INTERVIEW: ERIC JAFARI, CHIEF DEVELOPMENT OFFICER, EDYN
Is the aparthotel (a concept that marries the luxury and convenience of a hotel whilst offering the comfort and feeling of belonging that an Airbnb might deliver) the way forward for hospitality? Eric Jafari, Chief Development Officer at edyn and Co-Founder of the Locke brand, certainly seems to think so. Here he tells Sophie Harper more about the emerging trend for a different kind of travel experience and why design needs to follow suit.
Leading the development and creative direction for the brands under the edyn roof, Eric Jafari looks after the team responsible for acquisitions, asset management, investment, planning, construction and design. Originally from Los Angeles Eric now resides in London,
and tells me of his extensive travels, which have evidently formed his opinion of what a good travel experience should consist of. “Thinking back to when we’d travel when I was a child, my parents would take me to Paris and we’d stay two, maybe three days in the city being dragged around to take photos of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Once we’d seen the landmarks, we were rushed off to the next place, and the next – it was very much a box-ticking exercise and the hotels we stayed in were big branded hotels because you wanted reassurance – you wanted to know the bed was good and the food was edible.”
The travel experience has changed somewhat since Eric’s childhood trips and he tells me about the research that shows the shift in trends. “Savills did this study for us a few years back and what was fascinating about it was that the average length of stay of the leisure traveller in London a decade ago was two days. Fast-forward ten years and pre-Covid the average length of stay for a traveller coming to London was five days. We assume what was partly driving that was Airbnb – the idea that you can go to a city and live there. When we opened Leman Locke, which was our first Locke so we didn’t know what was going to happen, the average length of stay was ten days, which really took us by surprise. I think the sort of person who’s staying for ten days might spend a day or two going to Big Ben and Piccadilly Circus, but is actually someone that really wants to immerse themself in the subculture. They want to find those pockets of experiences that really reflect the locality that you just can’t experience elsewhere.”
The Locke brand, along with SACO and a couple of independent properties are collectively housed by edyn, formed by Lesley and David Freed 20 years ago. “The original company was very different to the one we have today,” says Eric. In 2015 SACO was acquired by Oak Tree Capital, who brought Eric and his three partners in to reposition the brand. “We were focussed on moving what was more of a B2B serviced apartment platform into something that was more accessible to the consumer, and it was during that time that we ended up launching Locke – but it was more by accident than some kind of grand plan!”
In 2018 the company was sold to Brookfield and given a new name in 2019. “The biggest reason for the name change was that there was kind of a seismic shift in the company’s values and in what we wanted to accomplish in what we wanted the company to mean. There’s this assumption that if you ‘scale’ that at some point you have to sell your soul; at some point you have to homogenise the experience and that it becomes more about the numbers and less about the people, and really one of the reasons for the rebrand to edyn, and all of its associations with the Garden of Eden, is to prove otherwise. The company today is very different to the one it was even two years ago. But really the whole company is rooted in soulful hospitality.”
The Locke name is based on the premise of John Locke being a philosopher who was before his time ushering in Scottish enlightenment and the French Revolution, which relates to the aparthotel as an idea of merging what people love most about the lifestyle hotel experience with the elements and comfort of autonomy that people love most about Airbnb – a concept that didn’t really exist when Locke was launched.
With a lean budget, the team wanted to think of a way to deliver a usable and original brand without compromising on the design. “What most people do when they’re going to launch a project or a hotel in London is hire a big name and say ‘I want a Soho House’ or ‘I want my property to look like Annabel’s’. What we did was something a little bit different and what we continue to do.” Eric explains how they’ll typically choose a design studio that doesn’t hail from the same city as the hotel. “I always give people the story of the artists that used to go to Province over 150 years ago and would have their work evaluated on how close to a photo it was. It was predominantly French artists going down there competing with one another, but then this 22-year-old Dutch painter, who was a nobody at the time, arrived on the scene and instead of capturing what it looked like, he captured what connected with him, what resonated with him – that was Van Gogh.” Pausing for effect, he goes on to explain that that’s why they not only look for design studios not from the same area as the hotel but often use designers that haven’t done a lot of hotel development projects. “It took a foreigner to go to Province to really illustrate what people there had forgotten was special about it, so we ask our designers to walk through the streets and interpret the locale through their own eyes.”
