By: Spencer Ho
As the celebrated Norman Tel Aviv marks its first anniversary, there is not much that hasn’t been written or said about it. The awards are numerous, most notable being named the best boutique hotel in the world by Jetsetter magazine, and the customer reviews pristine.
However, dig beneath the elegant exterior, abundant amenities, first-class restaurants, rooftop infinity pool, pampering spa and visionary interior design, and you’ll find that there’s another layer to The Norman.
Yes, it’s a luxury hotel with the best of everything, but it’s also a family hotel in both operation and origin. Every detail and every interaction is steeped in a certain romance, based on the story of the relationship between father and son, their mutual love affair with the land of Israel and desire to build something that could live up to their vision
“The reason it looks the way it does is primarily because of the client and his desire to create an homage to his father, who was a great visionary and Zionist,” says David D’Almada of the London-based Sagrada design firm responsible for bringing The Norman Tel Aviv to life. “That is basically where the starting point is for everything we have done.”
Humble Beginnings and Big Dreams
Norman Lourie, a South African filmmaker military reporter with the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, was attached to the South African Engineering Corps as it was tasked with building railway corridors near the border between what is now Israel and Lebanon as part of the project to complete a line between Cairo and Istanbul.
During his stint in then-British Mandate Palestine, Lourie happened upon Shavei Zion, a small beach community south of Nahariya that had been established 6 years earlier by Jewish immigrants from Germany. Its claim to fame was a 12-room hotel on a 10-acre plot with running water, but the visionary in Lourie saw something in it and fell in love.
Lourie eventually followed his heart to Palestine in 1946 and became a giant in the nascent state of Israel, establishing Palestine Films in 1947. The company not only produced features, documentaries, educational films and newsreels, but also became the main distribution agency for Hollywood films.
His work and contributions to the Israeli film industry earned him the moniker of Palestine’s “one-man film industry” during the 1940’s, according to a 1948 Variety article.
In 1950, Lourie returned to the Shavei Zion property he’d become enamored with years prior and found a second cause – promoting tourism in Israel. He transformed the modest guesthouse into the Dolphin House, Israel’s first full-fledged luxury resort, which would host some of the biggest names of the era to visit Israel, including comedian David Kaye, actors Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, as well as the who’s who of Israel’s political elite.
Lourie ran the resort for 15 years before selling it to hotelier Haim Schiff and watching the property slowly fade as it first became a hotel catering to tour groups, then a convalescent home and finally, an immigrant absorption center in the 1980’s before shutting down completely.
Rising up from the Ashes
The original Dolphin House building in Shavei Zion lies dormant today, but Lourie’s vision has been resurrected in The Norman Tel Aviv.
From D’Almada’s perspective, it would have been easy to simply build a world-class hotel, but to build something as personable as The Norman, to truly bring the vision to life, there had to be something more behind it and capturing that was a labor of love.
Every inch of the hotel from the smallest design detail, to the furniture, the luxury amenities and even the service had to hearken back to the days of Lourie, be true to his vision for Israeli hospitality and, at the same time, reflect the Israel of Lourie’s time and what it has become.
“It really is about giving something world class to that city, which deserves it, about giving the Jewish community something that they can feel they’re coming home to because there are many things in that hotel which are familiar to many people and they don’t know why and it’s basically the aesthetic which their father would have had in their homes, but also to bring it into the 21st century with the level of luxury it offers.”
You can find evidence of D’Almada’s painstaking efforts in every nook and cranny, from the strictly local Israeli art, to imported furniture meant to inject a sense of nostalgia, the embroidery on the curtains and cushions inspired by tiles he found in the garage of the property, the retro staff uniforms and even the entire text of Lourie’s poetic tribute to Israel, “Castle in the Sand,” etched into a 4-story section of wall in the lobby and excerpts hidden away in corners throughout the building.
“It’s a ménage of what constitutes Israel in the 21st century with a nod to the history of what that city is,” he explains. “And if you think of Israel, it’s a ménage of all sorts of people.”
The Best Boutique Hotel in the World
The proof is in the pudding when you see The Norman in action.
The Library cocktail bar, in particular, manages to capture the current trend of classic cocktail bars with a Tel Aviv twist, while also maintaining the unmistakable reserved elegance of British colonialism.
Meanwhile, as we parted ways with The Norman General Manager Yaron Lieberman, an older local woman — clearly a bonafide Tel Avivian — who had dined in the restaurant approached him to compliment the hotel and recount what the property and the neighborhood used to be like when she was growing up.
Lieberman says that it’s hardly an uncommon occurrence.
“Sagrada did an amazing job combining the old and the new. We want to give [guests] the feeling – and I think we’re doing well based on the feedback we’ve gotten – that they’ve gone back in time… the look and feel, the uniform, the wait staff with bow-ties and suspenders.
“We have so many visitors coming in and saying, I used to have this couch at my grandmother’s. It’s a great feeling.”
The design is certainly off-the-charts with the rare ability to truly transport a person to a different time and place, but if you have to put your finger on the coup de grace, it has to be the level of service, which somehow transcends luxury into the realm of authenticity.
The staff doesn’t just serve the guests. They interact with them like real people. The lobby and restaurants are littered with receptionists, waiters and even managers taking a moment out of their busy schedules to talk with guests about where they’re from, what they’ve seen, how their days are going and so on.
“In a 300-, 400-room hotel it’s a bit harder to know each guest,” says The Norman General Manager Yaron Lieberman. “Here at The Norman, I personally greet every check-in, every guest that comes to the hotel, whether it’s curbside or at check-in. I say goodbye when they leave, ask them how their stay was. Like a home when you have family or friends coming you open the door for them and give them a big hug and the same when they leave.”
D’Almada is not shy about deferring from his design efforts to the importance of the level of service.
“It’s fundamental. It’s everything. The service level has to match the expectations of everybody walking into that place.”
Of course, impeccable service is not something that just happens. It’s something created and fostered by a desire to supply it and a willingness to go the extra mile to make sure the right people and culture are in place.
“I have to say I’m most proud that we were able to select the right people. We didn’t compromise, and we see the results,” Lieberman says. “We see the returning guest rate, the comments on Tripadvisor that people aren’t just complimenting the design and the product, but each one mentions the service level they receive at The Norman.
“Obviously, the property is magnificent. I don’t want to say that’s the easy part, but that’s the tangible part. The intangible is the team.”
So… What now?
With a wildly successful first year behind them, the proprietors of The Norman have no intention of resting on their laurels. Of course they take pride and pleasure in their meteoric rise, but it was never their primary goal.
The story that began with Norman Lourie 60 years ago isn’t meant to end with The Norman, but rather to live on and evolve.
“For us, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right. People love it,” Lieberman said of the accolades. “We’ve been acknowledged by top magazines and media channels. At the same time, though, it’s more pressure because the expectations are higher when you win an award like the best boutique in the world from Jetsetter, and you have hotels on that list like the Four Seasons, the Shangri-La, which are world class. It means, wow, you’re there.”
For better or for worse, the hospitality scene in Israel and all over the world is littered with hotels that made it to the top, but couldn’t stand the test of time. Lieberman is always on his staff to make sure The Norman doesn’t join those ranks.
“I always tell my team that we have to sleep with one eye open and stay on top of everything. God forbid we’re ever in a position that we say, ‘Oh great. We won this award.’ The opposite – it’s always to see how we can do it better. My goal is to make The Norman a zero-mistake hotel in every interaction, with the guests, with each other as a team, with the owners.”