The story of Grupo Habita began, as many stories do, with college friends. At the turn of the millennium, Carlos Couturier, alongside Moisés Micha and his brothers Rafael and Jaime, decided to venture into Mexico’s burgeoning hospitality industry. The group had no experience in the field — Moisés and Carlos had come out of the real estate world — but they did have a strong sense of creative direction. In the year 2000, Mexico didn’t yet have a market for what are now known as lifestyle hotels. Grupo Habita intended to break ground and prove that the country did, in fact, have an appetite for design-oriented, service-heavy lodgings. When its first property, Habita Hotel, was launched to acclaim that same year, the group’s bet paid off — and Mexico City became home to Latin America’s first lifestyle hotel.
The lifestyle hotel is a kind of evolution of the boutique hotel: intimate and on the smaller side, yet paired with a sharp, modernist edge. But whereas the boutique hotel was typically singular and exclusive, lifestyle hotels are meant to be more accessible and more common. Within these hotels, there tends to be an emphasis on personalized, totalizing experiences, usually brought about through a selection of luxurious amenities: think classy cuisine or eccentric spas. Grupo Habita’s spin on this idea of immersion is related to the Spanish concept of vecindad, which translates to something like “neighbourhood.” For Grupo Habita, the idea is that the hotels are neighbourhoods in themselves — community-forming destinations with a heavy sense of place and wholeness.
Vecindad seems to be an effective driving force for a lifestyle hotel. Over the past 22 years, Grupo Habita has replicated these place- and style-heavy accommodations across Mexico and beyond. Among the group’s 15 hotels are several in Mexico City, with other locations in Monterrey and Guadalajara. Beyond these obvious tourist destinations are more interesting choices: Puebla, La Paz, Puerto Escondido, even over the border in Chicago. Though the hotel’s no longer associated with the group, their 2001 launch of Deseo in Playa del Carmen was seen as instrumental in growing the city’s tourism and hospitality industry. Today, Playa is one of Mexico’s fastest-growing destination spots for vacationers and expats.
Part of what makes Grupo Habita’s recipe successful again and again are the design principles that bind its line of hotels: respect for history and place, a relaxed minimalism, and emphasis on the human aspects of space. Careful integration of the old and the new is repeated through different properties: in Puebla’s La Purificadora, architect Ricardo Legorreta niftily cannibalized the original structure’s century-old beams, giving them a second life as flooring and parts of columns. In 2015, co-founder Carlos Couturier told Centurion magazine that the group believes its buildings should encourage natural face-to-face socializing, saying, “The hotels of the future should contribute to restoring the essence of social interaction: human contact.” Grupo Habita’s hotels tend to be open, airy, and flowing, with ample lounging areas for contact and connection.
Grupo Habita’s design-centric approach shines through in Escondido Oaxaca, a recent addition to its lineup in Oaxaca de Juárez. Escondido translates to “hidden”; in this case, it can be taken to mean “blending into the environment.” The warm sand-coloured monochrome of the walls, floors, ceilings, and furniture, paired with the use of cement and panelling, makes it seem as though the building rose from the ground all on its own (think a brighter Star Wars cantina, less all the lights and tech).
Rafael Micha describes how their creative teams “are encouraged to reflect the surrounding environment in design features and colour schemes.” Escondido Oaxaca wouldn’t look out of place lined up next to either the city’s Aztec ruins in the Monte Albán archeological site or its colonial-era cathedrals. This sense of place is emphasized by the hotel’s reliance on local artistry: Oaxacan artisans made both the textiles and the furniture. The building itself “was a painstaking remodel of a late-19th-century traditional house with a central courtyard, revising it to include a rooftop terrace and pool as well as eight new rooms,” Rafael Micha explains. Grupo Habita describes the hotel as a work of art, which is true in two senses: it’s a beautiful object, and it’s the result of a whole lot of creative labour.
Not far away, in Puerto Escondido, is perhaps the group’s most forward-thinking property: the Terrestre Hotel. Working with architect Alberto Kalach, the group conceptualized the building as an environmentally sustainable powerhouse, fully solar-powered and surrounded by endemic landscaping, a type of gardening that uses only native flora. There’s no air conditioning; instead, cooling is built into the infrastructure: rooms are set up to benefit from cross-current winds, and water flows through the building creating ponds, pools, and cascading showers. “It plays with the sun, wind, and water,” as Kalach puts it. Operating as a part of the environment, rather than a refuge from it, Terrestre is positioned between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains, “tucked into the landscape as though it had been there for hundreds of years,” says Rafael.
The launch of Terrestre aligns with a growing interest in the concept of “sustainable tourism” driven by increasing awareness of the industry’s impacts on the natural environment. Rafael Micha is adamant that the hospitality industry must align itself with sustainability “without greenwashing and brainwashing.” Within the context of the hospitality industry, greenwashing is the act of launching environmentally friendly initiatives for the purposes of public relations without any truly substantive investments in sustainability. Rafael is correct in his assessment of its pitfalls: greenwashing can lead to consumer cynicism, as well as confusion over the legitimate environmental implications of the industry.
Hotels make up about one per cent of global carbon emissions. However, the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance found that, by 2050, carbon emissions need to be reduced by 90 per cent per room to ensure that forecast growth doesn’t correspond to an increase in pollution. Back in 2000, Grupo Habita took a gamble on lifestyle hotels as the way forward for the hospitality industry. Now, its founders have placed their money on low-energy-consumption luxury. The group’s history of success might give the rest of the industry reason enough to listen.
Photography: Escondido Oaxaca © Undine Pröhl; Terrestre © Jaime Navarro