Ian Schrager single-handedly created the boutique hotel, so what’s he doing jumping into bed with mass-market Marriott? John Arlidge checks out the anti-chain chain
ULTRA HAS FEW heroes. It’s not our style. This column is rarely devoted to a single figure. But we are prepared to make the odd exception — for the exceptional. One such is Ian Schrager. He seems pretty keen on Ultra, too, since he invited us to his latest contribution to London hotel life and much else besides.
The Berners Hotel in Fitzrovia is the last place you would expect to see the ultra-stylish New Yorker, who single-handedly created the design hotel. There’s no bar. No intimidating staff. No go-to restaurant so full of locals that hotel guests can’t get in. And no baffling taps in the bathrooms. Yet here, among disgruntled tourists and chino-clad road warriors furiously tip-tapping their BlackBerries, Schrager insists, is where he wants to be. Or rather, will want to be.
He and his new partners have just bought the place and are redeveloping it. For Schrager, it is a key element of the biggest, boldest risk he has taken since he opened the original design hotel, Morgans, in New York, more than two decades ago. The 64-year-old has just signed a £2 billion joint venture with the world’s biggest hotel chain, Marriott International, to create a fashionable but affordable hotel chain.
The new brand, called Edition, debuted last year in Honolulu. Istanbul opens in March, then London, Barcelona, Mexico City, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Rome, Naples, Mumbai, Los Angeles, New York and Miami. Overall, two dozen Editions are planned by 2020. The name of each city will precede Edition — the London Edition, the New York Edition — to give each a unique title.
The Brooklyn-born entrepreneur is moving on, calling time on the exclusive design hotel he pioneered. His wildly fashionable properties — including the Royalton and Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, the Delano in Miami and St Martin’s Lane and the Sanderson in London — revolutionised the urban hotel market. But now Starwood, Hyatt, InterContinental and just about every small operator from São Paolo to Shanghai have copied him, with brands such as W, Andaz and Indigo. In the process, Schrager says they’ve killed the very thing they were trying to emulate.
‘The idea of the design hotel has been so copied, it’s perverted. It’s over. Whenever I hear the phrase “design hotel” these days, I cringe,’ he frowns. ‘Every hotelier jumped on the bandwagon, even though they didn’t understand a thing about it. Today, hotels are competing to outdo each other. It’s become all about going to the latest and greatest designers, pouring in all the money, getting lots of expensive finishes, even though there is no vision behind it. I hate it.’
But being ripped off has, Schrager believes, handed him a third act in American business life. (He co-founded Studio 54 in New York before creating the boutique hotel.) ‘What’s happening in the hotel industry now is what happened 30 to 40 years ago. All the hotels are beginning to look monotonously similar — over-designed. That’s exactly what gave me my opportunity to do something different 25 years ago, when my partner Steve Rubell and I started out. Then, all hotels were dully similar — under-designed. We created something very different, very exciting, and the market flocked to us. It’s time to do it again.’
The lobby of Waikiki Edition, Honolulu
Under the deal with Marriott, Schrager, Edition’s creative director, will conceptualise and design every aspect of each new hotel, from the room to the food and drink, overseeing a team of leading architects, designers, artists, chefs, sommeliers and DJs. Private developers will build and own the buildings. Marriott will run everything. Schrager and Marriott’s owner, JW Marriott Jr, will be paid a fee and receive a share of the profits.
SCHRAGER AND MARRIOTT are, by any standards, an odd couple. It is hard to imagine the two men having anything in common, other than the fact they both spend a lot of time in hotels — more than 300 nights a year in Marriott’s case. Schrager was imprisoned for tax evasion when he was running Studio 54 and spent more than a year in jail, before moving into high-end, bespoke designer hotels and property, where his success earned him rock-star status.
