Tattooed and blue. Power to the people

Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks Company, explores why people rather than products should be at the centre of brand development.

One of my favourite comments during a recent virtual design event I co-organised was from a hipster bar concept consultant who recalled a trend-seeking client, sporting an epic brief that included finding a bartender with tattoos. The more tattoos the better. 

Ironic? Yes. I do get the ink thing, but I also can vividly visualise the sheer number of tattoos on display at any Walmart, which makes its visceral inclusion in a brainstorming, cutting-edge innovation exercise appear both silly and superficial. Is this now the new barometer of what’s hot, bothered and an object of desire for a boutique hotel – a tattoo?  

Over the past decade I have become more and more disturbed over how the hospitality industry has shifted its emphasis from people to the sheer idol worship of products. This journey down a dark noir landscape has turned into an obsession, with the simple example being the tattoo and its whimsical objectification or representation of a creative mindset. Yes, it’s only ink and skin deep, but my mind eases back to trying to figure out, where did we go wrong? Very, very wrong. 

My entire current existence, with a dark constant companion at my side (no doubt sporting a Grim Reaper tat), has nagging thoughts that often turn to the looming big sleep and which becomes completely unglued over a quick calculation over how many days or cumulative months of my life I’ve lost in hotel design meetings. Sadly, so much of the time spent recreating or essentially tweaking the same four walls of a guest room, time and time again. Bottom line, if there is such a thing, is that hotel products and not people are the contemporary God’s whom we worship in blind and stupefying repetition. 

When I was in my early teen rebellious years, I had a total fixation with rebel icon Che Guevara. The imagery of the mad, sad doomed guerrilla was as potent as was his standing as a counterculture hero. But what really got me over the line was not his inspirational lifestyle of revolution, but his ever-present beret. The pre-hipster absolutely sucked me in as an unlikely student of anarchy. So, I went out and bought one. 

To get to the point though, then as in now I had a massive head, looked totally ridiculous and still am not a person who should wear a hat under any circumstance. Or for that matter, a beret. In the end, the purity of Che’s message was completely missed over my misguided fix on the beret. I have never worn one nor should be allowed to, ever. For those readers who don’t know who Che is, his image along with the beret is a common sight on trucks and bus mud flaps throughout Thailand. My mistake was looking at the product and not the person. 

Today, the tragically hip, design-oriented, fashionista-fuelled fervour of boutique hotels is dominated by a maniacal view of materialism. Human capital has been relegated down to the dark, dank basement where in the movie Pulp Fiction they kept the gimp. Let’s not even go there. Tech has not helped either as it has created cult-like worship circles that echo total emptiness. Sorry, no one home. 

At the end of the day, we have come to value a tat more than understanding that as an industry that is challenged, desperate and changing as never before, that people need to be put front and centre in brand or idea development. Cut the noise, tear down the four walls and realise if boutique hotels are a force of change and disrupt, that its people and not products will lead those stranded in a vanilla desert of blandness back to the promised land. And one thing for sure, is those truly hip and cool individuals won’t be wearing a beret. Ever. 

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