Reinventing the Chain Hotel
Published: June 2009
By Erik Torkells
Banana Republic and Pottery Barn proved that mass-market style doesn't have to be an oxymoron. But will the same formula work for hotels?
Thursday night at the W New York. Open since December and always crowded, the hotel erupts once a week into a full-fledged scene; it starts in the Whiskey Blue bar and spreads throughout the airy, two-story lobby. Cramming the space until they're standing cheek to cheek—or cuff link to cuff link—the young Park Avenue lawyers, bankers, and ad execs loosen their ties and kick off their heels, lounging on the chairs, ottomans, tables, everywhere.
These people, if asked, would certainly say they wouldn't be caught dead hanging out at a chain hotel. So what are they doing at the W?
In the past 10 years, high style has merged with mass consumption. Look around: a Marc Jacobs T-shirt is almost indistinguishable from one by Banana Republic (until you look at the price tag); interior design trends make their way from Wallpaper magazine to Pottery Barn in a matter of weeks. The world has embraced a pared-down aesthetic—emphasizing quality materials and classic lines—that is easy to imitate.
Chain hotels, however, have missed the boat. Imagine a Radisson room. Now a Sheraton. A Hilton. A Marriott. They all look alike—at some point, they got stuck in a style that is nowhere near the way anyone actually lives.
Barry Sternlicht, chairman and CEO of Starwood Hotels, saw an opening. After a very successful run in real estate, he bought what was then called Hotel Investors Trust in 1995, when it was a relatively small hotel real estate management company. In two mammoth deals Starwood secured Sheraton and Westin, making it the largest hotel and gaming company in the world. Sternlicht, suddenly in charge of an extraordinary number of properties, figured if they had to be renovated anyway, maybe it was a good time to go for something different.
His idea was to create a hotel for the younger, style-conscious business traveler. No focus groups were called in: Sternlicht, now 38, knew there was a need because he felt it himself. "I wanted a hotel for me," he says. "I wanted drama, but I also wanted to get my faxes and my E-mail, to have a two-line phone."
The result is W, the first new U.S. chain in years. Hotels in New York and Atlanta are open; W San Francisco makes its debut this month; outposts in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., two in Chicago, and three more in New York will follow. "If I couldn't do W," Sternlicht says, "I wouldn't be in the hotel business."
But how much of a revolution is it?Just as in the fashion industry, high-priced niche players have been doing things stylishly for years. Small and independent by definition, boutique properties have been able to change with the times. Ian Schrager made hotels hip; André Balazs made them exclusive; Chris Blackwell made them relaxed; two San Francisco companies, the Kimpton Group and Joie de Vivre, made them fun. Interestingly, all of these hoteliers are on the verge of branding properties and creating mini-chains. They're heading in the same direction as W, if from a totally different point of departure.
To get rolling, Sternlicht looked at the work of more than a hundred hotel designers, but they all seemed trapped in the same time warp. "I wanted sexy light, not sexy dark," he says. "I wanted Calvin Klein minimalism, but I didn't want people sleeping on rocks."
For the first W, he hired David Rockwell, the designer behind New York restaurants Nobu and Vong. Formerly the Doral Inn, W New York is pretty, organic—it took the idea of being an oasis in the city to its extreme, down to the ginkgo leaves pressed in glass walls and pots of wheatgrass in every room. "W New York is great, but not exactly what I had in mind," Sternlicht says. It was also way over budget. "Finally, I said, 'Who does Pottery Barn?' I went and recruited Hilary myself."
Hilary is Hilary Billings, former vice president of product development and design at Pottery Barn. She was hired when W New York was well under way, and only standardized the amenities. "In fairness to David," she says, "the W New York building was a designer's nightmare. It should have been torn down." It needed so much structural work that the project grew expensive and long.
Ultimately, she thinks, Sternlicht came to doubt the need for a high-profile designer to do the whole brand. One can only imagine that Rockwell didn't react kindly when the chairman and CEO bought 14 armchairs at ABC Carpet & Home to put in the lobby. As one W insider puts it, "W is Barry's Chia Pet. He's always tending to it."
