As far as tastemakers go, Ben Pundole has played a hand in shaping our collective hotel and nightlife experiences for two decades. The London native eschewed a traditional education by taking a job at the city’s infamous Groucho Club at age 19, before moving onto the Metropolitan Hotel’s Met bar. There, a serendipitous encounter with Madonna led to an introduction to Ian Schrager, who would become his longtime employer and collaborator.
Pundole spent over a decade with Schrager at Morgans Hotel Group as VP of Entertainment. With such iconic properties as the Hudson Hotel in New York City and the Delano in South Beach, Morgans arguably heralded in the boutique hotel and the lobby as a social space.
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He’s worked with nightlife pioneer Amy Sacco. Famed for Manhattan’s impossible to get into Bungalow 8 in in the early 2000s, Sacco’s vision brought Rec Room to South Beach in 2013. Pundole also refined that particular brand of magical, rustic, surfy glamour that Montauk is now famous for with instant classic hotels The Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s. Aligned with such influential players, his touch has no doubt impacted the way we like to have fun.
Today, he’s back with Schrager as VP of Brand Experience at EDITION Hotels—the much buzzed about luxury lifestyle collaboration with Marriott International—and at the helm of AHotelLife.com, the online travel magazine he founded two years ago that offers up a concise cheat sheet on the most interesting hotels around the globe.
A self-described progressive traveler with a passion for hotels and storytelling, he told me that he identifies as a Millennial at the older than typically accepted age of 40 when we sat down in May at The New York EDITION during its opening weekend—that’s two full months before Kanye’s proclamation at the VMAs.
The forward-thinking hotelier explains, “There was a time, almost two and half years ago, where we were coming out of the recession and travel for Millennials just became a thing that was possible. There were people finishing college during the recession, and then all of a sudden things got better, and there’s this group of 28 to 29 year olds, and no one’s communicating with them in the travel industry, in my opinion. Although I’m 40 years old, I count myself as a Millennial and part of the creative class of Millennials.”
It’s with that taste in mind, and a knack for both creating and seeking out the ineffable, transcendent enchantment of travel that Pundole’s well-suited in the two roles he’s currently undertaken, as both hotelier and hotel critic—and that’s what we discussed in the bright white, Gilded Age-inspired lobby overlooking Madison Square Park one afternoon a few months ago.
The lobby of The New York EDITION. Photo by Shayne Benowitz.
Shayne Benowitz: I actually came across A Hotel Life before I figured out the Miami connection and your involvement with EDITION Hotels. As VP of Brand Experience for EDITION and Editor-in-Chief of A Hotel Life, it sounds like two full-time jobs. How do you juggle them?
Ben Pundole: EDITION is the full time job. A Hotel Life is very much a passion project. A Hotel Life sprung out of my love for travel and hotels. I have six editors. It’s a passion project for everyone. It’s self-funded. I don’t really work with brands. It came out of something I couldn’t find elsewhere. I couldn’t find it in traditional magazines. Nothing was determined by taste, it was all about a 5 Star grading system. And I thought, it doesn’t matter if it’s a hostel or a palace, if it’s determined by taste, it’s going to appeal to that creative class of the Millenial.
I’m not very tech savvy, but I figured it out. We don’t take it too seriously. We’ve got sections like ‘stealable stuff’ because who doesn’t want to steal stuff from hotels?
The real job is creating experiences and storytelling, and they kind of mesh into one. A Hotel Life is discovering stories from interesting people around the world, and then here [at EDITION] it’s collaborating with great people to create stories and experiences that reach far beyond the literal hotel stay of eat, drink, sleep, hotel.
What role do you think hotels play in travel? How important is a hotel in giving a traveler their first impression of a new place?
