevent it?
We have to be more aware and more careful in what we do, live more sustainable, environmentally friendlier lives, learn and share our insights and knowledge. We can make a start in our private lives: I have already planted several trees with my sons, for instance. I want them to grow up with a respect for nature. And I am going to work on SLOW hotel concepts that I hope will have a lighthouse effect on the entire industry. The name is an acronym for “sensitive, local, organic and wise.”
One more question for instinct person Claus Sendlinger: What destination is set to boom in the next few years?
Portugal. The country has the potential to become the California of Europe.