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Most Serviced Apartments Are Unfashionable And Basic. Meet Locke—A Design-Forward ‘Aparthotel’ Providing A Much-Needed Antidote

Most Serviced Apartments Are Unfashionable And Basic. Meet Locke—A Design-Forward ‘Aparthotel’ Providing A Much-Needed Antidote

While the concept of aparthotels isn’t necessarily new—i.e. a serviced apartment with hotel-like amenities that attempts to elevate the experience to something beyond both—what is new is the popularity of aparthotels in the post-pandemic era.

And for good reason.

Offering all the comforts of home in a beautiful, well-designed space, aparthotels come with elevated health and safety measures, as well as a number of increasingly lavish amenities—everything from on-site co-working spaces and yoga studios to personalized concierge services and an array of food and beverage options.

In the UK market, no one has done aparthotels quite like Locke—at least not when it comes to groundbreaking design. The company owns properties in London, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Manchester, Dublin, and Munich, with a larger European expansion on the horizon. At each Locke location, you’ll find all the things you need to live your normal, day-to-day life— fully equipped kitchens, washer-dryers, and living spaces that are actually functional. But it’s the brand’s chic, minimalist aesthetic that ties everything together.

Locke’s approach to design really stresses the small details, from the blinds to the plug sockets to the kitchen utensils. The result is irresistible—there’s a touch of whimsy about everything, fostering a playfulness that makes you want to walk around a room and meticulously touch everything. (Buckle Street Studios in London and Eden Locke in Edinburgh are both standouts when it comes to this.)

Each Locke location also prides itself on connecting to the community around it, from tailoring an event calendar that highlights local businesses, artisans, and creators to featuring the best of local cuisine and bartending on-site, from coffee to cocktails. Some Locke properties take it a step further, offering on-site yoga classes, cooking classes, drag brunch events, and live music performances. Locke also recently launched its Creative in Residence program that highlights the work of local artists, designers, and creators at different Locke locations.

To find out more about Locke and its approach to design, we spoke with Eric Jafari, Creative Director and Chief Development Officer at Locke.

Tell me a little about how the idea for Locke originated, and how the brand has evolved, expanded, and shifted since its launch in 2016.

Interestingly, I don’t have a background in hospitality. The idea for Locke originated from personal frustration—the realization that despite our best efforts, I couldn’t find an operator that could deliver an experience that met my travel needs. Existing operators seemed to be prisoners to a set of brand standards that didn’t seem to be rooted in logic. They may have made sense elsewhere, but many were arbitrary within the setting we were in. I wanted to create something that was experiential and encouraged one to extend their stay.

I’ve held a passion for traveling since adolescence and found that my most transformative moments came from spending an extended amount of time immersed in a foreign culture. I came to the realization that the traditional hotel format wasn’t designed to accommodate an extended stay, nor did it provide me with any insight into the local culture. With respect to the room experience, I found that the lack of living areas in the traditional hotel room meant that you are eating, sleeping, and working from the bed. Many of these hotels claim to be a home from home but for me, one’s home is more than a place to sleep. It is where we sleep, eat, work and socialize as well as the local community that we belong to. In response, we wanted to create a place that made an attempt to accomplish all of the above.

Various studies have illustrated that one’s sleep quality suffers if one is associating their sleeping quarters with anything other than sleep (and a few other activities). For this reason, we designed each of our apartments with the principle of separating the living quarters from the sleeping quarters. The living quarters are designed to enable the ability to live as one would at home: prepare a meal, host others, work, eat and talk at the dining table, etc. The common areas are designed to facilitate meaningful connections between the travelers, our team members, and the local community—and the interpretation of how this is achieved varies on each project.

We opened our first 171-unit Locke (Leman Locke) in Aldgate, East London in 2016. We have opened a further 11 Locke properties across the UK, Ireland, and Germany since, each very different from one another. Over the course of the next few years, we have Locke properties scheduled to open in Zurich, Lisbon, Copenhagen, and Berlin.

The hotel industry was struggling for a long time to respond to the dominance of Airbnb. Was the ‘aparthotel’ concept born out of trying to offer travelers the best of both worlds?

