The Godfather

Part 1

Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography

Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography

The Godfather

Part 1

The boutique hotel concept took off in 1984 when Morgans Hotel opened in Manhattan. Its co-creator, Ian Schrager, has remained in the vanguard of influential hoteliers and recently joined Travel Weekly’s Consumer Editors Roundtable to share his thoughts on emerging hospitality trends and a project he’s “playing around with”: a cruise line.

Hospitality is the foundation of every travel industry sector, and many of the changes that occurred as hospitality evolved over the past several decades were due to innovations introduced by one man: Ian Schrager.

He originally found fame as co-founder, with Steve Rubell, of Studio 54, the prototypical red velvet rope, celebrity-magnet Manhattan nightclub. Studio 54 and their second venue, Palladium, were as much high-design theater as nightclubs.

In 1984, Schrager and Rubell transferred that aesthetic and vision to hospitality when they opened what is widely regarded as the first high-profile boutique property, the 113-room Morgans Hotel. Building on its success, the Morgans Hotel Group’s Royalton, Paramount and Hudson, all in Manhattan, offered large, design-forward public spaces and inventory that included tiny rooms which often looked and felt more like art installations than sleeping quarters.

Other hoteliers took note of Schrager’s success; brands from W Hotels and Kimpton to Ace and Dream owe much to Schrager and Rubell’s introduction of theater and lifestyle aspiration into hospitality. After Rubell’s death, Schrager went on to lead the development — often in collaboration with well-known artists, architects and designers — of the Delano, Mondrian, Gramercy Park Hotel and Public; he has since divested all but the Public in New York, though he remains active in the development and growth of the Edition brand, created in an odd-couple pairing with Bill Marriott in 2007.

Joining Schrager at the 14th annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable were Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief of Travel + Leisure; Conde Nast Traveler U.S. editor Jesse Ashlock; New York Times travel section editor Amy Virshup; Town & Country executive travel editor Klara Glowczewska; WonderlustTravel.com editor in chief Bob Guccione Jr.; and Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director of Afar. The discussion was moderated by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann.

The group was hosted for lunch at Intersect by Lexus in New York — before social-distancing protocols discouraged such face-to-face gatherings.

The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, though the topic might have recurred at intervals during the course of the conversation.

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“Consumer brands – Equinox, Shinola, Restoration Hardware, Atari, Taco Bell – opened hotels. Is this the tip of the iceberg?”

—Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: We’re sitting in a retail space that has a restaurant, bar, cafe, gift shop and art space. The food and beverage is managed by restaurateur Danny Meyer, and the dinner menu is designed and prepared by renowned chefs from around the world, who rotate in each quarter. But this was all conceived and developed by the Japanese auto manufacturer Lexus, which has also opened similar spaces in London and Tokyo.

It seems consumer brands are refusing to stay in their lanes, and many are entering hospitality: the gym chain Equinox, the watchmaker Shinola, Restoration Hardware, Atari, Taco Bell. Are we just seeing the tip of the iceberg with this trend?

Ian Schrager: Atari?

Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com: You’re more surprised by Atari than Taco Bell?

Schrager: But, Atari — I don’t see the connection.

Weissmann: It’s going to have a casino, so there’s a connection with gaming.

Schrager: With a casino, I can see Atari. To get the young people, take slot machines and turn them into video games.

Part of what’s going on is that mass advertising is undergoing a fundamental change, and people are trying to figure out the best way to market their products. But I wonder whether they’re supporting their product or trying to create a lifestyle brand. I think it’s dangerous — treacherous — to veer off their main product, because they might go outside their zone of competence and do something that tarnishes the brand.

Porsche built condos in Sunny Isles, Fla. Not a very sophisticated area. It sold out, but I thought it was diminishing for the Porsche brand. Terrible idea. I guess they’re all sort of groping around.

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“Bulgari and Armani have hotels. The fashion industry has seen the wisdom and has been doing this for a while.”

—Jesse Ashlock, U.S. editor, Conde Nast Traveler

Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director, Afar: I think travelers are looking for extensions of their own personal brands and want to spend money at places whose values feel good to them. Millennials who love Muji will check into the Muji Hotel because A, the price point’s good, and B, they love the products.

Weissmann: Ian, if Lexus came to you and said, “We want to start a hotel, we’d love you to partner or consult,” would you take the job? If so, what would you tell them about how to approach it?

