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Launching Appellation: An Interview with Cofounder Christopher Hunsberger

By Larry and Adam Mogelonsky | December 27, 2023

Christopher Hunsberger and Charlie Palmer of Appellation
Christopher Hunsberger, left, and Charlie Palmer of Appellation

Every hotelier knows in their heart of hearts the importance of giving guests a great experience. It’s the lifeblood of hospitality. Yet beyond impeccable service and a flawless guestroom, so much of that hotel experience is crafted by what else is happening onsite. This is what we often label as a “reason to visit,” which can be a spa, golf, the pool, beach access, proximity to attractions, activities, funky décor, or a mix of several of these and more.

In this case, the focus is F&B as that reason to visit, yet normally we would still write about its importance as a part of the overall hotel experience — framed as an ancillary spend, if you will. Appellation changes this dynamic by molding the hotel experience around the culinary, and in doing so is carving out a whole new niche of next-generation approachable luxury.

Beyond just being approachable and upscale, we see Appellation as yet one more intrepid player within the broader, growing movement of lifestyle hotels whereby customers are selecting their accommodations based on those brands that conform with their identities and aspirations. In this case, the subcategory would be “culinary lifestyle,” aiming to create one-of-a-kind, food-centric experiences that guests will not find anywhere else.

To get some insights on what makes this brand tick and how it’s filling a previously underserved market, we sat down with Appellation Hotels Cofounder and COO, Chris Hunsberger. Of the two of us, Larry worked with Hunsberger many years ago when he was President of Americas for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Getting caught up, we were eager to learn about his new venture and what lessons apply for every hotelier looking to evolve their brand.

ADAM AND LARRY MOGELONSKY: Tell us how you came to be a part of Appellation.

CHRIS HUNSBERGER: After working together on projects for more than 20 years, my cofounder, Chef Charlie Palmer, and I wanted to create a true merger of culinary and hospitality — something we have not seen implemented well yet. There are many great hotel restaurants, but nobody has really blended the culinary experience completely into the DNA of a hotel. At the time of our founding, Charlie and I owned and ran a couple of hotels in California that were eventually sold to become the seed capital to start Appellation, turning our vision into a reality by flipping the traditional hotel model and putting culinary at the forefront.

ALM: What is your vision for the new brand?

CH: Beyond a culinary-first hotel concept, our hotels honor the brand’s namesake, Appellation, which means “to give a name to a place.” We are setting a new standard for immersion in culinary, culture, and community that can only be found here. We have also thoughtfully positioned Appellation’s hotels at the 4.5-star service level. We believe luxury hospitality should be world-class, while also being approachable and welcoming.

ALM: Where are your first properties located and when do you expect to open?

CH: We’re focused on only developing hotels in places we love — places with a lot of soul and character. These tend to be high barrier-to-entry markets with an underserved luxury demand. Appellation Healdsburg — right in our hometown in Sonoma County wine country and neighboring our Appellation headquarters — will be our first opening, slated for late 2024. We are also debuting a hotel and residences in Sun Valley, Idaho, for 2025, followed by hotel openings in Petaluma, California, and Pacific Grove, California, in 2026.

ALM: You mentioned the term approachable luxury. What does this actually mean?

CH: We see approachable luxury as the future of luxury travel. Guests are seeking an impressive but unpretentious setting. Our hotels deliver first-rate services and unique experiences while prioritizing comfort and connection over formality and extravagance. We are creating a welcoming environment with ways for guests to learn new things during their stay, and our staff is genuinely happy to help.

ALM: Tell us more about the experiences that you expect to offer.

CH: With a name like “Appellation” it’s imperative that our hotels truly reflect a sense of place. In addition to our own farming operations and working with local purveyors for the best regional ingredients, we also seek out rising culinary talent in the market and bring them onto our team. Similarly, we are building unique Maker Spaces into our lobbies where we invite local makers and artisans to come in and perform their craft as part of our Crafted at Appellation immersive learning program. More than anything, we want our guests to feel like they live in the community, even if it’s for just a few days. We envision our guests’ rubbing shoulders with locals — whether that be at one of our Crafted at Appellation classes, over dinner at one of our restaurants, or late at night in one of our rooftop lounges.

ALM: Who is the primary target audience?

CH: Our audience is curious by nature and looking to discover a destination’s deepest roots, while connecting with others, all in a luxury setting. For our guests, food and beverage are not just part of the experience — it is the experience.

ALM: Do you have any competitors?

CH: With our 4.5-star positioning and new culinary-first hotel concept, we really see Appellation as carving a new space in the luxury hospitality segment.

ALM: Tell us more about your key team.

CH: Appellation really is the product of its people. My cofounder and CEO, Chef Charlie Palmer, is a renowned restaurateur with multiple James Beard Awards and 20 Michelin stars to his name. Many of Charlie’s protégés and close colleagues have gone on to open some of the best restaurants and most beloved establishments. We’ve brought in top leaders from all disciplines — guest experience, sales and marketing, finance, human resources, information technology, and development. We’ve also assembled a team of the best architects, interior designers, procurement specialists, and legal experts.

ALM: Anything else to finish off?

CH: We are innovating the use of technology in hospitality with our very own technology ecosystem called Appellation Insights. We spent a lot of time and resources to create a truly best-in-class marketing and guest experience platform, ensuring a truly frictionless experiential environment for both guests and employees. While comparable hotels typically deploy about a hundred different pieces of tech, Appellation Insights efficiently encompasses one-third of that number. Most importantly, we are using technology to enhance interactions between guests and our staff, and not replace these interactions. Appellation Insights helps free up our team members’ time to take on the hospitality-focused services they enjoy most, from guest interactions to surprise and delight experiences.

Credit

Larry and Adam Mogelonsky
Authors

Together, Adam and Larry Mogelonsky represent one of the world’s most published writing teams in hospitality, with over a decade’s worth of material online. As the partners of Hotel Mogel Consulting Ltd., a Toronto-based consulting practice, Larry focuses on asset management, sales and operations while Adam specializes in hotel technology and marketing. Their experience encompasses properties around the world, both branded and independent, and ranging from luxury and boutique to select-service. Their work includes seven books: In Vino Veritas: A Guide for Hoteliers and Restaurateurs to Sell More Wine (2022), More Hotel Mogel (2020), The Hotel Mogel (2018), The Llama is Inn (2017), Hotel Llama (2015), Llamas Rule (2013), and Are You an Ostrich or a Llama? (2012). You can reach them at adam@hotelmogel.com to discuss hotel business challenges or to book speaking engagements.

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