What business travelers demand now is style.
There was a time when business travel was looked upon by travelers and providers alike as a necessary ordeal -- just think of the term road warrior. But in today's world -- where image is everything -- the travel industry believes people want something more.
In Cathay Pacific's new Hong Kong lounges, hip British minimalist John Pawson has installed elegant Josef Hoffmann furniture, private bathrooms, and a sleek 80-foot bar that wouldn't look out of place in TriBeCa. At London's Gatwick, Virgin Atlantic recently opened a first-class lounge with a high-tech business center and an observation room equipped with four telescopes. Even the formerly bland SAS is undergoing a stylish revamp, with new uniforms, logo, everything. Its new lounges in Stockholm and Copenhagen look like upscale Ikea showrooms minus the crowds.
The new style standard is also being seen in hotels. "We have access to so much more information nowadays, and style is included in that," says Hilary Billings, senior vice president of brand development and design for W Hotels, a new business hotel group just launched by Starwood Hotels & Resorts. "People are used to more luxury in their houses than they had ten or fifteen years ago, and they want the same when traveling."
You'll have to decide for yourself whether W's new flagship, the W New York, resembles your living room. Designed by David Rockwell (who did New York's retro-swank Monkey Bar), it has the airy feel of a Sonoran Desert spa, but with the amenities B-travelers expect. Each room has a 27-inch TV with high-speed Internet access and an infrared cordless keyboard (so you can surf from bed), a dual-line cordless phone, and an array of Aveda products. The restaurant, Heartbeat, is by Drew Nieporent, of Nobu fame. If you're too busy conferencing to sit down to dinner or wait for room service, the hotel has a juice and wrap bar.
"The W New York is a little flashier than the others," says Billings, who was formerly a chief designer at Pottery Barn (the influence shows). W plans to open 13 hotels this year, and the look, she says, "will be classic, modern, more residential." Functional chic, if you will. One thing is certain -- this is not your father's business hotel.
While W won't say it's aiming at any particular generation, everything about it seems intended to appeal to those who work in the image industries: media, advertising, and the Internet -- the new jet set composed of business travelers who want to look good and get their faxes.
But does style really matter when you're on the road, or is it just another layer of nineties image hype -- the same phenomenon to blame for your new charcoal gray wardrobe and the VH1 Fashion Awards?
"When you walk into a hotel with a bit of style," says Jonathan Chajet, a 31-year-old corporate-identity consultant for Siegel & Gale, "it pays off if you feel a bit special." Chajet also sees style as a way for companies and customers to make a statement. "Look at SAS's campaign," he points out. "It says they want to be a player, not just a regional airline."
Then again, all style and no substance can make for a very long trip. "Style matters, but I don't think it's as important as, say, comfort," says David Feder, 29, an account supervisor for Young & Rubicam. Feder, who traveled to 16 countries last year, believes the W hotels could fill a niche. "There just haven't been hotel options that catered to people in the image industry, apart from the Ian Schrager properties," he says.
And what about the all-important miles?Conventional wisdom has always had it that the most significant perks for business travelers are frequent-flier and hotel bonus points. When it comes to W, at least, they won't have to worry. Bonus points can be redeemed throughout the Starwood group, which includes all Sheraton, Westin, and Luxury Collection hotels.