Room with a Viewpoint: A Hotel Brand With Activism at Its Core

Debuting in Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong this month, Eaton Workshop aims to redefine the hospitality experience.

Debuting in Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong this month, Eaton Workshop aims to redefine the hospitality experience.

“Community” seems to be on on the tip of every hotelier’s tongue. The idea? Entice modern travelers with promises of enriching social interaction. The reality? Besides “hip” public spaces, the occasional conversation series, and trendy extras like Ayurvedic yoga, few properties haven’t achieved much beyond letting digital nomads take advantage of the free hotel WiFi.

But Eaton Workshop, a new brand debuting this month in Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong, wants to bring substance to the collectivity premise. Drawing on her background in anthropology, filmmaking, and activism, founder Katherine Lo is on a mission to merge the hospitality industry with progressive social change.

“Many of the contemporary lifestyle brands are trying to draw in audiences by creating ‘unique’ experiences. They usually reveal themselves as superficial and utterly replaceable.” says Chris Wu, whose creative agency, Wkshps, helped conceptualized Eaton’s visual identity. “To cultivate community means going beyond inviting mere alignment with certain lifestyle traits, but instead, to try to generate actual beliefs—such as caring about social movements and environmental issues.”

Scenes from the reception lobby at Eaton Workshop Washington, D.C. (TOP) A retro-inspired guest room.

Accordingly, every Eaton property will feature a co-working space and incubator, tenanted by everyone from artists to advocacy groups and personal development gurus. Radio stations will feed a dedicated digital media arm, producing original content around important global issues, like immigration, women’s rights, race, climate change, food waste, and health care. Programming will initially be released via the digital platform and Mixcloud, but Lo hopes that demand will eventually be high enough to run the station 24/7.

“The dream is to have DJ mixes and then personal discussions with thought leaders as they pass through the hotels,” she says. “We’d also like to have a talk radio component, exploring stories that maybe typically aren’t even told on NPR or public radio.”

Lo cites a forthcoming indigenous-rights show, called Red Power Hour, as an example of the type of content to expect in the future. The first Eaton Media project is a collaboration with young Native American filmmaker Jesse Littlebird about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock. (Other planned initiatives include film, music and public art festivals; artist residencies for refugees; and mentorship for local youth.)

The pool terrace at the Hong Kong outpost. (ABOVE, FROM LEFT) One of the three restaurants on the property. A guest room desk.

Sustainability is an important focus for Eaton, too. In addition to ensuring that the hotel’s infrastructure, supplies, and materials come from sustainable sources, each outpost will use aerobic food waste decomposition. (The D.C. location has an organic rooftop garden and a wind turbine.)

But Eaton’s activism component doesn’t mean it has lost sight of the guest experience. After all, Lo’s father founded Langham Hospitality Group, and she previously served as creative director of the brand’s Chicago property. For Eaton, she insisted that in-room amenities include ecoconscious products and literature on politics, art, and music; holistic wellness centers offer acupuncture and infrared saunas. Culinary programs vary by location—D.C. houses Kyirisan chef Tim Ma’s plant-based American Son restaurant; a multivenue food hall anchors Hong Kong—but the kitchens will share a commitment to sustainably sourced ingredients across the board.

“I think the fundamental root of our philosophy for Eaton is wanting to create physical conditions for people to optimize or achieve their best selves,” says Lo. “In doing so, you can also [help] create and contribute to the best community in the world.”

A peek at Eaton Workshop Hong Kong's radio studio. (RIGHT) A library stocked with books on politics, global warming, and other activist–minded causes in D.C.

And she has big plans to expand that community. After launching in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C., Lo’s attention will turn to San Francisco and Seattle. According to Lo, the idea is to maintain the same socially conscious ethos but make every location unique and distinctive, influenced by the culture and personality of the city that surrounds it.

To that end, Eaton has a proven track record. AvroKO’s retro-inspired design for the Hong Kong outpost, which sits on Nathan Road in Kowloon, references both the neighborhood’s seedier past (neon signs, clashing colors and textures) and Wong Kar-Wai art-house films from the 1990s. Meanwhile, the 209-key Eaton D.C., a collaboration between Gachot Studios and Parts and Labor Design, is more subdued, inspired by the spirit of dialogue, a reinterpreted 1970s newsroom.

(CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT) The Hong Kong property’s communal area for film screenings and talks. A look inside the co-working space. The AvroKO-designed Yat Tung Heen restaurant. The thoughtfully appointed D.C. guest rooms.

On the horizon is Eaton Seattle, designed by Kengo Kuma’s firm, the Japanese architects behind the award-winning Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum and Tokyo’s National Olympic stadium for the 2020 games. The San Francisco location is being handled by Leong Leong, the team responsible for the Anita May Rosenstein Campus for the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood.  Dominic Leong, the firm’s founding partner, feels Eaton is “tapping into a certain cultural zeitgeist and trying to capture it in a new hospitality experience.”

“Hotels can be social condensers, where visitors encounter each other and a new culture or city,” Leong says. Then, fittingly, he calls up an old Joan Didion line: “Of course, great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.”

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