A 5ft-tall mannequin wearing a builder's hat and fairy lights stands in the entrance to Alias Hotels' head office. It would look incongruous in any reception, but is markedly so in this inauspicious trading unit on the outskirts of Bristol. One of its brethren looks more at home lurking in a corridor in the industrial-style Alias Rossetti hotel in Manchester, where it startles unsuspecting guests.
What do the mannequins symbolise? 'They're a statement of where the brand is at,' says Alias marketing head Rupert Kenyon somewhat enigmatically. He doesn't seem keen to elaborate.
In Alias' more consistently bohemian boardroom, under a pop art image of the Krays, founder Nigel Andrews reveals that he picked up 400 of the 30s shop dummies at an antiques fair in Montpellier. 'They're still wearing their original shoes and socks,' he enthuses. Much of Alias' brand architecture appears to be constructed on such whimsy.
A trip around the warehouse reveals further left-field items destined to furnish Alias' four 'lifestyle' hotels. There are stacks of antique Indian tea chests, some Arabic ironwork and even a framed picture of Leo Sayer. Again, no satisfactory explanation is offered.
All this plays its part in Andrews' vision for hotels that 'constantly surprise and entertain' the guests.
Staff are kitted out in Stussy surf gear, while young local artists are signed up to decorate the properties' interiors.
Over the past five years, he and his founding partner, hotelier Nicholas Dickinson, have snapped up properties ranging from a chocolate box Regency terrace in Cheltenham (Alias Kandinsky) to a modern concrete block on the Brighton seafront (Alias Seattle).
All have a different feel but offer the same product: a business-friendly hotel that undercuts the bigger four-star chains - Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and the like - and doubles up as a 'boutique'-style getaway for a weekend break.
The concept's inherent contradictions appear to derive from its founder.
Andrews, with closely-cropped hair, dressed in jeans and an arty T-shirt, was a London-based chartered accountant for 20 years before 'retiring' to become a hotelier. Alias started as Andrews' creative enterprise but, at the age of 54, he is close to securing the venture capital to create another 12 hotels. His aspiration is a 60-strong chain by 2020. He exudes an intense creative flair with a hint of a steely acumen.
Although officially three-star, town-centre hotels, Alias rooms are priced just over the £100-a-night mark, slightly undercutting both the big chains and the original UK design hotel Malmaison, a brand that appears to have lost its lustre. Weekend packages, which comprise two nights bed and breakfast and vouchers to spend in the integral restaurants and bars, range from £209 to £245.
The hotels are thriving as natural stop-off points for creative types.
Their quirky attributes - a nightclub in the basement here, a trendy cocktail bar there - also make money. Indeed, 55% of Alias' £12m turnover now comes from non-room sources - an astute strategy.
Kenyon's marketing budgets are slim, about 2% of turnover. He relies on PR, word-of-mouth and creative use of a database to fill beds - 'plus brutal sales work to corporate customers', he adds.
Although the Alias name is growing in strength, new hotels will still be given art- or culture-based names in addition to the brand moniker.
A Liverpool hotel to open in 2005 will be the Alias St Louis, alluding to the cities' music connections.
'Alias is a state of mind,' insists Andrews. 'We're working to crystallise the essence, but you have to be careful not to systemise the soul out of your brand.'
Soul. Could this be the Alias secret?
The British have been bred on a diet of depressingly featureless provincial four-stars and hit-and-miss family-run properties. More recently we have been seduced by the hip design hotels of New York and Paris. We're long overdue city accommodation with some personality.
The biggest test for Andrews and his team will be maintaining Alias' exclusive feel as this offbeat 'club' grows to resemble an empire.
1989: Nigel Andrews buys first Luxury Family Hotel in Wiltshire with Nicholas Dickinson, ex-managing director of Raymond Blanc's Oxfordshire hotel/restaurant, Le Manoir au Quat' Saisons.
1999: Andrews spots a 'yawning gap' in the market for an entertainment-driven hotel concept. Marketing director Rupert Kenyon joins from the St James Club.
2000: Refurbishes the old Savoy Hotel in Cheltenham as The Kandinsky, later to become Alias Kandinsky.
2001: Revamps a former eye hospital in Exeter and launches it as Alias Barcelona. Head count is now 140 and turnover approaching £3.5m.
2002: Classic red-brick building in Manchester's Piccadilly area opens as Alias Rossetti.
2003: Alias Seattle is created in Brighton from the shell of a budget hotel. Four-strong chain valued at £7m on OFEX market.
2004: Alias Seattle's Black and White wins Best New Bar in South of England. Alias Hotels, with a turnover approaching £12m, begins search for £30m in extra equity to expand the chain to 16 properties.