This April, Adrian Zecha, the legendary founder of the Aman Resorts group, quietly launched his new brand Azerai in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang. At first blush, the hotel is a stark contrast for the veteran hotelier, with twice as many rooms, each a third the size, and starting rates at least a third of the average Aman hotel. Yet Zecha says his latest venture is not a departure from the Aman model, but a different incarnation of the same ideal of good taste and restrained aesthetics. ‘It’s affordable luxury,’ he insists.

Zecha’s comment is an interesting one, particularly as Azerai arrives at a time when urban travellers are expressing a preference for experiences that extend beyond a 60 sq m suite, standardised check-in times and an indifferently stocked bar fridge. And hotels are responding.

See the shortlist for our Best Urban Hotels 2017

For Duncan Palmer, managing director of The Murray in Hong Kong, designed by Foster and Partners, affordable luxury, in the context of urban hotels, is a relative and individualised concept. What’s important is that it avoids passing fads, opting instead for ‘longevity in the interior design, which can be interpreted in the placement of art, selection of day and night uniforms, and choice of furniture, right down to the music, scent and the behaviour of staff.’

Take, for example, the Moxy Times Square hotel in New York, with slick interiors by Yabu Pushelberg and Rockwell Group – it features foldaway furniture that can be reconfigured by guests as required, while in-house diversions range from burlesque shows, tarot card readings and lip sync battles to acupuncture happy hour, mini massages and nail tattoos. Room rates start at $139, a startling price point in a city where a hotel with a comparable pedigree kicks off at $400.

The newly-minted Tribe hotel in Perth, meanwhile, passes onto guests the cost savings gained from a more efficient modular construction method, its marketing tagline of ‘accessible luxury’ defined by on-demand movies, spacious rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Kings Park, and upscale furnishings.

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As Vicki Poulos, Moxy Hotels’ senior global brand director, points out, the modern ideal of the urban hotel blurs the lines between private, social and communal spaces. ‘The word “luxury” is used everywhere today. But what creates it is the uniqueness of a product and the emotional response to it. Today’s traveller is looking for a hotel that is thoughtfully designed, has its own unique character, and inspires guests through art, design, entertainment and gastronomy. That’s luxury.’ In other words, the very qualities that sharing economy platforms like Airbnb cannot offer, especially when one adds the layer of affordability.

‘This is the future,’ predicts Ian Schrager, another legendary hotelier who is also bent on redefining the urban hotel model. His latest offering, Public in New York, is another salvo in his crusade, begun with his Edition brand, to democratise luxury with ‘lots of originality, fun and unique experiences’. This comes in the form of elegant rooms dressed by Molteni & C, easy-on-the-wallet meals at Jean-Georges Vongerichten eateries, and a basement entertainment space for screenings, blow-out dance parties, and comedy shows. ‘People want good value for money,’ says Schrager. ‘Your whole night is complete without ever having to leave the place.’

It’s a sentiment we share as we continue to scour the world for the stuff that refines you. As ever, our annual survey of the Best Urban Hotels casts a wide net, pulling in the properties that have caught our attention over the past year. We invited an expert panel of judges, each an experienced traveller, to cast their unsparing, critical eyes over the hotels that are rethinking how hotels work. The winners will be announced in our January issue (on sale 14 December).

As originally featured in the November 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*224)