Starwood Hotels and Resorts invests in design to create style, attitude, and brand distinction in its six international hotel brands.
So-Chung Shinn -- Interior Design, 3/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
BARRY STERNLICHT IS obsessed with design. Just one glance at his White Plains, New York-based office is all that it takes to recognize that the 40-year-old founder and CEO of the world's largest hotel company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, is serious about his hands-on approach to aesthetics and design direction. Product sketches are scattered across his desk, architecture books occupy shelves, and numerous design magazines, once neatly piled on the window sill, cascade to the floor. "This is my passion," admits Sternlicht. "If I couldn't do this, I wouldn't take this job."
The company employs more than 120,000 people worldwide, and is the owner, operator, and franchiser of 733 properties (225,540 rooms) in 81 countries that encompass the Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, W Hotels, Four Points, and Luxury Collection brands. Of the 733 hotels, Starwood owns or has partial ownership of 212 sites; the remaining locations are either managed or franchised establishments. Building upon the success of such innovations as the distinctive W Hotels, Westin's Heavenly Bed, and the company's award-winning loyalty program, Starwood Preferred Guest, total revenues in 2000 increased 13 percent to $4.3 billion, compared to $3.8 billion in 1999.
Sternlicht is acutely aware of the correlation between design and Starwood's success, and the company invests heavily in renovations and new-build projects. During the fourth quarter of 2000 alone, the company spent approximately $236 million for capital improvements that included continuation of the Sheraton renovation program roll-out, the development of W Times Square, and the conversion of the Days Inn Chicago to the W Lakeshore. Hotel expansions included a 100-room addition to the world-famous Turnberry Resort, a Westin hotel, in Scotland.
Just as Target and Starbucks were able to distinguish themselves from their competitors, Sternlicht is trying to differentiate his product, not only on price, but also through fresh design statements consistent with the demographics of each brand. "Brand differentiation is imperative to our growth," asserts the confident hotelier. "We don't want to be like Chrysler's K-car, the committee-designed project that didn't appeal to anybody because it strived to appeal to everybody." In 1998, Starwood held its first global meeting following the acquisitions of ITT and Westin, and asked executives to identify five images of different guest rooms by brand-Hyatt, Sheraton, Marriott, Westin, and Hilton. They failed, and Sternlicht promptly assembled an in-house design team to oversee the monumental reimaging task at hand.
The design and construction department is led by senior vice president Richard Martini, who also supervises the design of the St. Regis and Luxury Collection brands. Three lead designers oversee the remaining properties: James Skog for Westin, Theresa Fatino for W Hotels, and Tiffany Bowling for Sheraton and Four Points. "Our philosophy derives from a mandate driven by Barry: Winning by Design," explains Martini. "You can create a lot of good design, which often costs less than bad design, but you need to take the time, energy, and effort to explore every possibility."
While the in-house team develops the guest room aesthetic, independent design firms are hired to create public spaces and suites that reflect the design vocabulary established by Starwood. The company's research and development laboratory for model rooms of each brand is located within the Sheraton Stamford. Here, fourteen rooms are tested by guests to gauge comfort, endurance, and appeal. "It is great to have this kind of feedback right in our own backyard," says Bowling. "We can address the comments immediately and test them before putting the rooms out in the field."
Westin's new guest room is contemporary and clean, appealing to its 30- to 40-year-old, predominantly female, urban demographic. The room's focal point is the highly-successful Heavenly Bed, an innovation that Sternlicht implemented after years of sleeping on miserable hotel beds. The company reportedly sells four Heavenly Beds a day to hotel guests. Also new to the Westin chain are nine former Luxury Collection properties that were rebranded in March of last year to establish a larger European presence.
Sheraton's new aesthetic is "conservative, but not dull, with a Ralph Lauren sense of style," according to Sternlicht. Geared towards Sheraton's mostly male, suburban, road-warrior guest, the Sheraton room includes a sleigh bed, velvet drapes, jewel-tone colors, and a pin-striped bedspread. To date, the Sheraton room renovation program has cost a total of $750 million.
The W Hotels concept was launched in late 1998. The brand recently opened its thirteenth property, W Union Square, and plans to open W Times Square later this year, totaling five W sites in Manhattan alone. Described as style hotels, each W features dramatic flair from designers as varied as David Rockwell to set designer Dayna Lee of Powerstrip. Aveda bath products are distributed in the bathrooms, international magazines are stocked in lobby newsstands, and local microbrews are offered in guest room bars.
Starwood also commands one of New York's oldest and most revered hotels, the St. Regis, and is expanding the hotel name around the world. Designed to be at the top tier of hotels in any given city, properties have opened in Los Angeles, Houston, Rome, Beijing, Aspen, and Washington, D.C. The Luxury Collection comprises a group of distinctive properties, from former imperial palaces to hideaways in the South Pacific. However, plans are in motion to sell this group, which includes the Gritti Palace in Venice and the Excelsior in Florence.
Sternlicht's appreciation of design stems from his art training in high school. Many of the W Hotels' design concepts are attributed to his creativity. For example, he discovered a concrete bench with a water receptacle at a design show in Stamford, Connecticut, for the W New York lobby. To prevent guests from mistakenly sitting in the water, he replaced the element with grass and situated the bench in front of the elevators. "It became a design statement," he explains. "Everyone was talking about and photographing that bench." The main staircase of the W Westwood is also one of Sternlicht's creations. He sketched ideas and forwarded them to Fatino. While some details were tailored, the basic concept remained the same.
Additionally, Sternlicht is a great champion of orchids and green apples. "Orchids are not expensive and will last at least six months. When I first started this business, I put orchids and green apples at the front desk of a property. Suddenly, the hotel looked expensive. It only cost $800 to implement, but it changed the entire price category of the hotel." He often visits trade shows with his wife to find items that he feels are appropriate for the properties. Sternlicht has an affinity for tranquil, zen-inspired environments, and hopes to use more water and stone in Starwood's far-flung locations. "Great design is effortless," he avers. "It feels effortless when you are in it. And to achieve that within a limited budget and make it look expensive, that is true talent."