Sleeper Issue 72 May/June 2017
Flying Potato Group and Ministry of Design create a new hostel concept that focuses on all things social, seeking to engage guests both physically and digitally.
How does a hostel extend from simply providing budget accommodation to becoming a community for like-minded travellers? It is a predicament that many an operator has faced as they seek to attract the next generation of guests in an increasingly competitive sector. And while European developers have arguably been the driving force behind the design-led social hostel, Asia is beginning to follow suit with a handful of independently run properties that cater specifically to millennial.
COO, a 66-bed hostel with a casual bistro, is a new venture that combines well-designed spaces with engagement through mobile technology. Its branding and interiors have been developed by Designed by Ministry of Design (MOD), also a partner in the endeavour. “We recognise that Millenials want a meaningful getaway, where active experience trumps passive consumption. They want value, authenticity and constant connection,” says Colin Seah, founder of MOD. The team coined the term ‘Societal’ to describe COO, where all things social – social spaces, social media and socialising – heads the way accommodation, meals and other services are approached. Once guests have made their booking, they can access COO Connect, a digital platform and chat with like-minded guests with the same overlapping stay dates and top five matching interests to potentially check out the vicinity or have a meal together. “We thought this would be a great way to embody the convivial spirit of old-fashioned backpackers community while harnessing the millennial generation’s love for digital connectivity,” continues Seah.
This experiment was mooted by the client, Flying Potato Group, whose owner Silas Lee left his veteran banking post to pursue what he felt was a niche in the local market he could fill despite having no hospitality experience. “The inspiration behind COO is the emergence of millennial travellers who are willing to take the road less travelled,” he explains. “To them, travelling is no longer a leisure pursuit alone, but an opportunity to gain local insights and garner authentic experiences. We want COO to be a homegrown brand with a regional reach and grounded with Asian sensibilities.”
The first COO location at Tiong Bahru is apt, considering millenials’ choice of travel experience eschews mainstream tourist haunts. A gourmet market, independent bookstore, yoga studios, hipster cafes and restaurants sitting alongside colloquial coffee shops and mom-and-pop sundry stores, all housed in low-rise, elegant pre-war public housing structures, guarantees a unique potpourri of encounters where old meets new, east meets west and local meets global. “Choosing Tiong Bahru for COO’s first property was an easy decision when we were considering neighbourhoods that embodied the quintessential local experience,” continues Lee. “It is after all one of the coolest neighbourhoods in Singapore while also simultaneously know for its rich heritage and culture.”
COO occupies a four-storey shophouse that was previously a hostel, though its reincarnation looks nothing like what stood here before. For one, an eye-catching decorative metal screen portal heralds the entrance, alongside a door decorated with colourful depictions of the classic spiral staircases found behind some of Tiong Bahru’s shophouses. The former leads into a 60-seater, all-day dining bistro, the latter to reception. Both enter into a darkened space, casually divided by the same decoration metal screens. With flashes of neon and colourful graphics on the walls and ceiling, the vibe here reads more hip club than budget accommodation. The eclectic mix of travel inspired and local Singapore icons embrace the ‘local’ characteristic of the brand, and form a connection with COO’s online presence. The graphics, poems and historic phrases depict associations with Tiong Bahru such as its modernist architecture and traditional ‘kueh’ (sweets), while the screens reference the patterns found on the door and window grilles of local housing. Above the bistro bar counter, an abstracted map of the vicinity in neon takes centrestage.
This playful spirit emanates throughout the entire hostel. In the corridors, a magnetic board with alphabet magnets – a form of low-tech social media – encourages guests to leave messages for one another. Upstairs, tongue-in-cheek house rules are emblazoned on walls while amenities such as shampoo dispensers display instructions in a humourous manner.
Spaces have also been designed for both privacy and connectivity. In the bistro, for instance, the screens act as casual space dividers creating semi-private corners; in the 11 guestrooms featuring four, six or eight beds that accommodate 68 guests at full capacity, the existing bunk beds feature new double-layered curtains with a youthful sports mesh, supplied by Innovasia. Within each bunk, the cabinetry flips up to reveal a face mirror, while ambient lighting accompanies functional illumination to create a relaxed mood. These considered features elevate the room-sharing experience.
On the second storey, an open-air terrace houses a pantry and lounge where guests can lounge on white Acapulco chairs to meditate, work on their laptops, or wait for their laundry to be done in the adjacent washer/dryer room. Custom-designed coffee tables made from plastic palettes add to the casual ambience,.
Seah is no stranger to designing hotels; the popular New Majestic Hotel in Singapore and McCalister Mansion in Penang both bear his signature direction of incorporating lively and colourful narratives within an historic structure. Still, COO proved to be a challenge to design. “It requires a real shift of mindset. We’re used to more high-end, boutique designs for hotels; in this case, we’re designing for the discerning premium budget market. Also, other than designing the interiors, we are designing a brand, and it needs to be both unique and sociable,” says Seah.
Despite the challenges, COO has already had an impact on the industry with the team scooping the Visual Identity of the Year award at AHEAD Asia. Judges commended MOD for its creation and expression of the brand DNA, which is set to be rolled out to new properties in Singapore and beyond. From booking to stay, COO has a seamless, engaging identity. While inspired by similar design-led hospitality concepts in other parts of the world, Seah has localised and improved the experience with both physical and digital connectivity.