As W Hotels approaches its 20th year, the luxury-lifestyle
brand may be going through something akin to a midlife crisis.
Acquired by Marriott International last September along with
the rest of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the W brand continues to add a
handful of hotels a year, but it has fallen in guest-satisfaction polls,
highlighting what could be an identity issue among both guests and travel
Earlier this month, W fell to last among the nine luxury
hotel brands ranked in J.D. Power's most recent annual North America Hotel
Guest Satisfaction Index Study; it had been eighth out of nine last year. While
never a strong performer in that poll, W finished as high as sixth out of 10 in
the 2013 poll. W also ranked below average in this year's Harris Equitrend poll
of 10 luxury hotel brands after finishing atop that list last year.
Meanwhile, Marriott's Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott brands
tied for the top spot in this year's J.D. Power poll.
"The W can be somewhat of a polarizing brand,"
said Rick Garlick, practice lead, travel and hospitality at J.D. Power. "It's
hip, trendy, cool and dark, and you can walk in there and say, 'This is not for
Still, both Garlick and Jack Ezon, president of New
York-based Ovation Vacations, allowed that the brand has struggled with
"Within the course of mass expansion, especially into
secondary and tertiary markets, the brand standards became inconsistent,"
said Ezon. "You need to know your W Hotels."
Marriott denied that the brand was posing any specific
challenges, with Anthony Ingham, W Hotels' global brand leader, asserting that
the brand is "more successful than ever."
Indeed, W Hotels last year had an average room rate of $351
across the brand, which was about at the midpoint between JW Marriott's
lower-priced hotels and Ritz-Carlton's more expensive rooms. Still, while
Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott's North American properties' revenue per available
room advanced about 2% last year, W's fell 2.5%.
While some of that decline may be attributable to the brand's
exposure to New York, where rates fell as more supply came online, the
proliferation of independent lifestyle and boutique hotels could also be
affecting W's room demand, according to Bjorn Hanson, clinical professor at the
New York University School of Professional Studies, Preston Robert Tisch Center
for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.
"In the last year or so, there have been more
introductions of services, tie-ins and themed marketing by independent boutique
hotels and even other brands that might make W seem less cutting-edge,"
Spearheaded by former Starwood CEO Barry Sternlicht, W
Hotels debuted in 1998 with the reflagging of the old Doral Inn in Manhattan's
Midtown East district and quickly became known for its properties' vibrant
lobby and bar scenes coupled with a modern design approach. The brand has since
expanded to more than 50 properties worldwide and plans to add 25 by 2020.
"W Hotels was not originally intended to be a luxury
hotel brand, but consumers loved the product, and demand drove the nightly rate
up," said Ingham. "When guests are paying luxury rates, they have
luxury expectations -- rightfully so -- but our guests' definition of luxury is
To that end, Starwood and its hotel owner partners had been
sinking money into the brand before the Marriott acquisition. In 2013, Starwood
said about $400 million had been invested across a half-dozen of its Manhattan
properties, including the original W New York and two other W properties.
Ingham added that W hotels in Chicago, Seattle and Los
Angeles, which he referred to as "generation one" properties, had
also recently undergone major renovations.
Yvette Chin, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based associate agent with
Valerie Wilson Travel, said that W Hotels' prime locations will always ensure a
steady slate of bookings, especially from millennials.
"That millennial group really likes them a lot because
they're not as stuffy as other hotels," Chin said.
Still, both she and Ezon said that when it comes to
providing service to both the guest and travel advisers, the brand's
consistency lags that of other luxury badges.
"Clients choose it because it's a little more fun
relative to, say, a St. Regis," Chin said. "But I don't quite feel
like they're at the same level as a St. Regis or a Mandarin or a Ritz."
That said, if any company is up for the challenge of
applying branding standards across the board, it's Marriott, according to
"Marriott is the ruler of brand consistency," he
added. "They will help tremendously."