Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography
Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography
Ian Schrager, arguably the most influential hotelier in the past 40 years, joined Travel Weekly’s Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable to discuss trends in hospitality. Last week, Schrager discussed current trends; this week, he talks about his sometimes “messy” relationship with Marriott International and offers his strong views about the future of hospitality.
Last week in “The Godfather, Part 1,” Travel Weekly readers eavesdropped on a robust discussion about the ramifications of consumer brands entering hospitality. This week, the conversation continues among Ian Schrager, the godfather of boutique and lifestyle hotels, and top consumer travel editors, as they explore how hotels may evolve in unexpected directions.
The conversation was moderated by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann and took place over lunch at Intersect by Lexus in New York, before social distancing protocols were in common practice.
The original transcript of the discussion 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.
Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country: Ian, when I think about your career and Studio 54 and Palladium, you were creating something entirely out of the box, something that was theater at its core. That was the great surprise and joy of those places. And I feel that travel at its best is about that. It’s about theater, it’s about surprise. Of course, not corporate travel, not business travel.
Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: It seems sometimes that people, in a sense, want to outsource their spontaneity. They’ll go to a place that might be guaranteed to bring them surprises rather than creating excitement for themselves. Do you think that’s what the majority of consumers want?
Ian Schrager: Always. I couldn’t agree more. Everyone used to say I was trying to do a hotel on top of a nightclub, but they missed it. I was simply trying to create that energy and excitement in public spaces, no matter where. I think that’s always been my secret weapon, and everybody kind of misunderstood. And I think that is the future.
And why not for corporate travel? Why not if recovering from surgery? Why not for anything? You know, Holiday Inn used to have an ad, “The best surprise is no surprise.” I couldn’t disagree more. Nothing is better than a good surprise, provided it’s well done.
Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com: Going back 100 years, travel was always about surprise. People explored, went places no one had been and came back and told stories no one had heard. It’s amazing how cyclical everything is. It all comes back around again, and now we’re desperately trying to recapture that spontaneity.
Schrager: It never left. But the market got dominated by efficiencies of execution.
Weissmann: Speaking of which, that was what was so surprising about your partnership with Marriott. Marriott was the king of “no surprises” at the time you joined them to create Edition. How did that discussion go? Were you worried that there might be conflict in doing a deal with people for whom it sometimes appeared that “operational excellence” was the main goal?
Schrager: Or the only goal.
I was talking at a Goldman Sachs conference and I said, “Everything that Marriott does, I do the opposite.” And [Marriott International CEO] Arne Sorenson was in the audience.
Arne, he’s just a great, great, great guy. All the Marriott guys are really nice, straight guys. But Arne, like all great hoteliers, wants to create hotels; he doesn’t want to be just a finance guy or marketing guy. And I think they realized that building hotels on monotonously similar ideas, with the same hotel in Boston as L.A., wasn’t going to cut it. They knew they couldn’t do what I did. And I knew I couldn’t do what they did.
And I wanted to do something on a big volume. But there was a learning curve. Arne said, “What do you want to do? Should we put some of our people in?”
Bill Marriott said, “We want to let Ian do what he does.”
And later, sometimes when it got a little messy, I said, “Hey Bill, what happened to that statement?”
It could be a very difficult relationship, because I’m from Mars, they’re from Venus. It’s been a little bit figuring each other out, like any relationship. It was mutual respect that got us through. Thinking about working with the real estate robber barons in New York or the Marriott people, neither was perfect, but at least the Marriott people are straight and honest and have integrity. I learned a lot from them. It has been very fulfilling.
Weissmann: You mention wanting to do things on a big volume. The Edition hotels are all different, but have the umbrella brand: Edition. Your first hotels — Morgans, the Royalton, Paramount — were all completely different from one another, including their names. Could that degree of differentiation still be done today by one hotel company on a large scale, with each property truly unique, each with a different name?
Schrager: Definitely. Each of those hotels was different not just because the name was different and the design was different. Each had a different idea behind it. I think that’s the future of the business. Lifestyle hotels are the future of the business. I just hope that the hotel industry doesn’t fall into the same trap that they always fall into, like doing everything the same but in different colors. I hope they keep generating different ideas, with different reasons for being. I don’t understand why hotels don’t follow the way the population is evolving.
Jesse Ashlock, U.S. editor, Conde Nast Traveler: Is that some of the thinking behind Public?
Schrager: Yeah. You take a cue from what the people are doing. For instance, I think the distinction between hotels and where we live and work is getting completely blurred. Even in residences, there’s a community gathering space downstairs.
Weissmann: When you spoke a moment ago about what hotels could be used for, you listed, among the possibilities, one could “recover from surgery.” That seemed very specific. What did you mean?
Schrager: I think there is a great opportunity in wellness. It isn’t just marketing. Green buildings, that’s just marketing. But there’s a lot going on in wellness; you can see it in the spas in Europe that are less focused on beauty and more concentrated on health. You take medical tests there, there are doctors and you can get everything done, like cupping and plasma work — all these things that there aren’t statistics to support, but they work. Athletes go over there.
Daytime minihospitals are the future of medicine, as far as I’m concerned. It will become the rule, not the exception. And I think having a hotel on top of that is just great. Imagine, come to New York for the cure!
Ashlock: Two highly anticipated hotel openings in New York are very wellness-focused: Six Senses and Aman. Both have other cities in their sights. An urban strategy.
