No longer a dark, drab respite for weary travellers, today’s hotel bars are designed to wow, comfort and entertain, whether through vibrant patterns, floor-to-ceiling windows, colourful LED lighting or signature flourishes. The design is often determined by the market, marrying trends and functionality to create a space where both guests and locals can gather.

But, at the heart of every hotel bar, is a unique vision inspired by the overarching theme of the entire property. “You have to understand the [hotel] brand, because every single brand is different. All of them have a different demographic,” says Dan Menchions, partner at II by IV Design Associates in Toronto, who has designed Novotel, Cambridge Suites, Marriott and Thompson Hotels, and is currently redesigning the Suits Lobby Lounge at the Trump International Hotel & Tower Toronto. He also advises that a hotel bar’s aesthetic should mirror its city, while standing out in the local market — thoughtful design can help achieve that.

Toronto’s Drake Hotel is one property that gleans inspiration from its city well. Founded in 2004, it’s become so popular that the brand has since expanded, with the opening of the Drake One Fifty bar and restaurant in Toronto’s financial district and the scheduled unveiling this summer of the 14-room Drake Devonshire Inn in Prince Edward County (P.E.C.), Ont. While keeping with the Drake Hotel’s core themes, Drake Devonshire’s bar will feature an eclectic “rough-lux” design by Toronto’s +Tongtong, with inspiration from P.E.C.’s local artisans, food and culture. A large deck will overlook Lake Ontario, giving weekenders, international visitors and locals a place to relax and enjoy the view. And the goal, says Abigail Van Den Broek, public relations manager, is to make the design accessible to all of those demographics.

“Design can make your business successful or it can destroy it,” says Peter Chase, founder of BPC World, a New York-based hospitality development and management company, which conceptualized and manages Wunderbar, one of three bars at the W Montreal Hotel. Wunderbar — which opened in 2004 — has become part of Montreal nightlife, with an aesthetic inspired by modern Quebec, complete with a custom plexiglass bar and Barrisol ceiling. But the team considers logistical and operational design equally as important as the aesthetic, and Chase made several modifications to the original design concept by Miguel Cancio Martins, based in Paris, before construction on the interiors even began — all to ensure that it could withstand the test of time; he scrapped the impractical fur-lined walls that were part of Martins’ original concept and refinished the bar’s banquette seating to withstand the wear and tear of spilled drinks and high-heeled shoes. “A lot of people don’t realize that they’re dead in the water before they even open the doors, because they made design decisions that are going to destroy their space,” says Chase.

The resulting design has been able to stand the test of time, Chase adds. In fact, it was only adjusted minimally during a 2012 revamp by BPC and W Hotel’s in-house design team. To add new energy to the space, fluorescent lighting was replaced by computer-driven LED lighting, and a large, heavy DJ booth was replaced with a more lightweight booth by Spacetek, based in Warwickshire, England, making it more approachable for patrons.

While Wunderbar has become a draw, Chase doesn’t consider it trendy. He prefers to get inspiration from the local market. The goal, he adds, is to “build a better mousetrap.” It’s a philosophy that’s worked at Wunderbar, where locals make up about 80 per cent of the clientele.

Meanwhile, II by IV’s Menchions notes that the home-away-from-home trend is continuing to make its mark in drinking spaces. Consider W XYZ Bar at Aloft Vaughan Mills in Ontario. Unlike the high-energy Wunderbar, W XYZ is designed to feel like a comfy living room, adorned with couches and chairs upholstered in bright colours and bold patterns. Aloft’s bar design is conducive to displaying local art and hosting live entertainment. “We’re always looking to attract local talent,” says GM Matthew Rattray. “That’s one of our biggest things.”

Groupe Germain offers a much different signature aesthetic at its Hôtel Le Germain bars. Take Lounge Central 899, inside the $110-million 20-storey Hôtel Le Germain Calgary, for instance. Designed by Montreal’s Lemaymichaud Architecture Design — the force behind Groupe Germain’s portfolio — it caters to a slightly more discerning crowd, with soaring ceilings, luxurious materials, floor-to-ceiling windows and wood tables. “The Germain signature is always using a lot of wood,” says Louise Dupont, senior associate designer with Lemaymichaud. “We used a lot of built-ins, a lot of wood and a lot of warm tones.” Design elements like these lend a consistency to the Hôtel Le Germain bar spaces, letting travellers know what they can expect wherever they go, while keeping the spaces warm and inviting.

The design team at Lounge Central 899 worked with the space’s limitations and used them as inspiration. Large columns running through the centre of the space were covered in luxurious black granite and built into a custom-designed boomerang-shaped counter-height wood table. Custom sofa seating lines the windows, keeping outside views unobstructed.

Electrical outlets, meanwhile, are interspersed throughout the space, giving the business clientele a place to plug in. The hotel’s business guests are the principal demographic here, and the goal is to create a location that will draw them day and night. “What is very important is the guest has to feel comfortable,” Dupont adds.

Finally, to make the small space — which fits approximately 50 people — appear larger the bar was built as an extension of the lobby. That, says Menchions, is another trend that’s popular, as hotels bring new activity to their lobbies by opening them up to their bar spaces. “They become quite active,” says Menchions. Combining the two spaces creates “better buzz,” the designer adds. What more could a hotel or bar ask for? 


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