Courtesy of Life House Hotels
Courtesy of Life House Hotels
Guests and locals gather around the firepit at Life House Nantucket like old friends.
Travel has become less convivial during COVID, but the boutique hotel line has created a safe space for strangers to rediscover the lost art of socializing.
What does it mean to be “social” during a pandemic? Do weekly Zooms with your best friends count? Netflix watch parties? Stay-six-feet-from-me walks? (There have been so. many. walks.) As a recent Atlantic article pointed out, we’ve found ways to remain close to our inner circle through COVID lockdowns and drag-outs, but it’s the outer circle—the barista you used to see daily, the coworkers you’d chat with in the office kitchen, the acquaintances made through a shared love of a college football team—we’re missing desperately, if not subconsciously. In psychology circles, they’re known as “weak ties.”
“They’re also people you might have never directly met, but you share something important in common,” writes Amanda Mull for the Atlantic. “You go to the same concerts, or live in the same neighborhood and frequent the same local businesses. You might not consider all of your weak ties friends, at least in the common use of the word, but they’re often people with whom you’re friendly.”
I’ve been thinking about weak ties a lot lately, searching for ways to reinvigorate these exchanges as we enter the longest shortest month of the year. I keep coming back to a weekend spent in Nantucket last summer, when COVID cases had slowed and regional travel had resumed (albeit briefly). My husband and I had booked a getaway with just two priorities: take a few nights off from parenting and eat at the Nautilus as often as possible. We didn’t realize we’d receive the gift of chitchat—that blessed interaction that occurs with total strangers when you travel, be it in a line or a lobby, a bar or a backyard, connecting you to a place. It had been so long I almost forgot how to do it. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to relearn that weekend at Life House Nantucket.
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At first glance, Life House Hotels, founded in 2017 by New York–based entrepreneur Rami Zeidan, are like many other 21st-century boutique properties: digitally savvy, artfully designed, locally sourced, and Instagram friendly. (I may have ’grammed a photo or two of my welcome cocktail and the hotel’s tiger-print carpet on arrival.) But get past the promotional materials surface and you’ll notice there’s something more substantive going on: At the Nantucket property, which just opened summer 2020, the art on the guestroom walls comes with its own primer; the general manager delivers cocktails on the porch and lingers for half an hour to talk about his past; a firepit doubles as a neighborhood watering hole. It feels comfortable, relaxed—no forced small talk here. Like the hotel has managed to create an environment that specifically fuels serendipity and discovery. How? Better still, how did they do that during a pandemic, when everyone’s hiding behind a mask?
Core to Life House’s mission is creating a sense of belonging, says 33-year-old owner Zeidan, who credits his late brother Mohamed (“Moe”), a humanitarian and doctor who died in an accident in 2014, as a source of inspiration. “We came from a Muslim background and had a tough experience post-9/11 in Minnesota,” Zeidan says on a recent Zoom call, recalling how his Lebanese heritage shaped his future. “It was pretty clear who accepted us as equals, and who didn’t.” In his experience, they were welcomed by those who had been exposed to diversity: “Not just ethnic diversity, but diversity of perspectives,” says Zeidan. “Exposure to new things can help us feel more brave. We’ll be open to social interactions, to making connections. That kind of opens doors to really meaningful experiences that stay with you for a while.”
Sounds like a fundamental reason why so many of us travel. Perhaps that’s why my weekend at Life House felt like such a safe space to shake off the COVID-born fear of strangers. From its brand ethos (“to make travel more meaningful and more accessible”) shared by the entire staff to the design choices, Life House is built to attract like-minded guests interested in “intentional travel,” as Zeidan calls it. It goes beyond escapism and caters to those interested in learning about a destination from the people they meet. We can Google whatever we want, whenever we want. But how often do we get to create a community that will wonder with us?
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Life House has paid a lot of attention to its hotel social spaces, making them more accommodating for working remotely (coffee and food round the clock), taking meetings, and interacting with guests and locals alike. That might mean your guestroom isn’t quite meant for hunkering down. To wit: Our 230-square-foot “cozy king” room in the 200-year-old Nantucket space—a former sea captain’s federalist mansion reborn—didn’t have a dresser and the windows rattled with fury during a rainstorm. Zeidan has set out to create an “authentic stay” at each of the 10 hotels, either opened or opening, from newcomers Nantucket and Denver to several in Miami. Authentic means local, distinctive, and—surprisingly—affordable.
Prior to launching Life House, Zeidan worked in private equity, investing in hotels and luxury brands like NYC’s now-iconic NoMad hotel (part of the Sydell Group) and sustainably focused line 1 Hotels for Starwood. He started to pay more attention to what was offered at a luxury or ultra-luxury price, and wondered if he could deliver the same quality to even more people. To that end, you could book a cozy queen in Miami’s Little Havana for $169, or a night in a Victorian-era home in Denver for $185. A comparable room at 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge or the NoMad NYC might be twice the price.
On our second night at Life House Nantucket, my husband and I were tucking into a takeout Peking duck dinner, which is as ridiculous as it sounds, in the hotel’s living room when a pair of friends came in, women our age. They sat across the room—far enough that we could take off our masks, but close enough that it would feel awkward if we ignored each other. And so we started to share our stories: where we were from, where we had been, what we had eaten on our trips; how the pandemic had changed our travel lives, our jobs, our homes. A Life House staffer who had befriended the two women brought out decadent, booze-y hot chocolate for us all. (We even started to offer up our Peking duck until we remembered that sharing a meal isn’t quite COVID-friendly.) For an hour, life felt normal. Weak ties felt strong. The connection was real.
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