Enrique Sarasola has a knack for identifying untapped niches in the hospitality industry. That’s how his concept for RoomMate Hotels was born in 2005 with the boutique 54-rooom RoomMate Mario hotel near Madrid’s Opera and Royal Palace.
Traveling frequently as a championship horseback rider, he found a void between expensive luxury hotels and the rest of the market. “This, I found everywhere, in New York, Madrid, you had nothing in between five-star luxury and boring three or four star hotels.”
Identifying a need for stylish, yet affordable hotels in a desirable location with a premium on hospitality, Sarasola’s RoomMate Hotels are in the vanguard of what’s now referred to as “limited service” or “affordable luxury.” This segment is increasingly popular today as brands like Starwood’s Aloft Hotels and New York City’s Yotel have entered the market, catering to the “next generation of travelers.”
“We developed everything I like in hotels,” Sarasola says. “I hate breakfast finishing at 10 or 9:30 a.m., like in England, so I put breakfast ending at 12 p.m., free WiFi since the beginning, late check out, extra pillows, all the things I like from my traveling.”
RoomMate Hotels has since grown to 18 unique properties (with seven more currently in development) throughout Spain, as well as Amsterdam, Istanbul, Florence, Italy and Mexcio City. In the U.S., there’s New York City’s RoomMate Grace in Times Square and Miami Beach’s Waldorf Towers on Ocean Drive. The hotels range in size from 25 rooms in Florence to 285 rooms in Amsterdam.
At the end of September, Sarasola launched a new concept with BeMate.com, an apartment rental service that combines the amenities offered at his hotels with the privacy and convenience of stylish apartment rentals. His initial inventory includes 2,500 apartments in 10 cities where RoomMate Hotels already exist–New York and Miami included. Guests can use the hotel as a hub to pick up and drop off keys and store their luggage 24 hours. The hotel also functions as a 24-hour concierge and provides a la carte services as requested, such as housekeeping, a nanny or dry cleaning.
“Service is very important,” Sarasola says. “We want to solve problems and help travelers.”
Much like Roommate, BeMate was founded out of a hospitality need that Sarasola found lacking. With the advent of the “sharing economy” and platforms like Airbnb, HomeAway and Couchsurfing, Sarasola desired more confidence and more service. “I don’t use those platforms because I don’t trust them. If I don’t use them, there must be other people who don’t use them,” he says.
At the other end of the spectrum, he found full service luxury condo offerings at places like The Setai, W South Beach, Soho House or The Plaza with sky high prices to match. And so BeMate was born to bridge the gap between luxury and no service.
Similarly, Buenos Aires-based Oasis Collections is also trying to bridge this gap with their own portfolio of high design apartment rentals in Miami and South America with a built in concierge infrastructure.
We spoke with Sarasola about his journey with RoomMate and BeMate and what makes his hospitality brands so groundbreaking. Here’s a few highlights of our conversation.
Tell us about the hallmark of the RoomMate Hotel brand.
Roommate came from the necessity that we didn’t have a hotel that we really liked. We wanted a hotel where we could stay, a nice, affordable hotel with some class, romance, a pool. We just kept expanding, always with the concept of limited services. I say, all the services are around you because my hotels are at the center of the city, so it’s not that I have limited service. You want a gym? It’s right across the street. We have a special agreement. You want a hairdresser? I’ll bring one to you. You want a hamburger? We’ll call for it.
If you’re in the center of the city, you don’t have to have those things in your hotel. Usually, they’re more expensive [inside a hotel] and I always like to use my common sense. If I’m going to New York, would I like to stay in the restaurant at the hotel? Ninety-nine percent of the time, I say, no. I want to go out. We do not want to compete with restaurants, gyms, spas.
Each of your hotels bears a name, RoomMate Emma in Barcelona, Larios in Malaga, Grace in New York, Valentina in Mexico City. Tell us about that concept.
We believe the best way to travel is visiting a friend, in this case, a fictional friend, that’s why each one of my hotels has a name. Alicia, Carlos, each one has a personality. I get a decorator to decorate each one according to its personality and location. What we like to give is an experience. We hate the brands where everything is the same, and you go to Chicago, to Tokyo and the lobby might be different, but the rooms are exactly the same, which is pathetic. We hate that. We wanted to give the whole experience, to make a guest feel different each time, even if he stays several time with the same hotel group.
How did the BeMate apartment rental concept come to be?
The whole concept began in the same way I began RoomMate. I saw there was a niche. I find there’s a target demographic over 35 that doesn’t use these platforms from the “crowd sharing economy.” First, I need confidence, then I need more service. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from different platforms in a sense because we only work with apartments that are legal.
There’s a new set of traveling demands from this group that is 30-35+, and no one is giving it to them. It’s very difficult to do this, but I have a big advantage, which is my hotels. We don’t want to have 18,000 apartments that the other platforms have. We just want, 200-400 that are located a 15 minute walk from my hotel or a five minute cab ride or five minutes on the train.
What sets BeMate apart from these other platforms?
Somebody on my team has seen these apartments at least once to verify that the pictures being published are correct. You’re not going to find something different when you arrive. We give them security.
Then, I look at the logistics of the rental. Where do you pick up and drop the keys? What happens if you arrive at 3 a.m.? It’s a nightmare. What happens when you have kids or need to leave late? Where do you store your luggage? We offer 24-hour service to talk to—not a call center—but someone who’s really local. You can look them in the eye and tell them, I have an emergency or help me make a reservation. I have all that.
What demands do you anticipate for the future of travel?
Doing your trip tailor made is something brand new, which I think travel is going towards. I’m fed up paying for expenses at many places that I don’t use. Now it’s cheaper to travel, you can fly much cheaper with all your family, you can eat in very good restaurants, so now you don’t have to be mega rich to travel.
It’s not a competition against hotels because some people wi
ll still want to stay two days and not have the hassle to refill the fridge, to have to clean, so it’s not for everybody, but it’s a new demand. And this new type of travel, people need to be close to their families, so going to apartments is here to stay. So what I’ve done is look at it, see how I can join both worlds. As a hotelier, we’re the ones who know how to give this service, so why are we going to give this business to somebody else?
How do you see scaling the BeMate model?
I’m opening my technology platform to all independent hotels in the world where I don’t have Roommates. Join me. I’ll give you the technology and we’ll become partners. Let’s say somebody has a nice hotel with my same philosophy in Fort Lauderdale and they come to me. They can become BeMate Ambassadors. They don’t have to change their brand. This way, we can go far.
The idea is so simple. We have hotels everywhere in the world. Why don’t we put the apartments in our portfolio and give service to those apartments so that we can grow without putting in such an investment? And we give a solution to apartment owners and travelers who have logistical problems—and now they won’t.