Starwood's Star Turn
How do you make six separate hospitality brands shine? Founder and CEO Barry Sternlicht relies on design
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Keeping up with Barry Sternlicht is no easy task. On any given week, the peripatetic founder and CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide may jet from Seoul, South Korea, where he's preparing to launch the biggest—and possibly edgiest—W hotel yet, to Overland Park, Kansas, to scrutinize a new Sheraton. Even following him through his headquarters in White Plains, New York, is a whirlwind trip. It begins in his art-filled office, continues with a tour of the design studios' six model rooms, and culminates in a two-hour charette to review projects in various stages of planning, development, and revision. Competitors can't keep up with Sternlicht either. He's hot off an up year in a down market.
The fast pace comes with the territory, which in Starwood's case is global. Holdings encompass 760 properties in 80 countries, under six brand names: St. Regis, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, W, Westin, and the Luxury Collection. Sternlicht takes a rare pause to consider what sets his company apart. "As the hospitality industry grew, it segmented on price points. My goal has been to segment on aesthetics, on emotions," he says. "We use design as a weapon."
If those sound like fighting words, it's perhaps because Sternlicht has encountered occasional struggles in his quest to deliver high design that's both funky and functional. "I got into this business because, as a traveler, I had an array of pet peeves: bad plants, bad art, TVs you couldn't see from the bed," he explains. "Number one, though, was that I couldn't remember any hotels I'd stayed in. Our mission is to make the product memorable, more distinct, less commoditized. The design should make people say, 'Holy mackerel!'"
Accommodating the whims and tastes of individual hotel owners is an issue, particularly overseas. Despite the distinction between the six brands that Starwood has so carefully developed, the message can still get mixed. As an example, Sternlicht cites Shanghai, where Starwood recently opened a St. Regis, the epitome of luxe, and a Westin, typically more understated. "I don't know which hotel is more luxurious," he admits. "But what am I going to tell the Westin's owner? Please don't make your hotel so nice?"
Completed projects can, upon final inspection, differ from the approved design. "I've sometimes shown up just before a hotel opens, and it's nothing like what we signed off on. Everything that made it special got value-engineered at the last minute to meet the budget," Sternlicht laments. He copes with these hazards by picking his battles.
"I draw the line with W," he explains. "If I can't control the design process, I won't sign on to do the hotel. I don't care what the economics are. Protecting the brand is too important." And rather tricky, given that each of the five-year-old W chain's members—currently 17, with three more to open this year—is completely unique. "The weirder a concept or material or furnishing, the more interested I might be in it for W," he says. The Ws do, however, share a canny synthesis of boutique hotels' one-off character and an international chain's brand consistency.
While Sternlicht can't control every hotel operator or franchisee, he can control the designers and architects he hires. Two years ago, he established in-house design teams to create prototypes for Westin and Sheraton. He calls the Westin aesthetic "modern, elegant, a bit female-oriented." Sheraton should look "conservative, clubby, Ralph Lauren–y." These talented, experienced teams oversee the entire process to ensure that projects are feasible within a hotel context. D.B. Kim, vice president for W and Westin design, and Ellen O'Neill, vice president of Sheraton design, manage a staff of 14 in White Plains. A handful more work in Los Angeles, under Theresa Fatino, VP of brand design and development for W hotels. "They're deeply involved in every project," explains Sternlicht. "And we do a lot of editing along the way."
Sternlicht personally reviews boards, floor plans, model rooms, and ultimately each completed property. In his relentless pursuit of perfection, a design is subject to change at any moment. "I may make as many as a dozen revisions to a model room," he admits. "At one project I recently visited, we asked for numerous changes. The lighting was in the wrong place, there weren't any drawers, and the radio was too far from the bed stand. Great design also has to be functional and comfortable."
Although Starwood has a finishing department to accessorize each property—"I call them the style police"—Sternlicht frequently gets in on the action. He's been known to purchase a painting or a chair to finish off a stairwell or hallway he feels lacks punch. His obsessive tweaking can also entail removing rather than adding, as in the case of a certain property in Washington, D.C. (You know who you are.) "Every time I visit, they've placed these awful Moroccan ashtrays in the lobby—where they just don't belong," he recounts. "I remove them, but they keep reappearing."
Putting finishing touches on a project, from the artwork to the desk blotter, can take an additional six months to a year after the official opening. "That last 5 percent is critical," he says. For W, he adds, the process doesn't stop there: "Protecting the brand means going back to keep it fresh and hot and surprising." Trendiness, however, is anathema, as the life cycle of a hotel design is seven to 10 years.
"We've tried everything under the sun," says Sternlicht—who freely admits to his share of design miscalculations. "For instance, light carpets and white floors. I love 'em, but they just don't work. Once we sourced a $2,000 bed that, installed, looked like it cost $200."
A key to Starwood's financial success is the design team's creativity in scouring the marketplace for the manufacturers and fabricators of products that look like a million bucks without breaking the bank. Westin's redesigned prototypes have saved thousands of dollars per room. "It looks like a $12,000 case-goods package," Sternlicht says, "but we produce it at $4,000, which is a very powerful winning formula." And attracts investors. "Anyone can spend a lot of money," he continues. "Producing great design affordably is a completely different talent."
What sort of talent does Sternlicht look for? "Collaborators who understand the individual brand aesthetic we've established but can vary it for particular locations." Ai Group, Perkins & Will, and Hirsch Bedner Associates are some of the midsize firms that have recently completed Westins and Sheratons in such cities as Chicago, Seattle, and Detroit. Sternlicht takes more risks with W, scouring the globe for emerging, under-the-radar designers. "We're looking for young Philippe Starcks, for fresh visions," Sternlicht says. Having a strong point of view is a prerequisite. Hospitality experience isn't. Yabu Pushelberg, responsible for the W New York Times Square interior, and Studio Gaia, now completing the W Mexico City, were hotel-design neophytes before Sternlicht decided to give them a chance.