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.
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 the 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
Broadsheet: How did you use design to reinvigorate the property?
"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?
BS: How did you go about protecting the hotel’s history, while also updating the design?
BS: If you were designing the hotel from scratch, what would you change?
BS: How important is creating a stage for social-media-friendly experiences in a hotel? Does this influence your approach to design?
BS: What are three of your favourite hotels for their design?
THE GENERAL MANAGER: FRANCESCA WEBSTER, 28, BYRON BAY
BS: What did you change about how things were run at Raes to improve the guest experience?
BS: What makes a good hotel manager and how do you go about pleasing everyone at Raes?
BS: Have customer’s expectations changed over time?
BS: How else have hotels changed compared to a decade ago?
"Sometimes great service is knowing when not to give it at all."
THE MANAGING DIRECTOR (AND OWNER): JORDAN CATALANO, 27, MELBOURNE
BS: What was the first thing you wanted to change as an owner?
BS: Have there been any challenges?
BS: Has Airbnb had an effect on business at Raes?
BS: The rise of user-feedback websites such as TripAdvisor has made it hard to trust reviews. Has this affected trade?
BS: What is your definition of a good uniform?
BS: How did you go about designing and updating the uniform at Raes?
BS: Is there another uniform you admire?
BS: What is it about Raes that lured you into joining the team?
BS: What role does art play in the world of hospitality?
"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
BS: What role does graphic design play in a hotel?
BS: What collateral did you introduce?
BS: What did you want to communicate at Raes?
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
BS: What did you want to change about the menu at the hotel restaurant?
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?
BS: Foraging for native ingredients is a big part of the new direction. How does it work?
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?
BS: How did you go about designing the room-service offering? Is there a particular hotel around the world with room service you admire?
BS: The real measure of any decent hotel is through its club sandwich. I noticed there isn’t one at Raes?