How to Build a Hotel: The Renaissance of Raes on Wategos

The best luxury hotels are no longer just king-size rooms and good service. Welcome to a new era of luxury accommodation in Australia in 2018.

Published on 26 September 2018

The storied hotel hangs its hat not only on the hotelier but on its entire team – the staff and creatives who, together, engender a sense of place. Check into one of these institutions and you’re ushered into a singular world designed by people you don’t always hear about, but whose influence is felt as soon as your head hits a well-made pillow, or the moment you sip an icy cocktail by the pool.

The boutique resort, spa and restaurant in Byron Bay, Raes on Wategos, which opened in 1994, has been transformed under the ownership of the Catalano family, who bought the property in 2014, then enlisted formidable Australian talent to shape its rebirth.

Perched on a hill overlooking Wategos Beach, the striking white villa is one of the few boutique hotels in Australia with a colourful lineage – something that can’t be replicated by new builds. Originally constructed in the 1960s as a kiosk called Argentine Ant Cantina, the 1970s saw the property transformed into a restaurant and private home called La Belle Epoque. Legend has it Salvator Dalí designed the tropical garden and freeform pool. Properties don’t come like this anymore; one of many reasons Raes stands out in an increasingly crowded Australian boutique hotel market.

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Charm and history notwithstanding, when the Catalanos took over Raes last year they could see it needed attention. The interiors were tired; the food offering was stuck in the ’90s.

So how do you consider that history and character while restoring and contemporising the hotel? What can and should be salvaged? What should go? The Catalanos had to ensure whatever changes were made satisfied the expectations of the modern traveller while retaining the tangible and indefinable features that made Raes so special in the first place.

In the end, “it was about stripping it back, removing the clutter and carefully creating comfort, obscurity and beauty in an unpretentious and rustic manner”, says Tamsin Johnson, who was tasked with the makeover. The Catalanos gave Sydney-based interior designer a fairly open brief to rethink the hotel rooms, which was part of a larger project to fine-tune the brand and bring the hotel into 2018, with all the elements that luxury hotel guests have come to expect.

“It’s so important to be leaders in every field now,” Johnson explains. “If the interior and the setting are beautiful but you can’t get a cold drink or a yummy club sandwich then it’s not good enough. Everything is so competitive now, and very much about what it looks like, but the back-of-house is just as important in making everything tick.”

Chef Jason Barratt (ex Melbourne’s Attica and Stokehouse) recently joined the team to take the restaurant in a more youthful direction. The pool area has been renewed, with a new coat of paint and pastel-blue day beds. And Raes Cellar Bar, a casual spot for a post-beach drink and snack, opened in July.

We sat down with the architects behind Raes new incarnation – the general manager, the creative director, the chef, the managing director, the artist, and the interior and uniform designers – to discuss the story behind the hotel’s revamp, the shifting sands of the luxury accommodation market, and why they’re not concerned with the rise of Airbnb.

THE INTERIOR DESIGNER: TAMSIN JOHNSON, 33, SYDNEY

Melbourne-born, Sydney-based interior designer Johnson creates elegant but warm contemporary interiors rooted in antiquity in Australia and abroad, from restaurants and cafes, to retail stores, boats and homes. Rae’s managing director Jordy Catalano recruited her to update the luxury retreat’s seven bedrooms: a villa, two penthouses and four suites.

Broadsheet: How did you use design to reinvigorate the property?

Tamsin Johnson: The bones of the hotel are beautiful but were hidden under years of bad makeovers. I got rid of the deep-wooden and purple-velvet tones, alongside a lot of Bali design, which was dated and inappropriate for the space. It felt very wintery and over-furnished and we wanted to pull it back and let the natural bones of the building become the forefront of the space. We also restored the original tiled floors, delicately painted the arches and moulded the rooms into what they should always have been: relaxed and comfortable, as well as retaining a feeling of arriving in your very own beach house.

"I love when you go to a restaurant and there are no bad tables. I wanted this to be the same with the rooms."

BS: How different is decorating a hotel to decorating a house?