JW Marriott Jr is a besuited, ultra-conservative 79-year-old Mormon who started life as heir to the root beer stand in Washington, DC, owned by his father, and went on patiently to create the biggest ‘cookie-cutter’ hotel chain in the world, described as ‘the McDonald’s of hotels’. Step into a Marriott — any of the 1,000 around the world — and everything from the patterned carpets in the bar to the Marriott-branded shower gel in the bathroom is instantly familiar.
But Schrager insists this is one relationship where opposites attract. ‘He’s not like me and I’m not like him. He can’t do what I do and I can’t do what he does. But together we can do something extraordinary. It’s a case of one plus one makes three.’
By combining Schrager’s aesthetic integrity and cachet with its own mass-market experience and organisational muscle, Marriott hopes to attract a younger, wealthier, more fashionable traveller and gain entry to the fastest-growing sector of the hotel market. Over the past three years, boutique hotels’ per-room revenue growth in the US, the world’s largest market, has averaged 11 per cent a year, a third above the industry norm, according to independent US-based hotel analysts Smith Travel Research.
While Marriott is in it for the money, for Schrager, who already has more money than he could spend after selling his Morgans hotel group five years ago, the new venture is about catching the curve, proving to himself that his trend-spotting instincts are still as sharp as ever. Style and the mass market are no longer a contradiction in terms, he thinks. In key sectors, notably fashion and consumer goods, quality and good service are going more mainstream. So, it’s time for the first accessible, stylish hotel chain.
‘Consumers are more and more sophisticated and educated,’ he says. ‘They respond to individuality and originality. The fact that you are doing it on a large scale does not undermine that. Look at Apple. They come up with these products that are universally appealing to people of all ages and all strata of wealth. Look at the way top fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Jil Sander have collaborated, with great success, with high-street retailers like H&M or Uniqlo, or the way Damien Hirst is designing sneakers for Converse. What I am doing for Marriott is not dumbing down, nor selling out. It is just designed for a bigger market and catching the zeitgeist.’
Above: The lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel
Schrager says Edition will be more affordable and grown-up than his design hotels and will offer a more muted style. ‘We still want to do things with style, with glamour. We want to be a feast for the eyes, still want to get a rise out of people. But I want it to feel more self-assured, simple, chic and modern.’ And although Edition will be a chain, it will be a Schrager chain. ‘Each hotel will reflect its locale and so, although the service will be of the same quality and style, each hotel will look completely different. It will be the anti-chain chain,’ he smiles.
THE SIGNS FROM the Waikiki Edition are encouraging. The 353-room hotel is pretty much perfectly formed. You instantly know you’re in Hawaii, thanks to the sculpture made of smashed up surfboards behind reception and the blue sarongs and pink ukulele in your room. The rooms are — thankfully — much bigger than Schrager’s usual matchbox. The dark wood shutters, proper lights and terraces — two in many rooms — make you feel you’re in your own mini apartment rather than a mere ‘hotel, motel, Holiday Inn’. There’s a huge amount of natural light everywhere, including the bathrooms.
Outside, the two lagoons are surrounded by knowingly camp mini beaches and trees decorated with lights in bottles, safari-style. At night, fire pits create a healthy glow. Day or night, nobody does the pool scene better. Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto rustles up a mean breakfast (baked eggs and sesame spinach with jamón Ibérico on toast), an innovative lunch (toro tartare, with Osetra caviar, crème fraîche and wasabi) and a hearty supper (a not-too-marbled wagyu fillet). Wines are good and not just by the bottle; Cloudy Bay comes by the glass.
And if that’s not your cup of Hawaiian punch, in March Schrager will try to tempt you with his second Edition and his first hotel in continental Europe. He promises the 77-room Istanbul Edition will offer a startlingly original mix of East and West — think modern wooden furniture offset with subtle Islamic accents.
Next, it’s London, which he is looking forward to with relish. Buying up the Berners Hotel is a cheeky move, even by his standards. The London Edition will be a bread roll’s throw away from the Sanderson, his second design hotel in London, which he sold five years ago. Schrager will be going head to head with his former self. ‘I can’t wait,’ he says with an impish grin.