“I’m a sucker for these old buildings,” Sydell Group founder and CEO Andrew Zobler says, with a sweeping gesture toward the restored mahogany paneling in the new Freehand New York’s George Washington Bar. The hotel is the latest addition to Sydell Group’s Freehand brand, a hip hostel/hotel hybrid concept born in Miami with locations in Chicago and Los Angeles.
For the brand’s New York debut, the group enlisted acclaimed design firm and longtime collaborators Roman and Williams to give the old George Washington Hotel near Gramercy Park a homey, vaguely midcentury vibe. “I always say if you’re working on an old building and you fight the old building, you’re gonna lose,” says Zobler. “So, you have to think about what the original intent was, and how can you make that work with what you want to accomplish.”
At the Freehand New York, the original architecture lays the groundwork for an intimate jewel box of a bar tucked away in a corner of the second floor. Its portrait of George Washington, worn rugs on the parquet floor, restored fireplace, and pedestal urn overflowing with flowers on the mahogany bar feel like they would be at home in a much more upscale hotel.
Each of Sydell Group’s 11 hotels (and counting) is a design-forward reinterpretation of a historic building—usually in an emerging neighborhood—with destination dining and drinking, local flavor, and an unmistakably cool vibe. Since the beginning, Zobler and his partner, Ron Burkle, have been forming meaningful partnerships with talented people and letting them do their thing—and it’s working.
Their high-profile partnership with Will Guidara and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, who run the namesake restaurant in the NoMad, has garnered awards and landed the hotel on many a “best of” list. One of their most groundbreaking collaborations is with Gabe Orta and Elad Zvi, whose Broken Shaker bar in the Freehand Miami—named Best American Hotel Bar in 2015—ushered in Miami’s cocktail renaissance.
For the LINE LA, Sydell Group hired visionary Korean American chef Roy Choi, who Zobler credits with bringing some authenticity to the hotel, saying, “If we were just some New York guys coming into Koreatown, it would never have worked.” For the Freehand New York, they partnered with restaurateur Gabriel Stulman for the hotel's casual all-day restaurant Studio (with a North African/Near Eastern bent), the tucked-away George Washington Bar, and the chic ground-floor restaurant Simon & The Whale. But their biggest partnership so far has undoubtedly been with Nick Jones of Soho House, who they teamed up with to open the Ned, a 250-key hotel in a landmarked London bank with eight restaurants and bars (including a lounge in the old vault), two swimming pools, a Cowshed spa, and a handful of members-only spaces.
Sydell Group just opened the LINE DC and the NoMad Los Angeles—all in a 30-day period—and the new hotels follow this formula for success. For the LINE DC, Sydell Group tapped Erik Bruner-Yang—who made a name for himself with D.C. hot spots Toki Underground and Maketto—to helm Brothers and Sisters and enlisted James Beard Award–winning chef Spike Gjerde to run a casual café, upscale restaurant, and bar. Thanks to Humm and Guidara’s renown in New York, the Mezzanine restaurant inside the NoMad Los Angeles was “Downtown Los Angeles’s most anticipated new restaurant project in years” according to Eater L.A. The swanky, Italian-inspired interiors by Parisian designer Jacques Garcia (who also designed the NoMad in New York) have been widely praised.
“I always make the analogy to Hollywood, meaning I think of myself more as a producer than a director,” Zobler remarks. “It doesn’t mean I can’t direct, but being a producer is more important to me. It’s more important to get all the right pieces together.”
Now, Sydell Group is ready to move on to even bigger and more ambitious projects, including an outpost of the LINE in Austin and a new brand in Las Vegas. If you thought the Ned was big, just wait until you see what Zobler’s got up his sleeve.
“We’re introducing a new brand called Park MGM,” he reveals, adding that the new 2,700-room Las Vegas hotel and casino will be a collaboration with MGM—with a 292-room NoMad stacked right on top. “I think the future of lifestyle hospitality is about being able to do stuff in larger spaces,” he says. As he explains it, the boutique hotel market has gotten crowded with companies putting out 150- or 200-room hotels. Meanwhile, the massive meeting house hotels used for conventions tend to be soulless, corporate entities. Zobler sees an opportunity to create larger hotels that will still have the soul of the smaller properties the company has become known for: “To me, that’s the new frontier. That’s what really excites us.”
If you’re wondering how a company that’s made a name for itself with intimate boutique hotels in historic buildings will be able to pull off a 3,000-room MGM hotel in Las Vegas, you’re not the only one. Zobler insists the behemoth will still have the hip yet approachable vibe that’s so crucial to Sydell Group’s properties, saying that no space will be too big and they’ll layer local art (including photographs of the Nevada desert) into the design.
For now, this rapidly growing company is on a tear. Next up: whether the team can pull off a magic trick in Sin City.