TJ: Other than the obvious functional differences, Raes is a seven-room hotel, which is the size of some houses. But the intention was to have a different layer and feel in every room, while ensuring they had consistency – a relaxed, coastal but understated feel. I love when you go to a restaurant and there are no bad tables. I wanted this to be the same with the rooms. Each has its own quirks and beauties.

BS: How did you go about protecting the hotel’s history, while also updating the design?

TJ: While it was tempting to fill the rooms with treasures and layers, it was incredibly important to let the natural elements speak for themselves. After all, the property overlooks the most magical beach in Australia. The design elements and art books have been selected to encourage reading and reclining in a space that feels like home.

BS: If you were designing the hotel from scratch, what would you change?

TJ: I would probably add a few more rooms, but I do love that it feels like a big house rather than a hotel.

BS: How important is creating a stage for social-media-friendly experiences in a hotel? Does this influence your approach to design?

TJ: It’s a very weird world we live in. Guests, influencers and media are looking for “Instagrammable” moments, content and the perfect shot. To be honest, I never think about this when designing. I just want to create something elegant and timeless. That said, if the place looks photogenic, I’ve done my job well.

BS: What are three of your favourite hotels for their design?

TJ: La Colombe d’Or in Saint Paul de Vence, France; and in Italy, Le Sirenuse in Positano and Palazzo Margherita in Bernalda.

THE GENERAL MANAGER: FRANCESCA WEBSTER, 28, BYRON BAY

Born in Sydney, Webster has worked at top Australian hotels including Halcyon House on Cabarita Beach and Park Hyatt in Sydney. She has played a pivotal role in the hotel’s rebirth, and one year into her tenure, occupancy is up.

BS: What did you change about how things were run at Raes to improve the guest experience?

Francesca Webster: The whole experience had a total overhaul cosmetically, procedurally and culturally. My role meant overseeing enhancements to the guest rooms, service offerings, cutlery, procedures, and food and beverage offerings. The biggest shift has been introducing service that’s tailored to each guest. The staff, for example, now welcome you with a curated itinerary and share all their local knowledge from walks, private beaches and waterfalls, to restaurants in the hinterland.

BS: What makes a good hotel manager and how do you go about pleasing everyone at Raes?

FW: You have to wear many hats at once, while having empathy. Sometimes great service is knowing when not to give it at all. All guests are different, so understanding that each person’s preferences are dissimilar to one another is also super important. An eye for detail and, above all, having a strong and genuine belief in the brand and the property – as if it were your own.

BS: Have customer’s expectations changed over time?

FW: Tenfold. We live in the age of information where we’re all exposed to images, forums, reviews and videos on experiences that are happening live around the world on a daily basis. Now our guests are armed with information and have high expectations before they even arrive. Some would see this as a threat, but ultimately this raises the bar for the hotel industry on a global scale.

BS: How else have hotels changed compared to a decade ago?

FW: We’ve seen a huge transition from a guest experience that was once isolated – there was a vast separation between the guest and server – to today’s experience, which is connective and interactive. The age of good service where items are served with white gloves on a silver platter is long gone.

"Sometimes great service is knowing when not to give it at all."

THE MANAGING DIRECTOR (AND OWNER): JORDAN CATALANO, 27, MELBOURNE

Catalano represents his family, who purchased the property in 2017. He is ultimately responsible for the hotel and its success, overseeing all elements of the property and its operations, from finding and nurturing staff, to building the brand and expanding it internationally.

BS: What was the first thing you wanted to change as an owner?

JC: We decided the best approach was to first renovate and refurbish the property to give us a new story to tell. Announcing new ownership means nothing if the offering remains the same.

BS: Have there been any challenges?

JC: Finding great staff, who understand how far personalised service goes to enhance a guest’s stay, is always a challenge.

BS: Has Airbnb had an effect on business at Raes?

JC: I certainly wouldn’t say Airbnb has affected business in a negative way. I’m a fan of it, but feel that the type of holiday Raes offers is vastly different to the experience of renting a house.

BS: The rise of user-feedback websites such as TripAdvisor has made it hard to trust reviews. Has this affected trade?

