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Hotel Tomo gives a nod to Japanese pop-culture

SAN FRANCISCO— While this city’s district known as Japantown may not be as top-of-mind as its world-famous Chinatown, a small, 125-room hotel just may be among the catalysts to help propel the enclave to greater notoriety, and do the same for the hotel brand it represents.
Since May 2006, when hip hospitality firm Joie de Vivre acquired the management contract for a Best Western property located at 1800 Sutter St., it has gone from the conservative, modestly priced Miyako Inn that attracted Asian and medical business to the wildly inventive, hipster-attracting, RevPAR-raising Hotel Tomo.
Taking from its environment, the eight-story property draws on the contemporary pop culture of Japan, blending together that country’s fascination with animation, graphic novels, cartoons, bright colors, funky furniture and elaborate street fashion.
Joie de Vivre Creative Director Matt Harvey worked together with local designer Charles De Lisle of Your Space, Inc. to develop the lodging funhouse.
“The owners (Beverly Hills, CA-based 3D Investments) purchased both this hotel and the Miyako Hotel a block away. One of the things we wanted to do, first and foremost, was to figure out a way to respect the neighborhood and to engage in a dialogue with the community with our design,” said Harvey
Since the Miyako Hotel has a more-classic Japanese design, and is more prominently located in Japantown, it was decided the Miyako Inn— flying below the radar but value priced— would be the property to undergo a more radical design change.
“It really has amazing ‘bones,’” said Harvey. “It was this sort of severe, brutalist, concrete building (built in 1975) that struck us as being very much like some of the modern buildings that you find in post-war Japan. We looked at it as an opportunity to focus on a more-contemporary Japan.”
Much of the interior design channels manga. Translated literally, it means whimsical pictures, but has come to represent the Japanese word for printed cartoons and graphic novels akin to comic books in the U.S.
The concept played well against Joie de Vivre’s design tactic, which incorporates five words, two magazine formats and some other items and mixes it altogether to create an individualistic approach to a hotel project.
“Our five words on this project were: inventive, warm, optimistic, practical and quirky. The magazines we chose were: Giant Robot (an Asian pop culture magazine) and InStyle (making a connection to the hotel’s proximity to the Fillmore St. shopping corridor and the Japanese affinity for retail).
The guestrooms juxtapose calming color influences such as light pine casegoods and woodgrain-esque carpeting against what Harvey describes as “intense graphics” and brightly colored furniture, e.g., Kelly green tables, and softgoods such as bold yellow bed covers and red throw pillows with mascot faces.
Each guestroom features a 26-inch, LCD, flat-screen television, iPod docking station and wired/wireless high-speed Internet access.
“Your Space created a really great response to our positioning document,” said Harvey, noting most of the furniture was custom made.
A booking magnet has been the two “Player’s Suites,” crafted to attract a younger clientele as well as groups. Each of the suites features a six-foot LCD projection screen, a Sony Play Station 3, Nintendo Wii and Wi-Fi.
While it might sound like an ersatz arcade, the suites convey more of a lounge feeling. Bolstering that feeling are draperied walls, updated bean-bag seating and a large, round slumber sofa with mascot pillows; chairs would feel at home on the Starship Enterprise. Three bay windows host a microwave, refrigerator and a wet bar.
“We wanted to create more of a entertainment/theatrical space,” said Harvey,
One suite is attached to a guestroom; the other is connected to a large meeting room and may be rented at two-hour intervals.
Similarly, Hotel Tomo has brought meetings out of the box. Two outdoor “geo-domes” in an interior courtyard are part of 2,650 square feet of meeting space. The Buckminster Fuller-inspired venues— 20-foot and 30-foot connected by a tube— offer advanced technology and Wi-Fi.
“The idea behind it was they, at minimum, would be something we could project images on at night so the rooms that face the courtyard would have something cool to look down on. It functions in that way, but it’s been used quite a bit for really great event space,” said Harvey.
The space is equipped to handle everything from birthdays to weddings to meetings to corporate retreats.
“We knew we were trying to find some of the ‘fringe’ meetings…that were tired of the standard meeting room,” said Derek Banderas, Hotel Tomo’s general manager.
Guests coming to the property get hit with innovation the moment they step into the lobby. Huge murals drawn by Tokyo-based artist Heisuke Kitazawa adorn the ceiling, the walls are pine or covered in felt, and seating reminiscent of a flattened pill capsule offers respite.
Surprise elements include two vending machines. “The vending machine is sort of an art form in Japan,” said Harvey. “We really wanted the vending machine in the lobby to be an opportunity to ‘pay off’ our close relationship with Giant Robot.” (Harvey and Eric Nakamura, editor/publisher of Giant Robot collaborated to find the right mural artist for the property. Kitazawa’s work is used throughout Hotel Tomo.)
The design team used a sandwich vending machine and outfitted it to be a 24/7 “store” for Giant Robot. “It’s a good way for our guests to take a very authentic souvenir from this culture and a way for us to have a point of interest in the lobby.
The second vending machine is of the claw variety found at amusement parks. It dispenses prizes, such as the small, plush mascots prominent in Japanese pop culture.
The lobby also features an Internet bar where a business center once stood and video monitors that run anything from Godzilla movies to anime to Japanese commercials.
The hotel’s restaurant, Mum’s House of Shabu Shabu, as well as the meeting rooms, feature Kitazawa’s murals. In contrast, a fitness center is done in a conservative style.
“We didn’t have a ton of money so we had to make a little go a long way,” Harvey said, noting the hotel is still relatively inexpensive for San Francisco.
Banderas said inventory is moving swiftly and the rates have been raised to be more competitive. For example, in July 2006, ADR sat at $88; post-renovation, it’s at $120 year-over-year. Occupancy for July and August was 83%.
“RevPAR has gone up about 40% in index,” the GM said, adding: “We’re getting a larger mix of people that generally would never have come to a lower-graded Best Western in the past and who now see it as a very attractive property.”
He noted there are more couples and business travelers between the ages of 25 and 45 coming to the hotel as opposed to retirees and tour-package travelers, but stressed older clientele “seemed to really love the hotel. I don’t’ think we’ve alienated that group.”
Harvey added along with the owners, Best Western International was “very flexible” to work with in making the dramatic changes. “I think they were excited to see somebody try something,” added Banderas.
The changes have created a buzz in technology, gaming, art and fashion circles. “People are seeking it out,” said Harvey.