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In the realm of cool: W Hotels

IN DECEMBER 1998, STARWOOD’S W HOTELS BRAND CREATED A NEW EXPERIENCE FOR SOPHISTICATED TRAVELLERS, OFFERING HIP BARS, HOT RESTAURANTS AND THE MOST EXCITING ACCOMMODATION SEEN FOR DECADES. HM FINDS OUT HOW OVER TEN YEARS ON, W REMAINS THE COOLEST BRANDTHE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

WORDS JAMES WILKINSON IN NEW YORK

During the 1990s, hotels were stuck in a transitional portal of being large, grand and over-luxurious or small, stale and under-developed. What was missing was a hip, contemporary and sophisticated hotel chain – one where guests could sip martinis at the bar while listening to eclectic music spun by the world’s best DJs. People wanted hotels to stay at where they could be in ‘the scene’.

W Hotel

W Hoboken, New Jersey

Sure there were the luxurious 5-star hotels where guests could drink Dom Perignon and eat caviar in the lobby, but what was missing was a collection of hotels under one banner where no matter wherever in the world you were – be it New York, Sydney, London, Hong Kong or Paris – you were guaranteed to be staying somewhere hip, happening and fun.

So, when Starwood opened the W New York in December 1998 – complete with a happening bar, loungeroom-style lobby, funky music and eclectic furniture – it’s no surprise that hotels were firmly placed in the realm of cool for the first time in decades.

In fact, soon after Starwood first opened the W New York, hotel chains across the world scrambled to try and keep up, by revitalizing their bars, restaurants and guest rooms. Some have come close, but none have been able to emulate what W has done on a global scale.

“W was a category buster when Starwood opened W New York in 1998 and it quickly redefined the hotel experience,” Starwood’s Global Brand Leader for W Hotels, Eva Zeigler, exclusively told HM in New York.
“Since then, W has grown to become an American phenomenon and is currently transforming into a global powerhouse.

“W was the first to transform the lobby into what we call the Living Room experience – a place where guests and locals come to mix and mingle – and other W firsts include branded beds, retail stores, signature scents, branded CDs and designer minibar amenities,” she said.

Australia, of course, has had its taste of W when the W Sydney opened in 2000 on the harbour in Woolloomooloo.

It may be the BLUE Sydney now, but the W’s legacy remains and the hotel can be credited for making Australian hotel bars cool once more. On several occasions in the early 2000s, Water Bar was so popular at times that only hotel guests were guaranteed access – another benefit of staying at a hotel that W also pioneered and remains in force to this day.

Sydney was also the first city outside the United States to feature the W brand and many industry leaders would say the brand recognition remains so strong in the harbour city that marketing budgets would be able to be kept to a minimum in the event of a new hotel opening.

Zeigler said while there are no immediate plans for a return to Sydney, the city remains firmly on the brand’s radar, something that has been echoed to HM several times by Starwood’s regional head Sean Hunt.

“W is always seeking exciting new locations around the world… places where our loyalists want to visit,” Zeigler said. “While no plans are currently in the works for a property in Australia, we never rule a location out.

“However, this is a very exciting time in W’s history as we are on track to double our footprint by 2011. We’re expanding to some of the most sought-after markets in the world including Paris, London, Shanghai and St. Petersburg,” she said.

After a rapid expansion from 1998 to 2004, the United States growth of the brand slowed down and Starwood started to focus on signing properties across the globe. While several W Hotels opened – in Canada, the Maldives and South Korea – the international reach did not truly kick into top gear until mid-2008 when Starwood was signing properties practically by the month. That date also marked the opening of W Hong Kong, what has become a flagship hotel for Starwood in Asia and at the time, quite possibly the best W to open anywhere in the world since W New York in 1998.

Since Hong Kong, a plethora of hotels have opened on an equally grand basis, across both Europe and the United States.

“In 2009, we opened several flagship hotels globally including W Barcelona, W South Beach (Florida) and W Washington D.C. and will soon open W Hollywood and W London – Leicester Square,” she said.
“New York City, as the birthplace of W, will continue to be flagships for the brand, especially the new W New York – Downtown, which is also set to open in 2010,” Zeigler said.

There’s more to come, especially in some emerging and exciting markets for Starwood, including Athens, Greece (2011), St Petersburg, Russia (2010), Marrakech, Morocco (2011), Amman, Jordan (2012), Bangkok, Thailand (2011), Guangzhou, China (2010), Shanghai (2014). Several W properties under the Retreats and Resorts banner are also in the pipeline, according to Zeigler.

“In Spring 2010, W Retreat and Spa – Vieques Island will open (in Costa Rica),” she said. “It’s a breathtaking property that was designed by David Rockwell and Patricia Uriquola and will feature a restaurant by Alain Ducasse.

“In 2010, we will be opening Retreat and Spas in Koh Samui and Bali. Then, in 2012, we will debut our first ever ski resort, W Verbier,” she said.

In not just emerging markets, but by adding major in-demand cities such as Paris (2011), London (2010), Shanghai and St. Petersburg is proof of W’s positioning in the market and the fact that the brand is ultimately lacking a major competitor in its segment.

The only chains that come close to W at present are Thompson Hotels in the United States (which is set to add a Seoul hotel over the next 18 months), Eight Hotels Australia (specifically with the Diamant brand), Viceroy (which opens a uber-hip Snowmass hotel this month) and Le Meridien, following Starwood’s major revamp of the brand earlier this year (which is ironically also under Zeigler’s direction). And, until the first Edition hotel – the collaboration between Bill Marriott and Ian Schrager – is opened, no other top five chain will come anywhere near a W concept.

Zeigler said what Starwood have developed with W is create a brand that more is based around more than just accommodation.

“W is more than a hotel brand… it is an iconic lifestyle brand,” she said. “What sets us apart is how we offer more than just a hotel stay, (because) we offer unique and innovative experiences.

“Our leading-edge design sets the stage for an integrated lifestyle experience, including destination bar and restaurant, signature spa experience, Whatever/Whenever service promise, and W Hotels The Store, our take on the traditional hotel gift shop,” she said.

Zeigler said offering the complete lifestyle experience, with a hip twist, is one of the main reasons why W is in such strong demand and has proven successful over the last decade.

But, given W’s leadership in its segment, Zeigler knows the brand has to remain at the forefront of the industry and she has been left with the responsibility doing just that.

What’s next? From what Zeigler says, it sounds like Starwood is creating its own magazine house-slash-fashion brand.

“In another W first, we have just appointed of our first ever Global Music Director Michaelangelo L’Acqua,” she said. “His job is to strengthen our presence in the music community and create brand partnerships for us.

“We will also soon be appointing a Global Fashion Director to help us do the same in the fashion arena,” Zeigler said.

For a hotel chain to take these financial risks and go to the lengths of creating the ultimate hip guest experience, it truly is no wonder that W remains the coolest hotel brand in the world – a title it will mostly likely retain for another decade and beyond.

HM flew to New York with United Airlines, which flies twice daily to the Big Apple via Los Angeles or San Francisco. The author recommends flying in United Business, which features new flat-beds, entertainment on demand and premium beverages on all Australian flights. Visit www.unitedairlines.com.au

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