W: Where, When, and Why
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Aluminum fins form the 20-foot-tall logo on the W New York—Times Square by Yabu Pushelberg.
Hard to imagine a time without W as a mecca for global nomads. You know the breed: those who, prerecession, reveled in travel any way they could get it, business or pleasure. Even in their hometowns, the same crew hit the hot spots, often a W bar or restaurant. Now 11 years old, W numbers 35 hotels in 10 countries. It grew up during boom times and, even though those times have ended for the moment, an impressive number of projects remain on-track worldwide. That's because W's buzzword has always been ingenuity, woven into the very fabric of the brand.
If architecture and interior design have figured prominently in that success, much of the credit goes to Barry Sternlicht, the founder and chairman emeritus of parent company Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and a special honoree at the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 2005. Starwood's senior vice president for global brand design, Michael Tiedy, puts it this way: "W was a design-led brand from the beginning." Quite literally. The very first property, which opened in 1998, was the W New York by the Rockwell Group.
Studio Gaia designed the W Mexico City's interiors, among them the Away Spa.
The stable has since expanded to include some of the design world's most talked-about talents. Returning for the W Retreat & Spa, opening next year on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, the Rockwell Group is collaborating this time with Patricia Urquiola. Among other firms working on 2010 launches are Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects and Graft (W New York—Downtown) and Antonio Citterio & Partners (W St. Petersburg, Russia). Four additional international locations are on target for 2011. By then, the number of properties will have doubled, with 70 percent newly built.
A "category buster," that's what W calls itself. "It means reinventing hospitality," Tiedy explains. Initially, this entailed treating lobbies as living rooms and offering Whatever/Whenever concierge service. "As long as it's legal," he says with a laugh. Since W is "all about constant evolution," he continues, innovation currently focuses on strengthening ties to music and fashion.
Studio Gaia chose ipe for the Sky Deck at South Korea's W Seoul.
To lure the locals, W has introduced concerts at some locations, such as Pete Yorn at the W Chicago—Lakeshore. Plus, W has just released its seventh CD compilation. But the big news is Michaelangelo L'Acqua's appointment as the first global music director. Formerly music director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, L'Aqua has produced fashion shows for Chanel, Ralph Lauren, and Jil Sander.
On the heels of the debut of Global Glam, a collection of clothing and accessories inspired by five international hotel locales and sold in on-site shops and online, W started promoting itself during "fashion week" on both sides of the Atlantic. Barneys New York windows by Simon Doonan offered 3-D travel tips for frenzied fashionistas; a Paris pop-up space was part store, part lounge, and part performance venue. There's a fashion-interiors connection as well. Commissioned to envision the future of the presidential suite—in W parlance, the Extreme Wow suite—Jouin Manku dreamed up a customized couture wardrobe that would await guests wishing to travel with nothing more than a credit card.
At the W Maldives by Eco-id and Poole Associates, arrival and departure are via yacht, speedboat, or seaplane.
Who gets to design a W in real life? Need only experienced hospitality designers apply? Not necessarily, Tiedy says: The Dutch firm Concrete, responsible for the upcoming W London—Leicester Square, "did a lot of retail but not a lot of hospitality." The selection process is organic. "Firm size, staffing levels, examples of work. All are explored to build a library of candidates," he explains. Once a property is signed, W typically suggests three firms to the owner and developer. W has ultimate hiring approval, but the owner-developer establishes the fees and pays the bills.
Once a location is up and running, setting the room rates becomes a tricky balancing act. Instead of cutting them recently to keep beds filled, W Hotels Worldwide global brand leader Eva Zeigler says, "We've been challenging ourselves with back-of-the-house operations." One example is to reduce restaurant hours during low-traffic times of year. And, she notes, the Starwood Preferred Guests program is a strategically important weapon, accounting for 60 percent of W clientele.
W's other crucial strength is scope of development. Newer brands such as Marriott's Edition or Hyatt's Andaz can't come close, Zeigler asserts. With new locations in London, Paris, Milan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, W is equipped to own the upswing.