We’re big fans of any brand that embraces sustainable luxury, and few do so as thoughtfully as 1Hotels. Just ask anyone who has stayed at its Central Park location, adorned with a lush ivy exterior and housing lush rooms bedecked with reclaimed wood and hemp-blend mattresses.

Helmed by Barry Sternlicht, the billionaire investor who previously created W Hotels and led the transformation of St. Regis Hotels, the hotel group aims to both protect the beauty of nature, while showcasing it in its properties. To give but one small example, the hotels eschew plastic keys for wood ones, thereby reducing the amount of waste the hotels produce.

1Hotels launched in 2015 with a South Beach location, and has expanded to include hotels in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with locations in LA, Cabo San Lucas, Silicon Valley and Sanya, China, due next year. We spoke with Kane Sarhan, who, as 1Hotels’ head of brand, serves as its creative guru—ensuring that every aspect of a guest’s experience is mindful and beautiful, not to mention luxurious and fun. We asked him how he does it, and he was happy to oblige.

PHLUR: What attracted you to 1hotels personally?

Kane: Interestingly enough, I was raised by, for lack of a better word, huge hippies. We were the family that camped as kids. And when I say camp, I mean camp like going up into the middle of nowhere, no running water, shower in the river, shower in the lake. That’s just the way I grew up.

So [I loved] the idea that you could marry luxury and sustainability together, and then also use it to do some good. I like giving back. I like having something bigger that I’m working towards. The fact that 1Hotels had a mission, and it was something bigger than just a sexy hotel with a sustainability hook, really got me excited.

And then finally, when you get to work for a guy like Barry Sternlicht, you just say yes. To get to absorb all that genius is amazing.

1Hotels Central Park's leafy exterior.
1Hotels Central Park’s leafy exterior.

P: I bet. Speaking of Barry, he’s obviously already had massive success, and certainly doesn’t need the cash. Why is he putting his time and energy into 1Hotels?

K: The passion for 1Hotels was completely born out of Barry. It’s his vision, his idea and his heart. After he left W, he said ‘If I’m going to do another hotel brand it has to be more than just a cool, sexy place to hang out. It has to be more than just a cool hotel. It has to be something more mission-driven. I want it to have an impact on the world.’

Barry’s a voracious devourer of content. He’s always learning. So first he just fell down a rabbit hole of sustainability and environmentalism and what we’re doing to our planet, and personally got very passionate about it. He started putting his dollars to work for very large non-profits that were working in the space.

P: Makes sense.

K: And he realized hotels are often a driver of culture, right? So many people pass through our doors. From a design perspective, from a programming perspective, from an experience perspective, we’ve always pushed ourselves to be on the forefront. So [we asked ourselves] how do we do that from a sustainability perspective as a way to educate people, to show them that you can live this way, and you can live green, and you can live well, and really use it as that platform for education. That’s really the motivation. Barry doesn’t do it for the money.

P: At the same time, the business has to do well for 1Hotels to continue and grow.

K: Obviously Barry’s whole thing is to see if these can be viable businesses because that’s how we scale. You want to make money so that people do it [by building similar, sustainability-focused businesses]. Because our values are aligned, and then that way we’ll get the best bang for our buck, and more people will adopt it [our mindset and business model], and we’ll be better for our planet. So there’s that balance there. It needs to be a viable business, but it’s really born out of a passion for him. It’s really not a money-making project.

“We have a philosophy: Inspire people, and they’ll follow you.”

P: How have you helped bring Barry’s vision to life?

K: Barry’s been a donor to a non-profit I started [Enstitute, an apprentice program for young people entering the job market], and a mentor of mine. I had never worked in hotels before. So when I came in, he basically said, ‘I’m doing this brand. I want you to write the brand book and bring it to life.’ So I’ve touched everything from the brand book and the founding principles and mission and values, all the way up to the smell, the restaurant partners, the things you see inside our hotels, etc. So really, my job every day is to work with our operations team, our design team, our management team, and our marketing team to really bring our brand to life. We see brand as those four people coming together, and my job in the middle is to support that. My job is to take what I know is in Barry’s head and heart, his big ideas, and make them achievable and executable and scalable whenever possible.

