The Savoy after renovations in 2010. Image via

When Duran Duran released its lush, ten-minute comeback video “Girl Panic!” in November, the real star wasn’t the band or the five 1990s supermodels (Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigová and Yasmin Le Bon) who played the roles of the vintage new-wave rockers, but a sixth show-stealing beauty: London’s Savoy hotel.

In the part-mockumentary, part-music video created by director Jonas Åkerlund (whose previous musical mini-movie, the sexy, stylized Lady Gaga-Beyoncé collaboration “Telephone,” has nearly 136 million YouTube views), the pedigreed models wake up in an elegantly appointed (but slightly trashed) suite, seduce female groupies outside the hotel’s iconic entrance, rock out in the ballroom and have to be wheeled back to their room in a bellman’s cart.

To the public, the video is pure eye candy. To hospitality industry insiders, it’s a stroke of marketing genius.

Hotel with as character

“Girl Panic!” is just one example of the emerging trend of hotels appearing as “characters” in short, subtly branded films. As TiVo and Netflix make the 30-second ad spot a thing of the past, such co-pro “advertainment” is quickly filling in the gap.

For the Savoy, that meant a handshake agreement with the filmmaker in which the hotel offered to host the 300-member crew for a whirlwind 48-hour shoot; the payoff was a priceless piece of publicity that will live online forever.

The Savoy, managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, reopened its doors in 2010 following a three-year, 220-million-pound renovation. In Europe, the 10.10.10 launch didn’t just make the newspaper travel sections, it made the front pages.

The historic hotel on the Thames is the stuff of legend, the place where Oscar Wilde carried out the affair for which he was later tried, where a young Princess Elizabeth first appeared in public with suitor Prince Philip, where Maria Callas performed an impromptu concert in the ballroom and where Bob Dylan stayed while filming “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in an adjacent alley.

For more than a century, celebrities have danced and drunk and sometimes behaved badly under the Savoy’s sparkling chandeliers and behind its heavy chintz draperies. It was the first hotel in London where women could dine in public – and later smoke. But rather than sweeping its vices under the rug, the Savoy readily embraces them.

“Not many hotels would have done this,” says Savoy director of communications Brett Perkins. “But the Savoy is a sexy hotel. It’s often said that we’ve done events for royalty and rock royalty.”

Luxury hotel brands with historic properties in their portfolios like to speak of “hotels as destinations” whose storied personalities beckon visitors as much as their locations.

With this music video, the Savoy played its character – regal, with an edge – to perfection. Aside from showcasing the interiors, brand recognition was facilitated by a lengthy establishing shot of the hotel entrance and signage, as well as a title screen indicating that the video was “Shot at the Savoy hotel, London, 6th of June 2011.”

The publicity didn’t end with the video release. The world premiere at the Harper’s Bazaar UK Women of the Year awards ceremony was followed by a cover and 22-page shoot in the magazine with hands-on styling by Dolce & Gabbana.

The result? More than 5.3 million YouTube views and, according to Perkins, countless phone-in requests from guests, media and event planners to use the spaces seen in the film.

The next generation

Luxury Collection by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the elite tier of the company that runs Sheraton and W Hotels, among other brands, took a slightly different approach to its foray into filmmaking.

Here is a short film conceived by Indo-American actor Waris Ahluwalia (along with friends actress Tilda Swinton and artist Sandro Kopp) after he became the Luxury Collection’s brand ambassador.

This time the film was created solely for use by the hotel group and has its own branded microsite. Ahluwalia has said the concept was inspired by the brand’s slogan, “Life Is a Collection of Experiences. Let Us Be Your Guide.”

In the 15-minute short released in January 2012, we find another supermodel, this time England’s Agyness Deyn. Styled like a Hitchcock classic of the 1960s (all tailored clothing and Technicolor palette), the story follows the platinum-blonde heroine as she’s led by a series of clues on an elaborate scavenger hunt to three of the brand’s most illustrious American properties, the Equinox in Vermont, the Phoenician in Arizona and the Royal Hawaiian on the island of Oahu.

Deyn navigates through the most spectacular aspects of the properties: the Equinox’s British School of Falconry and its bucolic lakeside setting; the Phoenician’s enormous mother-of-pearl pool and vistas of the pink Camelback Mountain; the Royal Hawaiian’s Royal Beach Tower and its lush tropical grounds.

Actor Agyness Deyn at Equinox’s British School of Falconry. Image by Alessio Bolzoni.

Ahluwalia describes the hotels as characters in the film. “I picked three properties that seemed intriguing, that seemed to tell a story, that seemed to cover the landscape,” he says in the film’s behind-the-scenes video.

Behind the scenes is also where we find other big names: actor-musician Jason Schwartzman created the score; celebrity costume designer Heidi Bivens styled the wardrobe, including dresses by Versace and Yigal Azrouël and jewellery by Ahluwalia’s own line, House of Waris.

Luxury Collection created advance buzz by allowing Starwood Preferred Guests to bid on a chance to see the exclusive premiere and stay at the Chatwal, a Luxury Collection hotel in New York.

Fashion and luxury-brand writers then blogged and tweeted the 31-second trailer ahead of the film release. (Starwood wouldn’t release the number of hits received on its microsite but the video on YouTube has just under 200,000 views).

The result has been increased brand awareness for Starwood’s top-shelf properties, and engagement with the next generation of luxury hotel guests. As Melanie Brandman, founder of the New York-based high-end travel PR firm, the Brandman Agency, told Luxury Daily, “I believe their vision was to showcase these properties in a narrative way that would entice prospective guests to visit and build a new audience – younger, savvier, more artistically inclined – that may have not considered these properties before.”

With most new luxury hotel openings focused on ultra-modern interiors and amenities, these competing historic properties have upped the ante by drawing on their cultural cachet. Through these videos, hotels that once hosted Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly are showing a new generation that they’re also the choice of the glitterati of today.