Georgian hospitality group Adjara has made a name for itself converting brutalist Soviet-era buildings into boutique hotels, including the award-winning Stamba Hotel in Tbilisi. It has also helped nurture a new generation of Georgian creative talents.
Local artists and designers say the group's support has helped elevate the creative industries in the country.
Georgia, which sits between Europe and Asia in the South Caucasus region, is currently considered one of the world's hottest travel destinations and home to one of the most vibrant creative scenes.
Hotels "played a crucial role" in Georgia's cultural revival
Adjara Group has helped both, said Gvaberidze, who runs Window Project gallery in the capital.
"They don't follow regular hotel business rules," she said. "They contribute a lot to the Georgian art scene, tourism development and the growth of the whole country."
"Projects like the Stamba and Rooms hotels have played a crucial role in the cultural renaissance and development of our country in many ways," agreed Nata Janberidze and Keti Toloraia of Tbilisi design studio Rooms Design, who described the group's approach as "maverick".
But there is a commercial logic behind this approach, according to Adjara Group CEO Valeri Chekheria.
"Wherever you go, all the international hotels give you exactly the same experience," he said. "When you wake up, you don't know which city you're in. In Georgia, we want people to get this local experience with local food and culture."
Adjara aims to help promote Georgian culture
The objective is to introduce visitors to contemporary Georgian culture, said Levan Berulava, the group's managing director.
"We support local artists, we give them spaces, give them all the opportunities for their ambition," he said. "We invite lots of musicians to come and stay in our places to help develop the clubs and music scene."
"Our public spaces are also used for non-commercial pop-up events, public talks and so on."
The group's hotels, which also include the Rooms Hotel and the Fabrika hostel in Tbilisi, and another Rooms Hotel at Kazbegi in the mountainous north of the country, are all conversions of spartan institutional buildings constructed when Georgia was a republic of the Soviet Union.
An undeveloped wing of the Stamba Hotel is set aside to provide free studio space for artists and designers. Called Stamba D Block, this floor houses edgy talents such as designer and rapper Max Machaidze and arts organisation Propaganda Network and hosts experimental exhibitions and gigs.
It commissions local architects and designers to work alongside its in-house design studio, Adjara Arch Group.
The group's first own-brand hotel, Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi, was a collaboration with Rooms Design, who are also working on the interiors of the group's latest venture, Rooms Hotel Kokhta, which is due to open later this year.
The company collaborates with local fashion designers to create uniforms for its staff, and has a "hotel atelier" based at Stamba Hotel that employs a dozen designers and tailors under the direction of costume designer Tinatin Kvinikadze. Uniforms are created for each new hotel, and styles change with the seasons.
"We work with different Georgian fashion designers," said Chekheria. "We collaborate with them every season."
The group works with local farmers to source produce for its restaurants and has launched its own agro-entrepreneurship programme, buying over 4,000 hectares of agricultural land in Kakheti in the east of Georgia to grow food for its restaurants and develop a parallel agro-tourism project.
At Stamba Hotel it has created Georgia's first indoor vertical farm. Under the leadership of entrepreneur Tusya Gharibashvili, the 200-square-metre installation features seven levels that grow vegetables, berries and salad, using 75 per cent less water than traditional farming methods and supplying the hotel with fresh, organic produce.
Gigi Shukakidze, co-founder of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial, said the group had been "big contributors" to the local creative scene. "They have been supported quite a few festivals, public lectures, as well as individual artists' works," he said.
Adjara Group has grown dramatically since first hotel in 2010
Launched just after Georgia's traumatic 2008 war with Russia, which resulted in the ongoing occupation of part of the country by its huge neighbour, Adjara Group has come to embody the country's independent and individualistic spirit.
The company, now the largest hospitality group in Georgia, opened its first hotel in 2010, when it secured a franchise to create a Holiday Inn in the capital Tbilisi.
"We started the group in 2010, after the war," Chekheria told Dezeen. "That was a very difficult time for Georgia, so we needed some kind of trust from customers. They didn't want to stay in local hotels at that time, so we bought the first Holiday Inn franchise in Georgia."
Working with Rooms Design, they converted the Soviet-era Adjara Hotel into a destination that is more stylish and contemporary than the typical international chain hotel.
They launched their next project themselves, converting an abandoned Soviet-era sanatorium overlooking Kazbek mountain into the first Rooms Hotel.
"When we went there it was just the structure of the building, and like everything else was destroyed," said Chekheria. "We found the old architectural drawings and we kept the structure of the building."
The exterior of the hotel has been clad in timber while the interior is decorated in an eclectic style based on New York interiors, with large, open plan public spaces, rough wooden floors and a mix of vintage and contemporary furniture.
"It's inspired by New York in the 1930s," said Chekharia.
The hotel, the first in Georgia to become a member of the Design Hotels network, became an instant success and was followed by a second Rooms Hotel in the Vera district of Tbilisi, in a wing of a derelict publishing house where Communist newspapers were printed.
Each project designed to be "super local"
Stamba Hotel, which occupies another wing of the same building and takes its name from the Georgian word for printing, opened in 2018. The hotel's atrium retains the dramatic multi-storey concrete void of the original building and the conveyor belts that moved newspapers around as they were printed. It was named New Concept of the Year at the AHEAD international hotel awards.
Prior to that, working with Multiverse Architecture, they turned a former garment factory in Tbilisi'a Chughureti district into Fabrika, a multi-functional space that contains a hostel, a co-working space, studios and bars.
In each project the approach has been similar. "The concept is to refurbish the old," said Berulava.
"We look for places that have a history behind them, this Soviet brutalism, and we keep the soul and show their history," said Chekheria. "And we think it should be super local each time, very local to the place, whether it's in a village, the countryside or a town."
The upcoming hotel Rooms Hotel Kokhta, however, located at the Bakuriani ski resort, will be the group's first new-build venture. Nata Janberidze and Keti Toloraia of Rooms Design, who are working on the interiors, said the project will be "different from everything you've seen before".
The group is owned by Temur Ugulava, who provides much of the creative vision for the hotels and other projects, which include restaurants and bars.
Janberidze and Toloraia described Ugulava as a "fantastic entrepreneur and visionary, but an excellent designer as well."
"He is a super creative guy," agreed designer Max Machaidze, who worked with Ugulava on Stamba Hotel, providing artworks and objects including the huge vintage ceramic isolators that serve as plant pots throughout the venue and the electricity pylon that sits in the courtyard.
"He designed the whole thing by himself and I was assisting him with that. It was like a ping-pong thought exchange process."
Adjara Group planning to expand internationally
Two further hotels are being planned for Georgia's Black Sea coast, but Adjara Group also plans take their concept to America.
"We're ready to go international, and we think that it's a good time to go and do something in New York," said Chekharia. "We were there a couple of times to look for some buildings."
Chekharia and Berulava both lived in New York earlier in their careers and say the city was an inspiration for their hospitality projects back in their home country.
"We lived in a backwater here in the 90s when the Soviet Union collapsed," said Chekharia. "It was a very dark time. When you are in New York, where you get a good education and good experience, the time comes for you to pay your country back."
Berulava added that they wanted to put the country, once famed for its hospitality, culture and cuisine, back on the world map.
"Georgia was on the Silk Road," he said. "For centuries it was a crossroads. We have our own culture, our own music, food, wine. We are different."
"And we decided to do it," said Chekharia. "To help build the new Georgia based on all our traditions. We want to share this amazing secret of this country to have with everybody."
Photography is courtesy of Adjara Group.