April 25, 2024

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Finland Is Expanding Its Luxury Appeal to Tourists

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When construction at the Hotel Maria is completed in June, 159 chandeliers will hang from the ceilings of its 79 rooms, 38 suites and public areas. Its bar will serve 31 types of Champagne. And the renovations on its four buildings — two of which opened in December — will have included the restoration of 42 kilometers (26 miles) of original moldings.

Those are just some of the things that will distinguish the Maria as a “true five-star city hotel,” according to Heli Mende, its commercial director.

The Finnish capital is no stranger to luxury. It already has several high-end hotels, including Hotel Kamp and the St. George. There are upscale boutiques and department stores; the Palace restaurant, which has two Michelin stars; and a handful of other single-star spots. (In May, the city is scheduled to host the 2024 Michelin Guide ceremony for the Nordic region.)

And to the north, in Lapland, the country has a robust tourism operation that includes luxury services and accommodations such as clear glass igloos to shelter guests as they sip Champagne and gaze at the night sky, waiting for a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

But this country of about five and a half million, which is between Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, has historically lacked the sort of elaborate luxury infrastructure found in other European cities or global hubs such as Singapore; Dubai, the United Arab Emirates; and New York City.

“Partly this is due to the fact that Finland is not very hierarchical as a culture and, for example, income differences have traditionally been small,” said Juri Maki, the chief executive of the Helsinki research firm Red Note, which in 2018 did an extensive study on the travel industry’s perceptions of Finland and its luxury offerings. “Because of this, this style of culture is not very characteristic of Finland.”

Among international travelers, he said, Finland’s greatest strength “is certainly not in outwardly visible, classic luxury,” but rather in the unusual experiences available in its pristine outdoors — like evenings in the glass igloos.

Finns themselves cherish solitude and are famous for avoiding small talk with strangers. “The ultimate compliment is to offer luxury and to leave people alone to enjoy it,” wrote Stephen Lee, an American who has lived in the country for 24 years and worked with luxury brands in communications and marketing. “Where Americans expect high amounts of service, chatting and even humor, Finns find this to be intrusive.”

And they do not reward what others might call routine attentiveness — in restaurants, for example — because tipping is virtually nonexistent in a country where luxury sector jobs have historically paid a livable wage.

Samppa Lajunen, a Finnish athlete turned real estate investor, understood the different perspectives, but research by Samla Capital Oy, the real estate investment firm that he founded, showed Helsinki lacked hotels for tourists seeking “international-level luxury,” he wrote in an email.

“Finland and Helsinki are interesting travel destinations,” said Mr. Lajunen, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the Nordic combined, an event that includes cross-country skiing and ski jumping. “So I didn’t see the real reason for that.”

To create the hotel, Mr. Lajunen assembled a team of designers and hospitality experts and added his own expertise as an athlete who has stayed in luxury hotels around the world. He also did some of what he called “mystery shopping” at Paris and London hotels. “We benchmarked brands like Ritz, Peninsula, Four Seasons and La Reserve for inspiration.”

Renovations, which began in 2020, united three 19th-century buildings and one constructed in 1930, structures that previously had been used as barracks for high-ranking military and, for a time, part of the agricultural ministry. The guest rooms have ceilings as high as four meters; some have king-size beds with thick mattress pads and box springs (Finns tend to sleep on thin mattresses). And many of the suite bathrooms include lounge chairs, saunas and steam rooms. (Rooms start at 25 square meters and 402 euros, or $435, a night; top-tier suites can be as much as €6,004 a night.)

And the hotel was named for Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, who was born Princess Dagmar of Denmark in 1847. As the young, stylish consort of Alexander III, she often visited the Finnish capital to escape life in the Russian court and was beloved by its people.

The décor features neutral hues and white marble, accented by modern lighting; Finnish art, including work by the visual artist Pia Feinik; and indoor greenery. There are two restaurants — Lilja, which the hotel website describes as inspired by French cuisine but Finnish at heart, and the Garden Terrace, a brasserie-style offering — as well as a spa where guests can explore treatment options with a wellness concierge.

Ms. Mende, the commercial director, said the hotel’s initial guests included some wedding parties and neighbors from the surrounding Kruununhaka neighborhood, the city’s oldest residential district. “They have been watching the construction for so many years,” she said. “I think they were all curious to come and see.”

She said the first trickle of international tourists, mostly from elsewhere in Europe and the United States, had begun arriving in February, when the city was still blanketed in snow and ice.

Soon the Hotel Maria will not be the only new luxury offering in the city. About a kilometer away, Hotel Kamp, long considered Helsinki’s finest hotel, is undergoing a €100 million refurbishment that is expected to be complete in 2026. The work, which is being done while the hotel continues to receive guests, includes upgrading its technological infrastructure and redesigning its 179 rooms.

And an hour’s drive to the north, Villa Stenberg, a converted lakeside farmhouse, recently beat out a château near Cannes, France, and a villa nestled in an olive grove in Bari, Italy, to be called Europe’s top Airbnb wedding venue.

Could Finland become a destination for international luxury seekers?

That would be unlikely, said Mr. Maki, the researcher, but the country is experiencing a lot of growth in its network of luxury providers, stretching from the capital to Lapland. “This network is really important, in that we are able to maintain a level of luxury throughout the country.”

Since he moved to Finland from Uganda in 2003, the furniture and home goods designer Lincoln Kayiwa said he had seen luxury offerings in Helsinki evolve to include tasting menus, celebrity chefs and international cuisine.

“Finns are not obnoxious when it comes to wealth,” he said. “But having, for example, gold leaf on your ice cream is something that is no longer out of reach or considered over-the-top here.”

Eager to get a peek at Hotel Maria’s extensive collection of chandeliers by the British designer Timothy Oulton, Mr. Kayiwa readily met friends for drinks when the hotel first opened in December.

“It was somewhere you could lose yourself,” he said. “It definitely felt like you were somewhere else — maybe in a large city like Hong Kong, but not Helsinki.”

Penelope Colston

2024-04-03 09:01:19

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