W New York is its own beast; W Atlanta still feels underbaked, having been converted to a W in less than six weeks. San Francisco, which opens June 2, is more emblematic of where the chain is going. It was created by Billings's Starwood Design Group (since the group is located in San Francisco, this hotel is its baby). The stark, fairly masculine look owes a debt to New York's Mercer hotel, with its dark woods and colorful details, but it stands on its own as a perfect example of the Pottery Barn/Banana Republic school of design. It's modern, spare, clean—totally in step with the times.
"We came in thinking, 'Why do hotels do this and this and this?' " Billings says. "People were sleeping with duvets and down pillows in their own houses. Why not in hotels?"
Billings brought Pottery Barn designer Theresa Fatino along with her. The two are like sisters; when they're together they can get lost in conversation. On the way to the Atlanta opening, they missed their flight—even though they were sitting right in front of the gate—because they were so engrossed in catching up. Like Sternlicht, they seem to be designing a hotel for themselves: cool but not pretentious (though maybe a bit fussy in the determination to keep things simple).
"We decided to take money from where it wasn't necessary," says Billings, "and put it where it was." Sternlicht's number one priority was the bed.
"We wanted the great feel of European beds," says Billings. "Why do they feel so good?" It starts with a pillow-top mattress, and a feather bed on top of that. "We decided to use four king pillows instead of three standard ones," says Billings. And in place of a blanket double-wrapped in sheets, you get a goose down duvet.
The money for the bed came from the armoire. "Every hotel room has one, and it's the single most expensive thing in the room," Billings says. "But why hide the TV?Plus, it makes more sense to have drawers in the closet, near your other clothes."
Billings and Fatino traded the requisite armchair for a chaise, and doubled the size of the typical desk; W is, after all, positioning itself as a business hotel. The black-and-white photographs cost much less than typical bad hotel art. W New York has proven that painting the walls requires too much upkeep; from now on, the designers are using a wall covering that looks like paint—"You have to touch it to realize it's not," says Billings—but is easier to clean. And a bargain compared to your average hotel wallpaper.
More technologically advanced than those at most hotels, each W room has a cordless phone, TV Internet access with a cordless keyboard, and a CD player holding the W compact disc, Mix and Mingle, with cuts by Malcolm McLaren and Grace Jones. (The CD is another idea Billings brought from Pottery Barn.) It's hard to imagine Grace Jones, in any form, anywhere near a Sheraton.
To test the innovations, they did up a room at one of Starwood's other San Francisco properties. Housekeeping wasn't used to stuffing duvet covers, and had to be told not to fan out the washcloths. A full-length mirror was deliberately leaned against one wall, but every time the W team left, the hotel staff would hang it. "They thought they were doing us a favor," says Fatino.
Nice rooms are all well and good, but it's the public spaces that make or break a hip hotel. Here W seems to have learned most of its lessons from the boutiques. Just look at the photos of other hotels on Billings's office walls.
With the Royalton and Paramount (New York), the Delano (Miami Beach), and the Mondrian (West Hollywood), Ian Schrager made lobbies cool places to lounge, especially for younger crowds, which hadn't previously thought of hotels as social spaces. He did it primarily through high-energy, cutting-edge design. Philippe Starck's work for Schrager—from the fashion-runway entrance at the Royalton to the mammoth flowerpots at the Mondrian—has become a must-see for anyone with even a passing interest in style.
Billings and Fatino hired outside help for their lobbies. The residential look they had developed at Pottery Barn doesn't necessarily fit in a hotel lobby. "Barry is always saying, 'Don't bore me! People don't want to be in their own homes!' " Billings says. So in W San Francisco, Shopworks—founded by two former Banana Republic store designers—is going for max effect: behind the reception desk is a beaded curtain in front of a metal sheet, on which an image of a waterfall is projected (not unlike the giant projection of a waterfall at the New York outpost of Asia de Cuba, the restaurant in Schrager's Morgans hotel).
