A love affair with the city of his birth has driven Paul Hermanides to great heights, both as a hotelier and as a key shaper of Amsterdam’s cultural scene.If you came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, as the renowned Dutch hotelier and businessman Paul Hermanides did, then you can be excused for still seeing the world through a lens of youthful energy and unbridled possibility. After all, the Amsterdam of the 1980s was a time of groundbreaking clubs, liberal excess, and great music. In other words: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Not that Hermanides was simply a party guy. Far from it! He both immersed himself in the moment and helped to create it. He still does, in fact. “I came of age with the clubs in Amsterdam,” he explains, “but I was also keenly interested in shaping the city. I did this with the many bars, restaurants, clubs, and hotels that I’ve owned here over the years.” He also cofounded the De Balie cultural center, and boasts a résumé that includes board member or president of such institutions as the Dutch Photo Museum, IAmsterdam, the Museumnacht Foundation, and many others. Indeed, the one-time Dutch Hospitality Entrepreneur of the Year is still shaping the city he loves.
“Recently, there was a lot of discussion that Amsterdam was too busy, with too many tourists. But I disagree,” he says. “If we want to think of ourselves as a tiny metropole, then we must accept that we will be busy. The question is what does “busy” look like for locals and for visitors, and how we can make it work for everyone. I like to think from the position of the hotelier, politician, and inhabitant because I care greatly about how this city evolves.”
Well, I’m getting a little old now! But when I started my career, I was working in the culture scene and had a lot of contact with the government of Amsterdam. Incredibly, that’s how I first came to know the building that I would eventually transform into Hotel Arena. Back then, it was a government building and budget hotel and I was asked to reorganize and privatize it. I instantly fell in love with the space, and through the years I turned the government budget hotel from a minus 4-star hotel with 600 bunk beds into a 4-star boutique hotel. The architecture really struck me.
From the start I wanted to create a place that was a real cultural draw, turn it into a spot where locals and tourists would meet in a cultural atmosphere. We had live shows, everyone from city bands to Norah Jones, Alicia Keys, and Oasis. Up to 1,000 people would come out. From a hospitality perspective, however, it was not an instant transition. We went slowly from one star up to four stars, and then to the luxury property we have today. The last stage came about in 2017 when we turned the building entrance to face the park and enlarged the property with six additional event and meeting rooms and a great café-restaurant a lot of terraces looking out on the park. We changed the interior layout and atmosphere and we renovated our beautiful chapel. Thus, the atmosphere completely changed yet again. And the result? We won Best Redesigned Hotel of the Year in 2018.
Absolutely! My vision has always been to fuse this historical building from the 1800s with a modern and worldly interior, thus creating spaces that could connect different types of people—businessfolk, local creatives, global travelers, artists. Yet, also keep everything firmly rooted in Amsterdam.
Yes, but let me tell you what I’m most proud of—we developed this out of nothing! We did it organically. We grew with our guests. What’s fun is that I have people who come up to me and say, “I was here 30 years ago when it was a budget hotel and now I’m coming here with my kids.” So yes, we’ve developed from a budget space all the way up to a design- and cultural-driven hotel, but—and this is critical—the intention has stayed the same.
Amsterdam is a tiny metropole, so everything is in walking and biking distance. We are exactly on the edge of the city center and Oosterpark. Thirty years ago, when I started, Amsterdam felt smaller, people didn’t come out here. Now they do. Now distances don’t matter. And many younger people have moved to the east and are growing the area, with a lot of shops opening up. This park setting is important as it is so peaceful yet it abuts the city center. Our neighborhood is also rich in diversity, and thus quite vibrant.
Yes, we still have club nights and concerts at the hotel, and I curate exhibitions here, among many other creative initiatives. With the concerts and shows, the target audience is 30 to 40 years old. Because I’m a bit older now (he laughs), I have people advise me on which acts are “happening” at the moment. And if an act connects with the identity of the hotel, then we bring them in—we want the hotel guests to feel welcome, too, of course.
There are some really great Dutch bands and singer/songwriters now who I would love to combine with international talents and well-known artists. For example, Kensington or Chef’s Special from Amsterdam meets the international star Adele in our beautiful chapel.
It’s true I’ve developed a lot of businesses, but I’ve also sold most of them. But this building—the one I’ve turned into Hotel Arena—I’ve kept. Everyone thought I’d sell it, but I just couldn’t. My heart is here. This is the project of my life.