Sydell Group founder Andrew Zobler is moving on from his popular brand of affordable design hotels to make room for some exciting new projects.
In a surprising move for the travel industry, New York–based Sydell Group recently sold its four Freehand hotels to Generator, one of Europe’s fastest-growing hospitality brands. Given the success of Freehand Hotels, the sale came from left field for many, but Sydell founder Andrew Zobler maintains it’s all part of a greater plan.
Known for its design-driven but affordable properties, Generator is a likely owner for Freehand Hotels, which are also popular for their style and price point, along with their award-winning Broken Shaker cocktail bars. As such, Generator isn’t going to make any immediate changes to the Freehand properties, instead operating the Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York hotels in parallel with its existing portfolio, which includes the new Generator Miami and the Generator Washington, D.C., set to open in 2020.
As for Zobler, he’s already on to the next thing, which could mean any manner of innovative ideas given his impressive track record. An AFAR 2018 Travel Vanguard winner, he founded Sydell Group more than a decade ago with the goal to create hotels that embrace the history of their buildings and neighborhoods and become destinations where both travelers and locals want to spend time. In addition to Freehand Hotels, he’s since launched the NoMad, Line, and Saguaro brands, plus the Ned, London and the Park MGM, Las Vegas.
Along with capturing the hotel zeitgeist, Zobler has displayed a knack for picking strong partners, whether it’s chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara at the NoMad or mixologists Gabe Orta and Elad Zvi at the Freehand. Needless to say, Sydell Group fans are eager to know his next move.
“Our core focus right now is existing brands,” he says. “In some ways, we’re lucky to have all these nascent brands, but we’re a small company that’s been pulled in a lot of directions, so it’ll be a good thing to be able to focus more on just a couple of things.” Of course to Zobler, that means much more than simply maintaining his current portfolio.
Firstly, he’s focused on growing the Line brand with new properties underway in San Francisco and Atlanta, both of which will open in 2021. At the intersection of Market Street and the Tenderloin neighborhood, the San Francisco hotel will have two entrances to highlight both areas of the city. “We’re thinking about the project as a way into the two neighborhoods, so mixing that urban, gritty feel with some sort of modern, luxury element,” he says. He’s also promising a “great roof” and a large restaurant space on Market Street.
In Atlanta, he’s working with architect Michael Hsu, who designed the Line Austin, on a new build that will be solidly rooted in the South. “It’ll be aesthetically different from the hotels in D.C. and L.A., since the Line is more a concept than a true brand,” he says. “There’s no given aesthetic; it’s more a set of principles or ideals that we try to bring out.”
Over in London, he’s also opening a new NoMad in the 150-year-old Bow Street Magistrates Court, right across from the Royal Opera. “This is probably going to be the real jewel of the NoMads to date,” he says. For this outpost, which will open in September 2020, he’s bringing in design firm Roman and Williams, who worked on the Freehand Hotels, to create a more eclectic style, which he describes as “a little bit of New York meets London, a little bit of 1920 meets 2020.” Common spaces will be designed around a single color, much like his grandmother Sydell (the inspiration behind his company) used to organize her antique shop. He’s also returning to chef Humm to run a restaurant in the building’s three-story atrium space.
Additionally, Zobler wants to expand the Park MGM brand to nongaming markets. He sees a real opportunity to bring what he’s accomplished with his boutique brands to the big-box hotel space, offering business travelers more inspired design, food, and even entertainment. Currently, he’s looking into a major project with MGM in London.
Beyond his existing brands, he’s working on a new concept that he’s calling the Penny. Similar to the Ned in London, it will be part hotel, part members’ club, but with more extensive health and wellness offerings, coworking space, and a futuristic design. “If you look around the landscape, a lot of people are hovering around this area, but they’re not doing it all in one place,” he says. He’s hoping to open locations in old urban buildings, much as he’s done with his other brands, but says the Penny will be a new direction for Sydell Group. While the plan is to launch in major markets, he’s also looking in places like Toronto and Edinburgh, which he feels are currently underserved by design-driven hotels.
When asked about his process for building a new brand like the Penny, he insists there’s no magic recipe. “Not having a formula is almost the formula. It makes us good at what we do,” he says. “Some people look at the world as a box and run around looking for things to fit in that box. Instead, we run around the world and try and find a box that appeals to us, whether that’s the location, the architecture, the history.”
However, he does point out similarities across his hotels, such as the residential feel and top-notch food and beverage offerings. He also mentions how important it is to create a space for locals as well as travelers, which in turn fosters a sense of place. “Travelers are busy, but at least for a moment, we want . . . to give them a sense of discovery, of having gone somewhere and not just stayed in a place that could be down the street from them at home.”
To continue doing that, Zobler says he’ll be reflecting on what he’s good at and trying to bring those ideas to less saturated spaces, meaning larger hotels in places you might not expect to find Sydell Group. “We like creating things,” he says. “We don’t like just doing the same things over and over again. We like being on the frontier.”