P: So speaking of, how do you think about those choices around food and other design elements, in terms of tying them back to your core mission?

K: For us it’s really simple. We evaluate everything from a sustainability perspective first and foremost. And then it goes into: Is this a financially good decision? Is this good for our guests? Is this good for our team members? We have that checklist that we go against. We have a very clear mission, we have a very clear purpose, and we spend a lot of time thinking about our brand pillars. So for food, food is ingredients-first. If you start with the ingredients, and you source local, healthy, clean, organic ingredients, everything that you do afterward is easy, right?

P: Makes sense.

K: If you only use what you need, everything falls into place. We are maniacally focused, and never-compromising, on what matters. We always bring it back to: Does this honor and protect nature? Is this something that we’re proud of? Is this something that our kids or our kids’ kids would be proud of us for doing? We have a compass: Do all the good you can. And if you ask yourself ‘Am I doing all the good I can?’ with every decision you make, it becomes really easy to stay on track.

P: For you and for the team.

K: If you have those morals and those fibers and those principles that align with the organization, and keep everyone marching to the same drum, it makes it really easy for people to do those jobs and do them not just well from an execution perspective, but do them well by what the brand stands for.

Mind you, no one’s ever perfect. But that said, we try our hardest.

P: Well, that’s what I was gonna say. Your brand, whether it’s a blog post or something on Instagram, clearly you honor what you do. But it never feels over-the-top. It still feels light and has a sense of joy. How do you achieve that balance?

K: We never want to be a preachy brand. We have a philosophy: Inspire people, and they’ll follow you. Inspire them, educate them, get them excited about it, and then everything becomes easy. So our brand voice, our design, all those things are meant to be a piece of content that you enjoy reading, or that you enjoy digesting, so that we can reach you. We can talk about the things that matter to us, and we can educate our guests. But we can do it in a way that they’re actually paying attention.

When you’re on vacation, you don’t want to think ‘Oh, I can’t take a shower because it’s bad.’ Or ‘Oh, this is ruining the environment.’ Or ‘Oh, I didn’t turn off my a/c or I didn’t turn off my lights.’ We focus on doing all the hard work before the guest shows up. Building our buildings the right way. Operating them efficiently. Being smart from a sustainability standpoint. And then with our guests, we just look to inspire them. And educate them. And show them how easy and fun and enjoyable and luxurious and amazing it can be to live this way of life. And if we can show them that, why wouldn’t they do it? We try to inform through inspiration, versus hitting people over the head with facts or figures or daunting tasks.

P: Absolutely. So from an environmental perspective, where have you exceeded your expectations, and what remains an implementation challenge?

K: Oh, interesting. Hmm. Things that’ve gone better than I imagined: I think the adoption of our in-room water dispensers [an environmentally friendly alternative to bottled water], has been super-successful. I think our employee engagement, and the amount that they give back through our volunteer hours, and the work that they do in the community, has been super-successful. I also think the reception that we get, and the fact that so many guests say ‘This is amazing, I now do this at home,’ or ‘This inspired me a lot,’ all those things, has been really inspiring.

From an implementation standpoint, it’s interesting. One example: We have these machines called ORCA. They’re basically like food digesters. Any food waste that we have goes through these ORCA machines, and it goes through movement, and osmosis, and basically it breaks it down into grey water, which then can be used to fertilize plants. It [helps us] avoid putting food into dumps. These machines are super-amazing, but how do we not look at the ORCA as the solution? How do we get our food supply so tight, and our portion sizes so tight, and our food management so tight that we don’t even need an ORCA? Creating a new widget versus trying to fit into an old one. That’s where we are now. Trying to create systems that really take it to the next level. Because an ORCA is the easy solution, but how do we push ourselves to innovate in this space? That’s where you [can be] a huge game-changer. It’s good that we have an ORCA, but it would be fucking awesome if we didn’t have food waste at all.

P: Ha, exactly.