Since its inception the brand has become known for its cleverly designed spaces that make the most of every square inch with light and colour used thoughtfully to create beautiful living areas interspersed with homely but stylish touches. Eric tells me how their choice of design studio is often an organic discovery; that sometimes it will be a case of stumbling across an incredible restaurant or bar and finding out more about the designers. “We might walk into a restaurant and go ‘wow, this is amazing’, and we’ll find out who the designer is and see what else they’ve done, then we might reach out to them and educate them on our model. Typically we’ll work on a smaller project with them first, give them a chance, and then work our way up.”
Eric tells me about how they ‘happened’ across some of the designers they’ve collaborated with so far. “In Red Deer’s case we had them work on a restaurant in Manchester and built the relationship, then gave them Dalston as a whole. With Holloway Li we paired them up on Bermondsey with Wanderlust in the US, after that we gave them Munich and Canary Wharf and that all stemmed from me walking into a couple of their past projects which I thought were beautiful. It was the same with Fettle, they designed something in California that I fell in love with and I hadn’t realised they were actually based over here. Studio Tack was because I walked into Casa Bonay and fell in love with it and then reached out to them, similarly with LRV I walked into Bocagrande in Barcelona and Nosh and Chow in Stockholm, not realising the two were linked, fell in love with both and reached out to them. AvroKo was because of Mortimer House and Arlo, so it’s really just walking into these physical spaces. This is what I tell designers who reach out to us and send us these big portfolios on the hotels they’ve done – I tell them to go and work on an F&B experience on a small budget and if they can deliver something that has soul then we’ll sit and talk. I want to sit in the space, I want to see what they’ve done with the lighting, what artwork they’ve chosen, I want to see whether they’ve worked with the fabric of the building.”
There’s a lot of talk about understanding their consumer, and how important it is for the designers edyn works with to be able to relate to each brand’s ‘tribe’. “We want to know where they spend their time, where they travel – are they the Burning Man crowd or are they the Saint Tropez crowd – their personal affinity in the end will manifest through the design proposals they provide and if they’re not well travelled or they’re well-travelled but in the wrong places they’re never going to be able to connect with our demographic.” He adds, “What our consumers love about Soho House, The Hoxton, and Ace is the design and social emersion. Room size, especially since Covid, is going to usher in a new era because we’ve become a lot more sensitive to being confined to smaller spaces than we ever have been in the past. If you’re staying for ten days you’ve got two issues, one is that room sizes can tend to feel a bit cramped and it gets kind of expensive. If you want to stay at Soho House at say £250/£350 per night for a couple of nights that’s one thing, but when you’re booking a ten-night or two-week stay, that becomes a big financial decision, so cost is king when it comes to tapping into the consumer that’s travelling for five days or longer. That’s one of the reasons for us having our own budgets when it comes to design – these need to be beautiful spaces but they need to be spaces people can afford.”
When looking for new hotel sites, Eric admits location choice is easier said than done. “A typical hotel will try to be as essential as possible but if you’re staying for two weeks you want a locality in a neighbourhood that has soul. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the centre of town – it needs to be convenient to get to places, but what’s more important is that when you walk out the door you feel like you’ve discovered a part of London, a part of Paris, a part of Dublin that a typical traveller just wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience.”
He tells me that often the locations they choose for a new hotel aren’t established tourist areas. “A lot of the places we go to don’t have that many hotels, which is quite risky because when you buy the land it takes three years to build it, so when we went into Dalston three years ago it wasn’t the same Dalston as it is today – you have to have the foresight to recognise that that’s where the locals are going. Rent is cheaper, which lends itself to a more diverse food and beverage scene, the creatives start moving there, so you have to try and track where things are going as opposed to where things are. In Dublin we went into Ormond Quay, which back in the sixties was the roughest part of Dublin. The building we acquired used to be the home of Zanzibar – the most popular nightclub in Ireland for two decades running and then the area got rough and now it’s going through its own re-emergence. In Berlin, East Side Gallery is one of the only hotels that’s built into the wall so you’ve got a lot of significance there, so it’s areas that would attract leisure travellers but that are also within close proximity to corporates – there’s got to be a narrative and there’s got to be a cultural richness to that micro-locality but you could get it wrong or just be way too early and people might think ‘this is a shithole, why did you come here’,” he laughs, “but we’re betting on the fact that these areas are on the way up and will change over the course of the next few years.”