JC: Unfortunately, it seems most people are more inclined to jump on TripAdvisor and leave a negative review than positive feedback. For a lot of hospitality businesses this creates an unfair disparity between ratings. When guests have really positive feedback, they prefer to reach out direct. But it would be remiss of any operator to completely ignore these digital reviews. I do think travellers are savvy enough these days to search beyond TripAdvisor and plan holidays around editorial they read rather than user reviews.

THE UNIFORM DESIGNER: LUCY FOLK, 35, PARIS

Melbourne-born jewellery designer Folk founded an eponymous jewellery label in 2007 that has since expanded into a successful lifestyle brand with a global fan base. She was tasked with creating fashionable staff uniforms that reflect the property’s heritage and speak to its surrounds. She designed an ensemble of blue-and-white-striped linen vests (worn over white T-shirts) with matching roll-up trousers. The design differs slightly from role to role.

BS: What is your definition of a good uniform?

LF: It has to be comfortable, versatile and stand the test of time.

BS: How did you go about designing and updating the uniform at Raes?

LF: I wanted to keep it relaxed and beachy. I find hotel uniforms are generally quite rigid. Raes is a special hotel and the uniforms needed to be different, while fitting into its environment; every detail of the uniforms comes down to being beachside. I wanted to keep the palette quite light, introducing baby blues and whites, while keeping the design simple and effective for each role at the hotel: reception, housekeeping and the restaurant staff all wear a different uniform – each with various shapes tailored to each role. The colour palette is very much inspired by the deep blue, which Raes sits above … mix that with salt and sand and you have the perfect match.

BS: Is there another uniform you admire?

LF: I love the uniforms at Scorpios in Mykonos. It’s the place of long, leisurely lunches – or parties – and the linen staff uniforms exude the perfect mix of minimalism and sophistication, with a subtle influence of the ancient Greek goddess.

THE ARTIST: DAIMON DOWNEY, 42, SYDNEY

Raes commissioned the artist, ex-Sneaky Sound System frontman and co-owner of Sydney bar Pelicano to paint a mural in the Raes restaurant. It replaced a David Bromley painting.

BS: What is it about Raes that lured you into joining the team?

DD: From the minute you roll around the hill and you’re hit with the view of Wategos, you know you’re somewhere special. The building has to be one of my favourite in Australia and it gives an automatic feeling of being on holiday. The rooms are absolute heaven – fresh, light and filled with sea air and sculptural furniture. But the real clincher for me is a long, long lunch and Raes is top of my list for this.

BS: What role does art play in the world of hospitality?

DD: Hospitality is made up of a mountain of creative choices that you may not see straight away – or even at all if done well. The colour and slow dimming of the lights, the change in music tempo, the width of a chair leg … I think mavericks in hospitality see all decisions as having equal importance. Art’s role speaks volumes in determining a good or bad experience; a great, famous and well-considered piece of art puts you in trusting arms.

BS: You’ve designed artwork for several top Sydney restaurants including Matteo and North Bondi Fish. How different is painting a mural in a hotel or restaurant to a private commission?

DD: Painting onsite is always a little daunting ... there’s bit of an audience so it’s fingers crossed that I get the feeling I’m after first time around. But apart from the huddle of eyes watching my progress, I approach it much the same as a canvas. It requires visits to the room and space prior, chats with the client, colour testing and then it begins. Murals in Australia also have a somewhat street-art connotation, but in the Mediterranean it seems to be about a depiction of food or pattern and feel. At Raes I wanted to approach it with the latter.

"The colour and slow dimming of the lights, the change in music tempo, the width of a chair leg … I think mavericks in hospitality see all decisions as having equal importance."

THE GRAPHIC DESIGNER: DAANEN NOOTENBOOM, 32, MELBOURNE

Creative director Nootenboom has created graphics for The Lucas Group (Chin Chin Sydney, as well as Kong and Hawker Hall in Melbourne), and also worked on projects for The Prince Hotel. He redesigned the graphic branding at Raes.

BS: What role does graphic design play in a hotel?

