W Hotels Goes Local

With 15 locations in the works, the boutique-hospitality brand is taking a site-sensitive approach to building its global empire.

Fifteen years ago, an overnight business trip usually meant a lonely night in the room of a national hotel chain. Such a stay may have entailed a few tidy comforts—stacks of folded white towels, a neatly made bed, and a well-stocked minibar—but a Marriott never really feels like a home away from home. There’s a reason, after all, why filmmakers gravitate toward the cold regularity of the hotel as a backdrop for murderous rampages and sordid trysts. But that all changed in 1998, when the mega hospitality corporation Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide began building a brand of hotels to capture what was then becoming known as the “boutique” market. The new enterprise was trademarked W, and it would revolutionize the hospitality industry.

W was built on the shoulders of Ian Schrager, the forward-thinking entrepreneur who (with his Studio 54 business partner, Steve Rubell) opened the first boutique hotel in 1984. With an ultrahip, whimsical design by Andrée Putman, the Morgans Hotel turned style into an amenity and quickly became the stomping ground of New York’s glitterati. It also planted the seed for the idea that a chain hotel could be more than just a generic foam pillow on which to lay your head; it could be a lively destination with public spaces filled with of-the-moment furnishings, signature throw pillows, and expertly friendly bartenders. Sensing a sea change, Barry Sternlicht, Starwood’s chairman at the time, wanted a piece of the action. After failing to buy out Schrager, Sternlicht launched the first W, in midtown Manhattan, to duplicate the quirky Schrager experience—albeit with the financial backing of a major corporation. “It’s very difficult to overstate the importance of what W did when it was launched,” says Bjorn Hanson, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at New York University. “There were so many innovations that today we almost take as the norm. It was a silly thing, but, for example, no hotel brand used curved shower rods.” Now, with 36 hotels in its portfolio (a veritable chain), the brand is hitching its future to more than just shower rods. In a bid to distinguish itself from a growing number of competitors, it has developed a sophisticated design strategy that steeps each hotel in the distinctive culture of each new location.

The formal shift occurred about a year ago, months after Ross Klein, the president of Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ luxury arm and the defining force behind W since 2003, was recruited by Hilton to start up—you guessed it—a boutique chain. (Starwood has filed a lawsuit alleging that Klein and a colleague left with W trade secrets.) The move prompted a shake-up in Starwood’s ranks and a reevaluation of the W brand’s design approach. At the same time, the company was embarking on a major global expansion. Of the 18 projects slated to be completed by the end of 2016, only 3 were in the United States, and the formula the in-house designers had been drawing on—a palette of nine genres with labels like “techno-glam” and “film noir”—was beginning to feel stale. “It was too limiting,” says Eva Ziegler, W’s global brand leader. “And it’s very difficult to explain how, through nine design genres, you are making yourself really relevant to the location.” Instead, W began tapping both established and up-and-coming talent to craft bespoke interiors reflective of their actual surroundings. The results have recently been unveiled in urban centers as disparate as Hollywood, California, and Santiago, Chile.

W’s success—it claims to be the fastest-growing “contemporary lifestyle” hotel brand in the world—has to do, at least in part, with Starwood’s franchise structure. Though the company still owns a few of its hotels, it now takes an “asset-light” approach, handing construction and operational costs over to local developers, who in turn pay Starwood to manage the properties. Starwood remains immune to fluctuating real estate values, while controlling and protecting the W brand—a style-driven image that is inextricably linked to design. Developers may have ultimate say over which designer to use, but they choose from a prescreened list. Before pen is put to paper, W’s in-house team, along with the developer and the outside design firm, hash out the locale’s defining characteristics, which then become a brief that informs everything from cocktail ingredients and elevator music to staff uniforms and, of course, decor. “Instead of developing a global system, we’re developing a strategy for being a good neighbor to the location,” says Ted Jacobs, Starwood’s vice president of brand design. “If it’s a property in a neighborhood where the buildings are only three stories tall, we don’t want to come in with a fifty-floor-tall tower.”

