Why the first Raffles hotel and condo project in North America will open in Boston

May 1, 2022

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When Accor announced four years ago it would park its first North American Raffles Hotels & Resorts in Boston, I was a little shocked.

No offense — I’m a Bostonian, so this isn’t meant as New Yorker smack talk — but this kind of project seemed like an uphill battle for a variety of reasons. Neither Accor nor Raffles — a five-star brand launched all the way back in 1887 in Singapore — are household names in the U.S., and Boston can be pretty snooty about its luxury hotels.

There is still a significant chunk of the local population here who won’t step foot in the Ritz-Carlton downtown because — gasp — Marriott had the nerve to move the brand across Boston Common from the building that once housed the “old” Ritz, which became a Taj and more recently The Newbury. It seemed a little strange the developers of the property would go with a lesser-known brand like Raffles when there has been widespread speculation in local real estate circles Hilton wants to park a Waldorf Astoria in Boston.

But the more I think about it, this hotel can be a strong addition to Boston’s luxury hotel scene while also appealing to the international traffic increasingly drawn to New England’s largest city.

“As we were vetting all the really top brands in our industry, they all were very programmed. One of them had a bar that had to be 40 feet down the corridor to the left of the front desk. [There was a requirement for] a chandelier of certain dimensions [and] a foyer of certain dimensions,” Gary Saunders, chairman of Saunders Hotel Group — part of the Raffles Boston Back Bay Hotel & Residences development team — said late last month at the opening of the Raffles condo sales office in Boston without specifying what hotel brand.

“It was just something that we looked at each other and said, ‘We’re in Boston. Every time you try to import these concepts from LA, Miami, or New York into Boston, rarely are they successful.’ People just think that can be force-fed here, and people [here in Boston] are different and in a really good way.”

It may seem strange to some that Accor would pick Boston for its first ground-up Raffles hotel and condo project in North America (there was previously a hotel-only Raffles in Beverly Hills, California, but it wasn’t a new-build project). After all, cities like Miami, Los Angeles, or New York tend to be the areas where major brands go first to debut a glitzy concept in the U.S.

But Accor thinks Boston makes sense. The region’s economy based around higher education, healthcare, tech, and life science brings in a hefty amount of high-end international traffic — and it also means there is a significant population here willing to shell out for luxury condos.

“Boston is a fabulous place,” said Oliver Dudler, general manager of the Raffles Boston. “There’s interest in Boston — much more so than people actually think.”

Location, location, location

Accor is also hyper-focused on getting into the right location, added co-developer Jordan Warshaw of the Noannet Group. Competition among major hotel companies to be the winning brand flag over the 33-floor hotel and condo project was fierce. The property sits in Boston’s highly affluent Back Bay neighborhood, which is also home to other five-star hotels like the Mandarin Oriental as well as two Four Seasons hotels.

An available property to develop into a hotel is a rarity in the neighborhood, and Accor wanted in.

The hotel development team isn’t naming names as to who else was in the running for the project, but they divulged the autonomy Accor afforded them in building out the hotel was a major draw. This will still be a five-star project, but it means the Raffles in Boston won’t be a cookie cutter image of the brand’s properties in other cities like Paris, Istanbul or the original in Singapore.

The more than $400 million project, slated to open in early 2023, will include 147 guestrooms, 146 condos and 16 distinct “gathering spaces.”

There will be a sky lobby on the 17th floor and a variety of restaurants and bars, from a speakeasy to a venue aiming to be a go-to neighborhood restaurant that doesn’t blow a giant hole in one’s wallet and — as one might expect in a five-star hotel — a smaller restaurant that probably will.

Specifics on the restaurants and bars are still limited, save for the obvious. You will be able to order a Singapore Sling, invented at the Raffles Singapore, at the bar.

But it appears the development team has taken notes of what does and doesn’t work in Boston — and how Boston hasn’t taken kindly to celebrity chefs from other cities.

Jean Georges-Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, and Mario Batali have all come and gone with restaurants in the city in recent years.

“It’s going to be operated by Raffles,” Warshaw said of the hotel’s planned high-end restaurant concept. “We’re not going to have some chef put his or her name on and show up once a year.”

Making sure all eyes are on Boston

There might still be some work ahead in raising awareness of the brand to domestic travelers considering a trip to Boston. Raffles as of late might be known best to Americans as the place where Rachel and Nick stayed in “Crazy Rich Asians” while visiting his family in Singapore.

But the early marketing shows the Raffles team is working hard to show this is a hotel that can both appeal to posh international visitors and be for Boston what the old Ritz once was.

A short film released in tandem with the condo sale launch brings the iconic Boston-based children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings” — about a pair of Mallards who raise their brood of ducklings in Boston Public Garden — to life while showing this is a global brand with a grasp on local literary history.

The video shows the ducks moving from their original home (coincidentally steps from the old Ritz) into the new Raffles, enjoying everything from a spa treatment to a drink downstairs (well, Mama Mallard enjoyed the drink while the ducklings sleep upstairs). It’s not a bad start for a brand trying to introduce itself to both Boston and North America.

It’s unlikely Boston will be the only North American home for Raffles. Warshaw indicated Accor has also been on the hunt for sites in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago. But this expansion likely won’t be a fast one.

“They’re not just going to expand wildly by picking some crazy location,” Warshaw said. “They’re going to wait until they find the right location.”

Featured image courtesy of Accor.

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