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Reinventing the Chain Hotel

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.

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