Aparthotels have actually been around for a while. Airbnb however has been exceptional in raising awareness for the sector: the idea that for the price of a hotel room, the consumer is offered the option of staying in an apartment. Whereas aparthotels claim to offer the best of both worlds, very few unfortunately do.

Most focus on delivering consistency, which for many, is a significant leap forward in comparison with the risks of trialing a random home on Airbnb, which may not live up to the imagery. As awareness for aparthotels however has increased over the past few years, so will the consumer need for stratification: different segments targeting different types of consumers (i.e. budget, lifestyle, luxury, etc.)

I think a lot of people have a negative view of the serviced apartment—usually very drab, unfashionable, and basic. (Which, I think, was part of why Airbnb was so successful when it launched.) How does an ‘aparthotel’ stand out from both the old idea of a serviced apartment, while also innovating and bringing something fresh to the concept?

I don’t blame them: most serviced apartments are unfashionable and basic. In all honesty, many aparthotels are as well. It’s as if the product was designed in the 1990s (and not in a good way) and someone forgot to tell the design apartment to update the experience. Candidly, as much as I dislike the term “serviced apartment”, I dislike the word “aparthotel” as well because even this word holds so many negative connotations here in Europe, but we haven’t been able to identify a better word to describe what we do.

Whereas boutique hotels have historically focused on food, drink, and design, lifestyle hotels have differentiated themselves by adding social area activation and cultural programming to the above. What’s most interesting about this is that the average length of stay for the typical lifestyle hotel is two days, whereas the average length of stay at Locke is nine days. A guest that is staying for two days is unlikely to have the time or need to partake in the cultural programming. We have discovered however that the longer the length of stay, the higher the likelihood of the guest partaking in the social and programming—and forging friendships with others. This is likely because the longer the length of stay, the higher the likelihood that guests may experience some degree of loneliness, and there is nothing lonelier than being isolated in a soulless serviced apartment.

The way we do this differs from project to project but typically, we will walk the streets of the neighborhood over an extended period of time and conduct a study of the local community, the F&B experiences on offer, what is missing, and the type of experience that would best resonate with this community. In most cases, we shape the common areas as an opportunity to serve the local community—not the guests. By doing so, we create public areas anchored by the local community providing our traveling guests with a glimpse of local living and an opportunity to immerse themselves within this setting.

Were Locke properties designed for long-term living? Is that something that more and more people are starting to do, given the changing nature of work and travel that’s been brought on by the pandemic?

Locke is designed for optionality. It’s a hybrid hotel: you can stay for a night, a week, or a month —many stay for months at a time. Each Locke unit is furnished with living quarters and a full-fitted kitchen providing our guests with the comfort and autonomy to be self-sufficient when that’s needed. We have studios and one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, making it easier for families as well as business and leisure travelers.

I think that many of us here in Europe are still trying to make sense of what this post-pandemic world looks like, as it relates to the shifting nature of work and travel. As an example, many of the families that moved further out in exchange for space and a larger home are finding themselves commuting to and from London a lot more frequently each week than they had envisioned and consequently many within this demographic have chosen Locke as their London pied-à-terre. A place that feels like home, anchored by community and amenities (gym, co-working, etc.) without the encumbrance of a 12-month lease. And many of the those that don’t have kids are able to travel from one Locke to another (from city to city or from country to country), providing them a place to live and belong regardless of where that may be.

Let’s talk about the design of Locke properties around the world. I absolutely loved the Edinburgh property: such an innovative, light, and beautiful interior, with a wonderful co-working space and cafe below. The attention to detail was really something else. Do you work with local designers for each property according to its location and the history of each city? Or is there a standard “Locke” look you strive for?

The differences between the five Locke properties in London are comparable to the differences between Ace, Hoxton, The Standard, Mama Shelter, and Soho House. There are various threads however that bind them together: we want our spaces to be experiential, design-led, and indigenous. Our typical consumer could be described as a modern urbanite who values wellness, design, community, and the type of coffee they drink. In response, our aparthotels often contain gyms, co-working, experiential local F&B, and third-wave coffee. But most importantly, every room is a design-led apartment with a fully-fitted kitchen.