Schrager: I think Muji works because they have a very specific sensibility, so people know what they’re going to be staying in, and I think there is an extension from home products to a hotel. I don’t see that connection with Lexus. I’d have to hear what their idea is and what the commitment is. I wouldn’t want to do it if I thought it was just a business-generated exploitation. I don’t mean to be unkind with that word, but I’d have to understand what they’re trying to accomplish. My first reaction would be that I wouldn’t be interested. I don’t see the connection between the two.

Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country: I’d be interested if Tesla did something. The beauty of their design and the sustainability aspect — if there’s a brand out there that can make sustainability sexy in the hotel space, it may be somebody like Elon Musk.

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“I don’t know about the fashion designers doing it. It hasn’t been successful for those two. I’m skeptical.”

—Ian Schrager

Amy Virshup, travel editor, New York Times: Right. And he could sell trips on his rockets, too. Brand extension.

Schrager: Tesla stands for something to me. Rethinking, reinventing. It has strength to me. I don’t see it with Lexus. When I hear Tesla, I think maybe there’s an idea here.

Glowczewska: Take it to Elon Musk!

Weissmann: Ian, have you been approached by a consumer brand that wants to get into hospitality?

Schrager: Yes. Lots of them. But I’m generally not interested. Sometimes they just want to use my name, and to me there always has to be a reason for something. I see Muji, I see Restoration Hardware. It’s an extension of what they do.

Guccione: Bulgari did it.

Jesse Ashlock, U.S. editor, Conde Nast Traveler: Yes, Bulgari. Armani, too. I feel like the luxury fashion industry has seen the wisdom and has been doing this for a while. And, more recently, the acquisition of Belmond by LVMH suggests that these people see a synergy between their respective industries and want to tear down the walls.

Schrager: I see the connection between LVMH and Belmond because that’s a luxury brand doing a luxury hotel. But I don’t know about the fashion designers doing it. It hasn’t been successful so far for the two that have tried it. I’m skeptical.

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“Millennials who love Muji will check into the Muji Hotel because the price point’s good and they love the products.”

—Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director, Afar

 Guccione: It all seems to be like [the movie] “Rollerball” to me. We’re getting toward the era of the corporate nation state; we’re approaching that dystopian point where massive corporate brands simply imprint themselves on everything. I love BMW, I drive a BMW, but I do not want to go to a BMW hotel.

Ashlock: This place [Intersect by Lexus] feels a bit like a pop-up. We’ve had pop-ups like this for a long time as part of a campaign, but the idea of doing them as a part of a permanent brand strategy, that signifies a change.

Virshup: And I have to say I would not be surprised to hear that they close this in a year. It just doesn’t really seem to be a sustainable idea. Maybe I just don’t drive luxury cars enough, but I don’t have a clear idea of what Lexus means as a brand. Is there some Lexus ethos that is supposed to be communicated by this restaurant?

Guccione: It’s sustainable if people come.

Schrager: Well, if it’s not sustainable from an economic point of view, I’ll be sorry. The food is good!

Guccione: It’s excellent.

Glowczewska: Everything, delicious.

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“I love BMW, I drive a BMW, but I do not want to go to a BMW hotel.”

—Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com

 Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: This is a very defined experience about food and dining, and rotating chefs connect to the way that we eat and travel these days — the idea of the global nomad who wants to try everything and taste everything. I don’t think it’s so unusual for a car company wanting to do this. They know what their customer wants and how they travel, so to bring that experience to New York doesn’t seem like a stretch.

I’d like to go back to Arnie’s original question, which specifically asked about consumer brands going into hotels. There’s the brand, and there’s the question of, how well are they going to do hospitality? There are some that feel more like a pop-up, and there are brands like Equinox, which is actually trying to do this at a massive scale. They said, “Yep, we’re going all in, this is our brand, and we’re moving from gyms to wellness to really being a hotel company.” So some, like Taco Bell, I’m 99% sure it’s a gimmick — it was a pop-up, right? But Equinox is putting a stake in the ground and saying, “We believe we can do this,” and opening many, many locations. So yeah, I think some brands are hoping to sell more products, and some actually want to be in hospitality.

Virshup: Is there a business plan? That is, I guess, the question.