K: Our first two hotels were remodels, renovations. We brought South Beach to LEED Silver, we brought Central Park to LEED. The investment to get them to that level, buildings built in the 1920s and ‘60s, was a lot. But I think we’re starting to get smarter about what’s the 80/20 rule from a sustainability perspective and from a brand perspective, too. Where do we spend the dollars and invest to get the most impact, but also to reduce the most impact versus trying to do everything. Because you want to be strategic around how you spend the money. I think with our new builds, in Brooklyn and the next phase of our hotels that are coming, we’re trying to get really strategic about our 80/20, and trying to understand how we can spend the money in the most efficient way to make our operations as sustainable as possible.

Kane Sarhan, head of brand at 1Hotels
Kane Sarhan, head of brand at 1Hotels

P: As you mentioned earlier, guests often ask how they can bring certain elements into their homes after they stay with you. But for you personally, how has your experience at 1Hotels changed how you live?

K: I’ve always, from a sustainability perspective, been super-mindful because that’s how I was raised. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned so much from the brand, just from a facts and education standpoint, that it’s been amazing. But for me what’s had the most impact is when we talk about sustainability of the body. The importance of what we eat, how we sleep, exercise, movement, etc., and how that all plays into this bigger sustainability movement. That has had the biggest impact on my life: I’m healthier, in better shape, more focused on wellness, more focused on my personal well-being, with 1Hotels than I was before.

P: That’s awesome. So not quite related, but I wanted to ask about something I saw that you guys say: That Earth Day at 1Hotels is like Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa all wrapped up in one.

K: Yeah, it’s our big day.

P: What does that mean in practice?

K: For us, Earth Day is really like Earth Month. It’s our most celebratory time of the year. We do a ton of activation, we do a ton of volunteer work, we create a lot of content around it. This year we did a whole celebration at our Brooklyn property with 1,500 people: speakers, panels, a market, fitness classes, and a concert, all kinds of stuff.

But Earth Day is every day for us. We talk about the environment and sustainability and our mission 365-24-7. But we feel like Earth Day is when everybody else comes to our party, you know what I mean? We get to host and bring everyone into our home. It’s also the date when we get to think about new things. Like this Earth Day, we launched a fellowship program that we’re doing with the Natural Resources Defense Council, where we’re funding ten $25,000 fellowships for innovators and entrepreneurs in the sustainability space. We’re actually funding young people who are innovating in this space and doing more to save the environment. We launched that program on Earth Day, and it will be an annual program that we do.

P: That’s great. So what’s next?

K: We’re expanding pretty rapidly. Los Angeles. Cabo. Sanya, China. Sunnyvale [in Silicon Valley]. There’s some more in the works that we haven’t talked about yet but are coming down the pike. And I think longterm, you hear the term lifestyle hotel all the time. But for us we’re truly a lifestyle brand. To stay at 1Hotels is to say you live a certain way, you eat a certain way, you care about certain things. So I think an evolution for the brand will be really owning that lifestyle. Now what does that look like outside of our four walls? And that’s down the road, that’s not today. But what does the 1Hotels lifestyle really look like in your home, and how do we help our guests take that home with them? And not in just the traditional ‘Oh, buy our sheets, buy our pillows, buy our this, buy our that’ program that every hotel’s done. But truly thinking about integrated lifestyle concepts and products that really have the 1Hotels seal of approval. That’s where the power of our brand will be in the long run.

P: Lightning round. You ready?

K: Yeah!

P: What was your favorite childhood scent?

K: My garden. Walking through a fresh vegetable garden in the summer.

P: What vegetables did you have?

K: Oh, god. Everything. Cucumbers. Tomatoes. Corn. Carrots. Onions. Lettuces. Like, everything. You name it, we had it in our garden.

P: What about your favorite fall scent?

K: Ooh, I equate fall to cinnamon. Like pumpkin pies have that nice cinnamon smell.

P: And your favorite PHLUR scent?

K: I am a big fan of Olmsted & Vaux. Love it.

P: And hey, it’s inspired by the Park across from one of your hotels! Thank you, Kane, for making time for us today.

K: Thank you.