DN: It plays a big role in making a customer’s experience feel considered and thoughtful. In the last couple of years with the rise of social media, it’s become more important to give the guest something different to the majors. I don’t believe graphics are necessarily the be-all-and-end-all. The best icing on a bad cake won’t be enjoyable. I think it all starts from the operation. The guest has to be comfortable first – everything else is a bonus.

BS: What collateral did you introduce?

DN: I was responsible for the entire branding: the logo, which I left alone as it already had a great boutique, coastal-hotel feel, which I wanted to retain; signage; a tidy up of the restaurant branding; coasters; notepads; menus; in-room stationery; spa communications; tote graphics; business cards; towels; the mini bar; crew shirts; and also the branding for Sea Raes, which is the hotel’s own super yacht charter based in Mallorca.

BS: What did you want to communicate at Raes?

DN: In a hotel like Raes there’s an inherent charm that needs to be retained. Quite often designers are tasked with reinterpreting brands that can be inconsiderate of the history – we wanted to ensure we didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s also important to avoid over-designing the experience.

Raes had a lot of quirks … some great and others bad. The aim was to preserve a bit of the “dag”. I refer to it as a “touch of wrong”. I didn’t want to make any of the design elements feel impersonal or flawless in their look and feel. It’s like restoring a historical car – it’s something you love but sometimes it breaks down. It’s that imperfection that evokes emotion. I made sure the design and assets were tactile, freeform and imperfect. The pens, for example, are old Bic Clic Stics, which aren’t the newest and shiniest but they’re tried and tested.

"The best icing on a bad cake won’t be enjoyable. I think it all starts from the operation. The guest has to be comfortable first – everything else is a bonus."

THE HEAD CHEF: JASON BARRATT, 34, BYRON BAY

Barratt has worked as a chef at Melbourne’s Attica, Circa and Stokehouse, before opening his own sandwich shop Hector’s Deli. He came on board to reinvent the restaurant at Raes, turning it into a standalone venue.

BS: What did you want to change about the menu at the hotel restaurant?

Jason Barratt: The food has never been a standalone part of it. Francesca brought me onboard to get the dining room up to scratch and make it a business in its own right – I thought it was a cool challenge. And to do that within a hotel that’s already reputable – that’s a dream job. And so I took a step back and thought, “What makes a hotel-restaurant cool?” I’ve stayed in a few hotels around the world and hadn’t noticed it at the time, but went back and thought about why you enjoyed them: it always came down to simplicity.

We’re also after a different target market now: the average age in the restaurant before was 50. We want to hit the refresh button and get some younger clientele in.

BS: What was the idea behind the new nine-seat Cellar Bar?

JB: We converted the old wine cellar into a bar downstairs. It’s more of a walk-in-off-the-beach operation where you can get drinks and seafood snacks – fish wings, clams, oysters, sashimi, tinned anchovies and little prawn-katsu sandwiches – without the formality of the restaurant above.

BS: Foraging for native ingredients is a big part of the new direction. How does it work?

JB: Well, with the salt bush, for example, we get it from all around the national park, picking it everywhere we can see it. We treat it like spinach and stuff it inside agnolotti with these cool oyster mushrooms, which grow in this eco-friendly backyard 20 minutes away. And then drape it with stracciatella.

BS: After working at fine diner like Attica, has it been hard to revert to a more casual approach at Hector’s and now Raes?

JB: The attitude and the work ethic is the same as what I’ve put in to here and what I did at Hector’s Deli. It’s about really good produce treated correctly.

BS: How did you go about designing the room-service offering? Is there a particular hotel around the world with room service you admire?

JB: It was really fun to create. I remember being at the Ace Hotel in New York a few years ago ordering cheese toasties in the early hours of the morning – I wanted us to have that freedom. We also have a late-night toasty and buttered popcorn.

BS: The real measure of any decent hotel is through its club sandwich. I noticed there isn’t one at Raes?

JB: In the first conversation I had with Francesca I said, “We have to do a good club, a seafood club”. It hasn’t made it on the menu yet, but after many late-night testings, we’re almost good to go. It’ll be up there with one of the best clubs for sure. It’s coming.