Redman: I think the Equinox Hotel is a great extension of the brand. I didn’t really know the brand that well, and it was a bit sexier than I imagined it to be. And Amy’s reaction to being here and not understanding its connection to Lexus — I think it’s not doing the job if you leave here and you don’t know more about the brand. With Equinox, you do.

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“I’d be interested if Tesla did something. It’s a brand that can make sustainability sexy.”

—Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country

 Guccione: Equinox’s product is beautiful people, or the illusion of beautiful people. That’s what they’re selling. I like it better than the Ace Hotel, where the idea is to sell hip, young people, but then you get in the room, and it’s a tenement.

Schrager: I think Ace does a good job. It’s in the constellation [of good hotels] because they made a contribution: It’s a beehive of real activity during the day. That wasn’t done before. True, they came from Seattle; true, they came from the coffee culture; true, they came from grunge. But they brought these things to the party, and it worked.

Ashlock: I don’t think you would have what’s going on [with the cafe, gift shop and art gallery at Intersect by Lexus] without Ace. That’s Ace’s contribution, for better, for worse.

Guccione: I think what Ace did in the public space is brilliant, and the general manager once told me they make more money from the lobby than the hotel. But the hotel, and I’ve stayed in it a number of times, isn’t a very good hotel.

Weissmann: Where does it fall down to you?

Guccione: It’s just run-down, it’s grungy. Not in a good sense.

Ashlock: Which ones?

Guccione: The New York one and the L.A. one. I actually checked out of the L.A. one, I thought it was crap.

Schrager: We’re not the customers.

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“And [Elon Musk] could sell trips on his rockets, too. Brand extension.”

—Amy Virshup, New York Times travel section editor

Guccione: That’s true, but it’s not just an age thing. At a young age, I would have felt it was crowded. It became like Grand Central Station.

Ashlock: We’ve been hearing a lot the last few years about hotels with teeny, teeny, tiny rooms. The rooms are smaller to allow for everything else. Do you think that’s a concept with real staying power?

Schrager: Yes. If they’re done well, like it was on transatlantic ocean liners, or cabins on a yacht, you sleep there, you bathe there and then we go outside on the public decks. I don’t think size has ever been an issue. If the room is well done or the room has great style and panache and a great vibe and seems cool, it’s never an issue of size. You know, rich people, too, like to get bargains.

Weissmann: Ian, speaking of cruises, have you ever cruised?

Schrager: Yes.

Weissmann: Each cruise ship has a hotel manager, and cruise lines lure people into the public spaces like you do in your properties. Have you ever thought about what an Ian Schrager Co. cruise line would be like, what would be different and what innovations you would introduce?

Schrager: Well, Marriott is doing the Ritz-Carlton. Disney will have seven ships, and it’s just a spectacular experience. Disney ships are done by the Imagineers and have a lot of great ideas. I think it’s just spectacular to do a cruise line, and I would definitely do it — that’s a logical extension of a hotel. I’m playing around with something right now.

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“There’s the brand, and there’s the question of, how well are they going to do hospitality?”

—Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure

Weissmann: So, you’re more than available? You’re engaged?

Schrager: I think it’s just really great, you know why? It makes cruises accessible to a lot of people, and they don’t have to be these incredibly tall, 10-story ships. They can be smaller, and so it’s just a great idea.

Ashlock: What’s your take on what Richard Branson’s doing in the space?

Schrager: Sorry?

Ashlock: Virgin. Virgin Voyages.

Schrager: Are they doing it, too?

Ashlock: They’re doing it, it’s happening.

Schrager: I hope they do it better than the airline.

The Four Seasons is doing something with a ship in the Maldives. And there’s a company in New York that’s doing a ship that’s going to be permanently docked in lower Manhattan.

Weissmann: As a hotel?

Schrager: Yeah. I think it’s just a great idea, and so you can have segmentation with the ships the same way you have with hotels. You can pick the ship that gives you the experience that you’re looking for. I think that’s the future.

Weissmann: Do you have a name for your …

Schrager: No. But it’s not Virgin, I’ll tell you that.

Consumer Editors Roundtable: The Godfather, Part 2
Influential hotelier Ian Schrager joined top travel editors in a wide-ranging discussion. Here he talks about his sometimes "messy" relationship with Marriott and offers his strong views about the future of hospitality.

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Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography

Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography

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