With respect to Eden Locke (Edinburgh), that property was designed by New York architect Matt Grzywinski. In lieu of going down to the obvious rabbit hole of Scottish kilts and whisky, he chose to take a more nuanced angle of incorporating Edinburgh’s history within the architecture (Georgian-listed building), artwork, books, color palate, and fabric selection of the experience. Matt’s approach to the interiors seamlessly blends the old and the new, combining the original features of the stunning Georgian property, with a dynamic, bold, and creative approach.

Can you give me an example of one or two different design ideas concepts that are unique to the property/location? For example, how does the property in Munich, Germany, say, differ aesthetically from a property in Cambridge, or Edinburgh? What are those little details that really stand out?

With respect to Schwan Locke (Munich), the design by interior architecture firm Fettle, and was inspired by the Deutscher Werkbund, an association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, established in Munich in the early 20th century, combining traditional crafts and industrial mass production. This direction and inspiration was the compass for the color palate, FF&E selection, artwork, lighting, and overall mood. The Werkbund movement was a disruptive movement as it took furniture and furniture design that had traditionally only been afforded by the affluent and democratized it through mass production. I love this narrative because, in my opinion, it is comparable to what the hipster movement has done for society.

With respect to Cambridge, it is an entirely different story. Cambridge has a rich history of academics, innovation, and the aspiration for a Utopian society. The design firm, AvroKo, embarked on the ambitious task of incorporating all of this within the design of the experience. In partnership with Cambridge University, we agreed to call the property Turing Locke, in commemoration of Alan Turing, a man who was well ahead of his time, instrumental in helping the West end WWII, and yet was persecuted for being gay.

Every Locke has layers of narrative. Maybe one day, we will write a book on it.

Can you tell me a bit about Locke events? Do you work in partnerships with local organizations and businesses to make sure each Locke property offers something special to its guests? What are some of your favorite events offered?

Every Locke is anchored by a weekly cultural program spearheaded by the property’s General Manager. The General Manager is empowered to deliver various weekly events touching on wellness, the arts, hedonism, and education—the various facades of our consumer needs. Whilst these events are in partnership with local organizations and are an opportunity to promote these organizations, they are an opportunity for the guests, the locals, and our team members to connect with one another through a shared interest.

To provide a few examples, at Whitworth Locke in Manchester, we have Sunday sessions in The Conservatory Bar where guests can enjoy acoustic and lo-fi performances from local talent based in Manchester. At Eden Locke, we have Yoga at East Side Yoga where we’ve partnered with a local wellness studio giving our guests access to classes throughout the week, and at Turing Locke we’re hosting a calligraphy workshop on June 16 hosted by Twyla, the face behind The Cambridge Quill.

What has some of the feedback been like from Locke guests over the years? What do people really love about Locke properties and was there ever an instance where feedback inspired you to add/remove an element? (This can be either something practical or something design-inspired!)

One of the privileges of every Locke being unique and different is that we are able to experiment with various ideas and gauge consumer reaction. It would be comparable to having 12 different hotel brands and comparing how one performs versus the others. And consequently, we have made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot in the process, and are able to take and incorporate these learnings in future and past projects.

As an example, our first two properties did not initially have co-working spaces. We happened to incorporate co-working in our third property, Whitworth Locke in Manchester, and discovered that both locals and guests loved it. It eventually became an enormous selling point for corporates seeking to book large block bookings. In response, we eventually began incorporating some degree of design-led co-working within most future Locke properties and redesigned Eden Locke (our second property) to incorporate this discovery. Our first property Leman Locke (Aldgate) was so successful that we purchased the property across the street and delivered Buckle Street Studios, a 103-unit addition to Leman Locke and here we incorporated co-working, to accommodate the guests at Leman and Buckle Street.

Despite our rapid growth and the painful challenge of opening various Locke properties in other countries during Covid (that we couldn’t visit), the feedback has fortunately been incredibly positive—and I couldn’t be more grateful. As conveyed above, Locke was an attempt to scratch my own itch. I wasn’t trying to accommodate everyone. In my opinion, when you try to accommodate everyone, you end up accommodating no one. I am willing to compromise on a little space in my room (in comparison to the traditional serviced apartment) in exchange for design and access to an immersive social setting (i.e., loud music, low lighting, destination F&B).

This isn’t for everyone—it isn’t meant to be. But so far, many guests have shared the same outlook.