Photograph by Landon Nordeman
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Andrew Zobler looks out on New York City from the roof of his Freehand Hotel, which opened in 2018.

Photograph by Landon Nordeman
TravelFar & Away

Meet the man who creates today’s coolest hotels

Andrew Zobler is the innovative mind behind New York’s Freehand and D.C.’s The Line hotels.

This was a big year for Andrew Zobler. The CEO of Sydell Group, the hospitality company he co-founded with billionaire Ron Burkle in 2005, opened six properties this year. They include The Line in Austin and Washington, D.C., Freehand in New York City, NoMad in Los Angeles, and two hotels in Las Vegas: Park MGM and NoMad, which occupies the Park MGM’s top floors and boasts its own entrance, restaurants, pool, and casino.

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Visitors relax in the Freehand’s common area.

Zobler currently has six unannounced projects in the works. All of this comes just a year after the debut of The Ned, Zobler’s collaboration with Nick Jones of Soho House, which quickly became a go-to spot in London. In the past year alone, Sydell Group’s portfolio has grown from 1,993 hotel rooms to 5,986. “If you look at what we’ve done, it’s pretty unusual in terms of the number of independent concepts, that have legs, that we’ve created all within a relatively short period of time,” he says over coffee at a corner table at Studio, an all-day café at the Freehand in New York.

The Ned was the New York native’s first property outside the U.S., but how it all played out is classic Zobler. It begins with an historic, often “grand” building that presents itself typically in an under-the-radar ZIP code. The NoMad in New York, for example, is a 1903 beaux-arts building in an area formerly known for storefronts selling everything from cheap jewelry to wigs. A former bank building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and dating to 1924 is now home to The Ned in London; The Line in Washington, D.C., is housed in a neoclassical 20th-century church. “We look for communities where there is something to do that is interesting, so the project isn’t just about riding a wave or just building another hotel,” he says.

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Dramatic design characterizes the Freehand’s reception desk.

Next, Zobler and company get to work assembling a team, from interior designers to restaurateurs. He’s tapped everyone from Jacques Garcia, a French architect and designer, to the powerhouse duo Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams, who agreed to design a modern-day hostel in Miami (the first Freehand—they’ve since done the other three Freehands as well), to Sean Knibb, a designer and landscaping consultant who had never done a hotel before winning the commission for The Line in Los Angeles and, later, Austin.

“We’ve taken a lot of really talented people and given them a world stage,” Zobler explains. “Gabe [Orta] and Elad [Zvi] are some of the best mixologists in the world, but no one had heard of them,” he says of the co-founders of Bar Lab and, now, managing partners of the Broken Shaker bars in all Freehand hotels.

Zobler, who is 56, was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, the eldest of three children of a tax attorney father and a schoolteacher mother. He named the company after his grandmother, Sydell Weyl, an antiques dealer who employed a young Andrew in her shop and often took him on buying trips to Europe. He credits her with helping develop his eye for design and passion for travel. In his early 20s, he worked in sales, and then as an assistant manager at Charles Jourdan on Madison Avenue. It was the ‘80s, the height of demand for the French designer’s iconic, high-heeled pump. He was in the right place at the right time with the right product. “That was the best year of my life, I had so much fun,” he recalls. In 1984 he went to law school. “I always wanted to go into business of some kind and I got a law degree because I was better with words than with numbers.”

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This neoclassical former church houses The Line in Washington, D.C. “We look for communities where there is something to do that is interesting, so the project isn’t just about riding a wave or just building another hotel,” Zobler says.

After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, Zobler went on to work for the firms of Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison before landing at Greenberg Traurig. While a partner there, Zobler met Barry Sternlicht and ultimately went to work for Starwood Hotels as senior vice president of acquisitions and development in the early days of W Hotels. Looking back, Zobler credits Sternlicht as being “the biggest influence.... as a deal maker, he is untouched. He’s a genius.” One of the deals Zobler and Sternlicht considered was the purchase of André Balazs’s Standard hotels; it didn’t work out, but Zobler stayed in touch with Balazs and, in the early aughts, became a partner in the company. Over the three years they worked together, the company developed several properties including The Raleigh and The Standard hotels, both in Miami, and acquired the site for the Standard, New York. “Andre was incredibly good at current culture and design and creating a scene and cultivating a great crowd,” Zobler says.

“Andrew is at once vehemently passionate and driven and focused, and on the other hand definitely shy and humble,” says Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara.

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The popular London hotel The Ned also houses the Vault Room, an exclusive drinking spot.

While he admits he’s “developed an expertise doing ‘Cool Hotels,’” Zobler himself has no “burning desire to be cool.” He prefers weekends at his Hudson Valley home, which he shares with his husband, Manny Urquiza, their four dogs and three cats. He wears crisp button downs with suspenders and sensible Cole Haan brogues and jokes that he only wears a suit “when I’m going to meet lenders.” The single visible display of wealth is a vintage gold Rolex.

“I have met a lot of folks who are creative geniuses, who have developed or managed hotel product. I have met a lot of lawyers and bankers and [private-equity] guys who have found creative people to work with. But I have never found, before Andrew, what I would consider to be the complete package,” says Jim Murren, the Chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International. Zobler has managed to create hotels that are cool but not too cool for a wide demographic range. Spend a couple of hours in the NoMad or Freehand lobby areas and you’ll see hipsters with ’70s mustaches in vintage concert tees as well as businessmen in tailored suits and expensive shoes and locals hunched over laptops using the free Wi-Fi. “A lot of people try and define their product as something that everybody will like, and almost nobody will hate. They try and do something that is universal,” says Zobler of the competitive market. “We try to create things that really have a point of view, knowing that some people won’t like it, but people who do like it will love it and become kind of evangelical about it.”

Rima Suqi is a New York City-based writer and producer. Follow Rima on Instagram @rimasuqi.