Another way Schrager turned up the heat was by bringing in outside restaurateurs. W is doing the same: Drew Nieporent (Nobu, Tribeca Grill) opened Heartbeat in W New York and will launch Earth & Ocean at W Seattle; Gail Defferari, whose Universal Café has long been one of the best casual spots in San Francisco, will be masterminding the restaurant in that city. As for the bar in New York, W nabbed the very man who gave Schrager the Paramount's Whiskey Bar and the Mondrian's SkyBar—Rande Gerber.
W has departed from the chain mentality in other significant ways, too. The hotels aren't necessarily where you would expect them. W San Francisco is next to the Museum of Modern Art, in the post-industrial South of Market district; another W is planned for the Guardian Life building, on New York's Union Square, an area not known for hotels. The properties, with an average of 350 rooms, will look similar but different, especially in the public areas. And, as it does within Schrager's hotels, room size varies: they're tiny at W New York and big in San Francisco.
What W says it doesn't want is the attitude that tends to come with stylish hotels—even if W does have a "casting director" to do the hiring, something Schrager became famous for years ago.
At the same time that W is borrowing from boutiques—and even stodgy Marriott is reportedly looking into the boutique business—the boutiques are borrowing from Starwood. But instead of bringing in style to build a brand, they're hoping to start with the style they already have and create contemporary chains.
Like Calvin Klein with his CK label or Donna Karan with DKNY, two of the most fashionable hoteliers in the country are pursuing the masses with less-expensive products. André Balazs, of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and the Mercer in New York, just opened a hotel in L.A. called the Standard; rooms start at $95. He hopes to replicate it elsewhere. Schrager's Henry Hudson hotel in Manhattan is scheduled to launch a year from now; room rates haven't been set, but they will be much lower than those at his other places (it will still be designed by Philippe Starck).
The Kimpton Group is parlaying its successful Hotel Monaco in San Francisco into an out-and-out chain, even if Bill Kimpton bristles at the word. "What do you call a chain?" he asks. Um, hotels that have the same name and the same look and are owned (or at least run) by the same company?"Hmmph." Still, with Monacos in Seattle, Denver, and Chicago, and another opening next month in Salt Lake City, Kimpton is poised to go after the same crowd as W. It's ironic, since Sternlicht once met with Kimpton to talk about buying his company.
Joie de Vivre and Chris Blackwell haven't joined the branding crowd yet, but they're giving it serious consideration. "We've been thinking about taking the Hotel Del Sol"—a vamped-up motel in San Francisco's Marina District—"and opening others across the country," says Chip Conley, Joie de Vivre's president. Blackwell has contemplated calling a new Jamaica development Compass Point, after his "hotel village" in the Bahamas.
This is where W's corporate background offers an edge: W is more likely to get on large companies' lists of acceptable hotels, and, more important, it's part of Starwood's frequent-guest program. Even though repeat guests get points whether they stay at a Sheraton, Westin, or a W, Sternlicht doesn't believe W will cannibalize from the other chains. (Rack rates for the brands tend to be similar: W New York and the Sheraton Manhattan both start at $279.)
One thing that gives all the hoteliers pause is the possibility that stylish people won't accept a chain, no matter how dressed up it is. Sternlicht thinks W will be different. "In every kitchen, Marriott has a picture of a breakfast plate with bacon on the left side," he says. "You put the bacon on the wrong side, and you're out of there. We'll never be like that." And yet, at the Starwood Design Group's offices, there's a "style guide" that shows how to make the bed, with photos from all angles. The carafe goes on one side of the bed, pen and paper on the other. When asked if it really matters, Fatino answers curtly, "Yes. It does."
The question is, do that many people really care about style?
A recent visit to W New York at breakfast time showed mixed results. "I think it's okay," said a businesswoman from Atlanta. "The sheets are nice, but the staff has attitude." A telecommunications consultant from Frankfurt said that W doesn't feel like a chain, but frankly, he wouldn't care whether he was staying at a chain or not. "It's very trendy, and I like that," said a lawyer from Mexico City. "It doesn't feel like a business hotel. And that's okay."
Ultimately, says Joie de Vivre's Conley, W is a high-wire act. "The key thing is they better not get too hip. That would be their unraveling. Ian Schrager can—Ian doesn't want to be in Indianapolis."