Old-School Hotelier Steers Ultra-Modern 21c

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 231 views 

Since 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville opened in February 2013, it has played an integral role in the city’s effort to establish itself as a cultural mecca.

Some say it’s the “icing on the cake” to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in 2011 as the illustrious center of the region’s art world.

However, 21c — which is a 10-minute trail walk from Crystal Bridges — is making a name for itself on its own and on a national level, not only for its concept and original 21st century art, but also for its luxury hotel accommodations.

Its 100 rooms and four suites are booked solid. And in October it landed the No. 1 spot for TripAdvisor.com’s Hot New Hotels. Later, in February, the property ranked No. 6 on the website’s Travelers’ Choice Awards. 

This all could, in part, be credited to the guiding hand of professional hotelier and 21c general manager Emmanuel Gardinier. His diverse background in hospitality spans 25 years and includes world-class European hotels and Caribbean island resorts.

 He first heard of the 21c Museum Hotel brand — which was founded in Louisville, Ky., and has a branch in Cincinnati — while he was living in South Carolina and was intrigued by the philosophy of melding original artwork with boutique hotel accommodations. When he heard there was going to be a location in Arkansas, he saw it as an excellent conduit to become a part of 21c. To Gardinier, “It’s the best of both worlds.” 

Most of all, Gardinier appreciates the hotel’s reputation for guest-centric standards. This aligns with his own service philosophy, although it’s been something he’s had to fight for — often against large corporations — in previous work situations.

“I’m an old-school hotelier,” Gardinier said. “My primary concern is service. I care about every single guest.”

At 21c, “we are not a five-star hotel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a five-star experience.”


Unique Impression

Walking into the lobby/gallery of 21c is a little surreal, in that it does not feel like a typical museum foyer or a typical hotel entrance.

The clerks and bellmen do not wear uniforms or have nametags but instead don green penguin lapel pins, a nod to the signature mascot for the museum/hotel.

The front desk is a stand-alone wooden table, on which a few tablet computers are scattered. Gardinier says it all evokes a startup vibe.

The idea is for the museum/hotel experience to feel more organic and comfortable. “A lot of people confuse snobbism with luxury,” Gardinier said. “Comfort is luxury.”

It is also within this relaxed environment that art can be experienced in a different, more natural way.

Gardinier hopes the art at 21c will make you think or make you smile.

“Sometimes, they might say, ‘What the hell was [the artist] thinking?’ — but that’s still a thought,” he said, smiling.


Art Abounds

Art is everywhere at 21c.

There are pieces in each of the rooms and suites, some of which were created by 21c co-founder Laura Lee Brown.

A rotating showcase of local art is featured on the landing of each floor, and everything is art-themed, down to the do-not-disturb signs. Art is found in the most unexpected of places, including the fitness center, which features the piece “Fat Batman” suspended from the ceiling.

Attention to detail is evident in almost every design element of the property. Seemingly arbitrary lines along the carpet in the hotel hallway actually signal “21c” in Morse code.

Each 21c location features large penguin statues designed by Cracking Art Group of Italy throughout its property. A different color at each museum/hotel, the penguin is a staple for 21c.

The penguin statues, which are “mysteriously” moved throughout the property, are one of only a few permanent art fixtures in the museum, which changes exhibitions every six months.

Right now, the museum is in the midst of transitioning to “Off-Spring: New Generations in Contemporary Art,” an exhibit about ritual and identity.

The staff members, including Gardinier, appreciate the fact that the atmosphere is exciting and always changing. And this makes it a unique experience each time for return guests.

  The museum is open 24 hours a day and is free to the public. 


Guests First

Gardinier says his favorite part of the hospitality business is getting to know the guests.

He is focused on the experience of each one of them and not the bottom line, which is a trap he says many traditional hotel models fall into.

Corporations cut corners or nickel and dime on charges to save money, and they sacrifice long-term results because guests do not want to return, Gardinier said.

He even enjoys navigating the difficult issues that inevitably pop up in the service industry, because if people enjoy the experience, he will be fostering loyalty with 21c’s guests.

Gardinier seems to have solidified loyalty within the staff. Hotel front desk positions are often high-turnover, but not one clerk has left the museum/hotel since it opened in February 2013.

“He can’t get rid of us,” clerk Morgan Jones said.

Perhaps this is because he appreciates the philosophy of teamwork. 21c fosters a collaborative environment on all levels.

“Without the team, I’d be nothing,” he said.

An information-technology whiz and seasoned professional cook, Gardinier is able to utilize different skills to help out wherever he’s needed.

He motivates his team by leading through example, and there’s no job Gardinier deems too small for him. If a bellman sees him picking up trash or opening the door for a patron, he will likely follow suit in going above and beyond in helping his teammates provide top-notch service, Gardinier said.


Rich Background

Although Gardinier has been an American citizen for several years, he was born in one of the world’s capitals of luxury and art, Paris, and spent much of his childhood in France. He trained at the world-renowned L’Ecole Hoteliere, in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he studied hospitality and culinary arts. But in spite of his European upbringing, he has always been attracted to the United States and has a deep appreciation for the American spirit.

Before starting at 21c, Gardinier was managing director of Planters Inn & Peninsula Grill in South Carolina, which under his direction was consistently rated among the top 50 best hotels in the country by many travel-related publications.

Prior to that, Gardinier worked two years as general manager for a castle-turned-hotel and restaurant called Boyer Les Crayeres in Reims, France.  At that time, Les Crayeres, which is surrounded by a 15-acre garden and park, was rated three Michelin stars, Europe’s highest distinction for hotels and restaurants. Under Gardinier’s direction, it was rated No. 1 by numerous organizations and earned the title of World’s Best Hotel-Europe many times from several different entities.

Hotels run by Gardinier in the Florida Keys and Saint Bart’s experienced great success as well.


Having Fun

Although Gardinier’s impressive repertoire helps, perhaps it is his sense of fun that makes him the perfect fit for 21c.

Although he is a self-proclaimed perfectionist, he doesn’t believe in taking himself too seriously.

The staff members often play pranks on each other. Gardinier never minds looking a little silly in the spirit of having fun.

“I’m not afraid of a little Southern whimsy,” he said.

This attitude, coupled with appreciation for contemporary art, is the foundation on which 21c was based. And the company is still growing. It has announced plans to open locations in Durham, N.C., and Lexington, Ky.

But the 21c Museum Hotel and other cultural additions to the Northwest Arkansas area are more than just good fun.

“The arts support jobs, generate tax revenues and spawn economic development,” said Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of the Bentonville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

And Bentonville is starting to reap benefits from a focus on the arts and other cultural aspects in recent years. Bentonville’s hospitality tax collections increased by 18 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the visitors’ bureau. And 21c Museum Hotel made up 12 percent of last year’s hospitality tax revenue.

The next step for 21c, Gardinier said, is to be more of a community cultural center. In addition to being available by reservation for all kinds of events, the venue hosts its own regular programs and often teams up with other local organizations for events. For example, 21c shows movies once a month and is offering improvisational acting classes, taught by a representative of the Trike Theater.

To Gardinier, who lives in Bella Vista with wife Katherine, Bentonville is Mayberry meets Metropolis, and there’s no place he’d rather be.