That attitude is clear in Starwood’s latest offering, W Hollywood, a LEED-registered development that opened in January off Hollywood Boulevard, in the heart of the neighborhood’s historic district. Built on land leased by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the hotel-and-condominium complex promotes public transportation and residential-tower living in a town better known for parking garages and urban sprawl. In meeting all of the stringent site requirements and programming demands, the Dallas-based architecture firm HKS produced something awkward but unobtrusive: a structure that rises 12 stories, the same height as the Taft Building, a Hollywood relic next door. The U-shaped building wraps around a landscaped public plaza and a subway station topped with a canopy of green glass and black granite. The latter was designed by the local firm Rios Clementi Hale as a tribute to the 1930 Pantages Theatre directly across the street, with its black-granite base and gold detailing. “Nobody is really looking at Art Deco as a viable period in Modernism,” says Frank Clementi, one of the firm’s principals. “This is an attempt to create Hollywood Art Deco in a twenty-first-century, reductive, Modernist kind of way.”

While the exterior tries not to upstage old Hollywood, the interior recaptures some of its bygone glamour: a procession of red carpets runs from the star-inlaid Walk of Fame outside, into the hotel’s “Living Room,” and up a spiral Scarlett O’Hara–style staircase, above which a corkscrew–shaped chandelier of fiber optics and glass prisms drips from the double-height ceiling. But the interior designer, Sharilyn Olson Rigdon, of Designstudio Ltd., says she also took inspiration from classic L.A. midcentury Modernism, which blurred the boundaries between inside and outside. “The Living Room isn’t like some of the other Ws,” she says. “We didn’t have the dark, clubby environment. It’s more about transition, the connection between indoor and outdoor, the great natural light of Southern California.” Doors lead from the Living Room to an alfresco movie-screening area that looks out on pedestrian traffic up and down Hollywood Boulevard and the subway station. “It really activates that area and that square by letting people know what’s going on,” Rigdon says. “The lobby does the same thing—even though it’s a private space, it’s an extension of that public plaza.”

Last fall W tested the site-specific formula internationally, in projects in Barcelona and Santiago. The two properties illustrate, in their vastly different interpretations, the flexibility of the design method—and, in the case of Barcelona, its potential complications. In Santiago, the interior designers Tony Chi, a hospitality veteran and New Yorker, and Sergio Echeverria, a Chilean, focused on local materials, using copper and native tapestries, for instance, to create a layered, eclectic feel. The building provides meeting places and street-level retail in a sleepy corner of El Golf, a high-end district. In Spain, where the hotel is part of the ambitious Nova Bocana urban-renewal plan for the Port of Barcelona, the renowned Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill erected a grand homage to the Mediterranean—an imposing sail-like structure and the first hotel with beach access in the trendy neighborhood of Barceloneta. The interiors are intentionally minimal and soft, so as not to grab attention away from the glorious water views out of the guest-room windows. But while the 26-story Vela (“Sail” in Spanish) is no doubt stunning, it has drawn ire from locals, some of whom have petitioned to have it torn down. The El País columnist Agustí Fancelli denounced the privatization of public beachfront, likening the hotel to “an inglorious beer belly.”

Missteps notwithstanding, such attention to location ensures that every ground-breaking offers something completely different from the one before—a boon to the brand as it seeks to retain and expand its loyal customer base. “We realized that based upon the lifestyle associated with the W, our little psychographic is fickle,” Jacobs says. “Whatever is cool tomorrow won’t be the following week.” But now competition is springing up from traditional brands like Hyatt (which introduced Andaz, its version of the boutique hotel, in 2007) as well as independently owned hotels, all jockeying to “outquirk” the giant. “A younger Gen-X-er or an older millennial might see W as being somewhat predictable,” says NYU’s Hanson. So while Starwood does everything it can to fight the perception of predictability and stay on trend, it’s bumping up against an inconvenient truth: that the brand it built in reaction to the status quo has unwittingly become the hotel establishment.

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