It depends on the individual. If you’re a weirdo like me, I travel to places just to go to the hotel. There’s a hotel in the south of France called Hôtel Nord-Pinus in Arles. It was owned by a clown and a cabaret dancer for many years since the 1920s on a square in the South of France. It’s where, in the ‘50s, Picasso used to hang out and party and drink and watch the bullfighting at this 15th century amphitheater nearby. And this hotel is filled with magic. I was reading a book about Picasso and read about the hotel and decided to make a pilgrimage.
The exterior of Hôtel Nord-Pinus in Arles. Photo courtesy of Hôtel Nord-Pinus.
You split your time between Brooklyn and South Beach. Aside from the common thread of The EDITION, what draws you to these two places ?
I moved from the West Village to Brooklyn about six years ago because I found that Manhattan had been creatively homogenized and I really wanted to be inspired. I find that the emerging galleries, markets, artists and parties happening in Brooklyn are a lot more edgy than the tried and tested party scene or art galleries in Manhattan. So I get very inspired in Brooklyn and I love that. I also love to be outside of my comfort zone.
Miami, I love because it can be whatever you want it to be. It can be a true bastion of hedonism or it can be the healthiest experience. You can wake up and run on the beach, do yoga and go paddleboarding, and I love that because I do both. I unashamedly do both. I do trips to Miami sometimes where I don’t see anybody. I run on the beach, I do yoga, and there are other times where I go and it’s the III Points Festival and I’ll go bonkers for three days, and I’m totally okay with that. Miami has become this amazing place. The creativity in Miami is amazing.
Which hotels and hoteliers do you think are doing exciting things today?
The Upper House in Hong Kong. It is the best example of modern luxury. I love what Liz Lambert does at Bunkhouse Group in Austin and Marfa [Texas]. I love what Avi Brosh does at the Palihouses in LA. I love what the guys Carlos [Couturier] and Moises [Micha] do with the group Habita. They have the Hotel Americano here [in New York].
Where have you been recently that you loved?
I’ve done two trips this year. Peru. It is probably the most exciting, interesting and wonderful place I’ve been ever. Cusco’s amazing. Then, we went up to the Sacred Valley and did a huayasca ceremony. It’s quite a wild ride. That was one of the most interesting, exciting things I’ve ever done. I loved Cusco. I have this strange fascination with being somewhere where no one else in the world knows where I am. I went to this ho
stel to meet the shaman and then drove up to this mountain house. It was just phenomenal. The whole experience was phenomenal. Loved it. I went to an amazing hotel in Lima called Hotel B. It’s like 16 rooms in the Relais & Chateaux group. Absolutely loved Hotel B.
Pundole on the ancient streets of Cusco. Photo courtesy @Ahotellife.
The other trip I did was Cuba, just for three or four days, because I’m so culturally curious. I love the road less traveled, so we went out to the Bay of Pigs, a couple of hours outside of Havana, and that was fascinating. Even in Old Havana, we stayed out of the touristy parts, and I took a bunch of old pairs of sunglasses with me, and we walked into the bad parts and handed out sunglasses to the kids playing soccer.
A portrait from Pundole’s travels in Havana. Photo courtesy @Ahotellife.
Where do you turn to for travel advice?
I get my travel advice from the less known blogs and magazines. There’s this great blog called 12hrs.net, and they do these 12 hours in any one city. I like Suitcase. I like Fathom Away. I like Afar. Interesting stuff.
Do you have a city that you love that you return to again and again?
We are here once. I went to Berlin about eight times in three or four years. I’ve been to Tulum about 10, 11 times. But I’m telling myself, I can’t do that anymore. No more.
You mentioned you love the idea of being in a place so remote nobody else knows where you are, where have you felt most off the grid?
Peru. Or the Burning Man Festival, best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
On the Playa at Burning Man. Photo courtesy @Ahotellife.
Okay, last question, what makes a great hotel experience?
It’s creating an environment that makes people feel like they’re a better, more exciting version of themselves. Creating stories.
Shayne Benowitz is the hotels & travel editor for Miami.com. Check-in with her on Twitter @ShayneBenowitz.