Marriott’s new boutique Edition brand has opened in Hawaii and is coming to London. William Morris asks what it has to offer business travellers
Multimillionaires take risks, but even the most reckless do their homework before signing billion-pound deals. Not Ian Schrager. The ultra-stylish hotelier who created the concept of the “design hotel” has just launched a hip new brand, Edition, in a £2 billion joint venture with the world’s biggest hotel chain, Marriott – but he has never stayed in a Marriott property and has no intention of ever doing so. And even though he can rack up Marriott Rewards points by staying at Edition hotels, he refuses to apply for a card. “Marriott is not my cup of tea,” he says.
It’s not hard to see why. Apart from the fact they spend a lot of time in hotels, Schrager and his new business partner, J W “Bill” Marriott Jr, who built the Marriott chain, couldn’t be more different. Brooklyn-born Schrager cofounded New York’s hedonistic nightclub Studio 54, where celebrities rubbed sequins with debutantes and delinquents. After he was sentenced to 3.5 years for tax evasion, he set about creating the world’s first bespoke, leading-edge design hotels, such as the Royalton in New York, the Delano in Miami, and the St Martins Lane and the Sanderson in London.
Bill Marriott is a conservative Mormon from Washington DC. He started out working on a root-beer stand and went on to create the chain described as “the McDonald’s of hotels”. Step into any of the 1,000-odd properties he manages and everything from the patterned carpets in the bar to magnolia walls is instantly familiar.
The two men fought in the early days, admittedly. Would there be “intimacy kits” or bibles in the bedside cabinet? An adult movie channel? Dark corridors and fancy notebooks (both Schrager signatures) or a ballroom for weddings and corporate events (a Marriott staple)? Yet they seem to have found shared ground and the result is Edition, intended to be a global chain of reasonably priced, fashionable hotels in everyday business and leisure destinations.
The first Edition, in Waikiki, Hawaii, opened in October. Istanbul will follow in early 2011, and Barcelona, Mexico City, Miami and Bangkok after that. In London, Berner’s hotel in Fitzrovia will be transformed into an Edition property over the next 18 to 24 months following Marriott’s purchase of the historic property. “There isn’t a 24-hour international city that isn’t in our sights,” Schrager says. On the drawing board are plans for Paris, Madrid, Milan, Rome, Naples, Mumbai, LA, New York, Manchester and Edinburgh.
As creative director, Schrager will conceptualise and design every aspect of the hotels, from the rooms to the food and drink, overseeing a team of architects, artists, chefs, sommeliers and DJs. Private owners will construct the buildings and Marriott will run them.
Why has Schrager suddenly decided it’s hip to be square? Is he mellowing with age now he is the wrong side of 60? Quite the reverse – he wants to catch the latest curve, to prove to himself he’s still “got it”. The design hotel concept he pioneered is over, he insists. “When I hear the words ‘design hotel’, I cringe,” Schrager says. “It’s been so copied, so ripped off that it’s now perverted. Hotels are competing to outdo each other in design, spending money on expensive finishes and flourishes even if there is no overall vision. I hate it.”
He also believes the elitist, velvet-rope approach he took at Studio 54 and his previous properties has run its course. “The time is right to do something that appeals to a much larger audience on a much larger scale. Engaging with the mainstream is the zeitgeist. Look at the success Apple has had in taking stylish products to the mass market, or how fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney are collaborating with high-street retailers,” he says.
Marriott is late to the design chain party. Rival operators launched their own “boutique” brands years ago – Starwood with W and Aloft, Hyatt with Andaz, and Intercontinental with Indigo. So what does Edition have to offer that’s new for the business traveller?
The 353-room Waikiki Edition offers some clues. It is pretty much perfect for the modern business person who wants a little more style and originality. The rooms are much bigger than Schrager’s usual matchboxes, and the dark wood shutters, proper illumination, and terraces – two in many rooms – make you feel like you’re in your own mini apartment. There’s natural light everywhere, including in the bathrooms, and the service is speedy and reliable.
Schrager has toned down some of the excesses of his previous hotels that many travellers found off-putting – you don’t have to walk through a nightclub to check in and then through a rave to get to the lift to your room. In fact, there is no “lobby scene” if you arrive during the day. It’s only when the sun is over the yard arm that a library wall revolves and opens to reveal a chic bar that leads to Crazybox, the hotel’s nightclub. The venue has its own external entrance to keep the lobby and the rest of the hotel quiet. “This is a hotel where you know you will get a good night’s sleep,” says Arne Sorenson, Marriott’s president and chief operating officer.
Say what you like about the price of the food and drink in Schrager’s hotels, the quality has always been high. At Waikiki, the best dishes are baked eggs and sesame spinach with jamon Iberico on toast for breakfast, toro tartare with Osetra caviar, crème fraiche and wasabi for lunch, and Wagyu fillet for dinner. Wines are good and not just by the bottle.
When not working, the living is easy. The two lagoons are surrounded by knowingly camp mini-beaches and trees decorated with lights in bottles, safari-style, while at night, fire pits glow. The room rates are reasonable – from US$393 a night in February – but watch out for the extras. Wifi is free but log on to one of the PCs in the business centre and it will cost you 35p a minute, and up to £1 per sheet to use the printer.
Overall, the picture is positive. But it’s early days, and the first Edition raises a series of questions. It’s not hard to design a hotel that isn’t a Marriott, but how do you design one that is stylish and yet still belongs to a “family”? Schrager insists he’s not trying to design hotels that look alike – each Edition will reflect its locale and, therefore, be completely unique. “We’re the anti-chain chain,” he says.
Still, he is trying to create properties that feel alike – that are consistent in “attitude and atmosphere”. Each will share “a self-assured, self-confident style both in aesthetic and service. These are not shouty, ‘look at me’ places. They are surprising, glamorous, stylish but also relaxed in their own skin, and affordable.”
Waikiki has 353 rooms while Istanbul will have 77. One is on the beach, the other in a city. How can a new brand stretch that far? Schrager says it will come down to service. “People get hung up on the notion that a ‘boutique’ or fashionable hotel has to be small. It’s not about size. A boutique hotel is one with a clear attitude and point of view, just like a boutique store has a particular selection of products and ambience that marks it out as more focused than a department store. A boutique can be big as long as it has attitude.”
So just how far down the corporate travel road will Schrager go? The answer from Waikiki appears to be far – but not all the way. There is a ballroom for corporate events and it is called the Ballroom – not the Event room, as he wanted. Top-tier members of Marriott Rewards will receive the same rewards when they check into an Edition as they do when they stay at a Marriott, but there are no plans for Club lounges or rooms. In the end, the brand will sit somewhere above JW Marriott and Renaissance but below the Ritz-Carlton/Bulgari hotels in the Marriott pecking and pricing order.
Will it work? One beach hotel – however good – does not make a brand. The real test will come with Istanbul. Schrager has never opened a hotel in continental Europe, nor in a largely Islamic country. He promises a brilliantly original mix of East and West. “Imagine exquisite, modern wooden furniture offset with subtle Islamic accents, not a riot of Arabian Nights colours or rugs upon rugs,” he says. If he pulls it off, he will show he can do both big and small, beach and metropolis – and road warriors will have a new place to lay their head.
- Waikiki Edition, 1,775 Ala Moana Boulevard, Honolulu; tel +1 808 9435 800; editionhotels.com. Internet rates for a midweek stay in February started from US$393 for a King City View room.
- American Airlines flies daily between London Heathrow and Los Angeles for onward connections to Honolulu. Internet rates for a return flight in February started from £640. Visit aa.com