Schrager: Aman had one of the biggest impacts on me when I first got started. But it took them 40 years to finally be in a position where they can make money. I was in the Caribbean with an owner of one of the Amans and said, “Oh, I love Aman, the design hasn’t changed for 40 years.” I meant it as a compliment. I don’t think he understood it that way.
But I actually think that that is the future of luxury hotels: 70, 80 rooms; really, really large rooms; really, really well done, for the one-percenters. They don’t have to sacrifice anything that they have at home when they go there — the best of everything, at really astronomical rates. That’s why Aman is finally in a position to make money.
Glowczewska: I find those huge rooms kind of cavernous and depressing, actually. I really don’t like them. I have to walk around looking for things all the time.
Ashlock: You find yourself wishing you had people in them to keep you company, right?
Glowczewska: Yes, it’s sad, you know; it doesn’t make me feel happy.
Guccione: I’m the exact opposite. The bigger the better; I love it. I just get lost, like a kid. I love the grandeur. And at a certain age, one becomes interested in more comfort and a quieter lifestyle than one did when one was wilder. I love the old European hotels, sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons in Milan, which wasn’t designed as a community space, not in the way that that’s meant in hotels today.
I think of the great hotels I’ve stayed at, and what I’ve liked is connected to a sense of welcoming and, sometimes, even of insularity. You’re coming back from a day of appointments and you’ve got a nice place to just chill and have a drink at a bar that’s not in a nightclub.
So I wonder what everybody thinks about the trade-off: You can have a vast communal space like an Ace Hotel lobby or intimate, old-age hospitality.
Schrager: I call the second option an introverted hotel. And I think there’s definitely a market for that. Personally, I also prefer being able to sit in a lobby anonymously.
Weissmann: You prefer an introverted hotel?
Schrager: As a person.
Weissmann: But not as a businessperson?
Schrager: No. Not as an owner. But I am an introvert. Don’t tell anybody.
Laura Dannen Redman, digital content editor, Afar: You’re on the record now.
Guccione: This is where Ian regrets accepting the invitation.
Schrager: I know a lot of entertainers who are actually very shy.
There’s an opportunity for all of these things. Yes, I do prefer to sit anonymously and not be bothered and not have people come over and say hello, not be poked, not take a selfie. But I understand the phenomenon and that I’m in a distinct minority.
Probably the perfect thing would be if you had a hotel that offered both; that you had a room that was kind of intimate and another option in another space.
Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: Bob, you mentioned an Old World, grand European hotel. Last summer, I spent one night at the Baur au Lac in Zurich, and it was during the middle of Zurich Fest, which happens every three years. The driver who picked us up at the airport did everything he possibly could to get us through the crowds and as close as possible to the hotel, and we really appreciated it — it set the tone for our stay. We could see that he cared about his guests. I think the first experience you have sets the tone.
Schrager: The first, and the last.
Gifford: Yes, it’s those two moments that really make a big difference.
Ashlock: The person who picks you up, that experience is very important, and they often get the short shrift. Even the little things that they put in the car, the way that the driver talks to you, just the whole performance of the pickup, are hugely important.
Amy Virshup, editor, New York Times travel section: You know, Ian, I’m struck by something you said earlier: that having a green building was marketing. Is the question of sustainability meaningless?
Schrager: You have to do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s going to help sell the room, or it will hurt you if you don’t do it.
Virshup: Do travelers care?
Schrager: Yeah. Especially about things like plastic straws. People are very aware of that now.
Ashlock: Within a couple of years, getting rid of single-use plastics is going to be mandatory if you want the respect of a certain kind of guest. It’s not like you’ll get a gold star for it anymore.
Weissmann: Ian, do guests ask questions about how green the Public is before they make a reservation?
Schrager: We hear it sometimes on the guest comments.
Weissmann: On the way out but not necessarily on the way in?
Schrager: Not on the way in.
Ashlock: I’d like to think that, at some point in the future, asking that question would be like asking if you change the sheets.
Virshup: But so many hotels in New York, you walk into the hotel room and there’s a plastic bottle of water. New York has the best water going, so you wonder, “Why is this existent?”
Redman: New York barely recycles. You know, you go to a hotel in Seattle, they’re composting downstairs.
Ian, I’d like to ask you about something you said before, too. I’m sure hoteliers would love to know what you mean by “doing something well.”
Schrager: Something that’s provocative but well executed, so it stands the test of time.
Guccione: How about the reverse of that? What is the worst thing hotels do?
Schrager: Actually, I think they’re all trying now. They’re all venturing a foot into the lifestyle space. I think that’s a virtue. They’re all trying new things.
I hope at least that the hotel companies continue to accept that the process can be a little bit messy. That comes with doing something creative. And lifestyle hotels make plenty of money and outperform the others. I know Marriott is trying, and I think Hilton, too, is trying. And when it succeeds, the guest benefits.
Redman: What do you think of the trend towards no check-in, where you go to the cafe to get your hotel key, or there’s a kiosk?
Virshup: Or you just use your phone.
Schrager: Well, I have a lot to say about that.
First of all, I don’t think it is an impersonal thing to get instructions over your phone if it’s done well, with razzle-dazzle, and the experience is fun. I don’t think that you have to have personal contact with someone at the front desk. It’s just that it hasn’t been done well.
I think check-in should be as invisible as possible. But technology in this country is just not there yet, and it may never get there because the companies don’t cooperate with each other. I had self check-in with iPads, and we’re abandoning it because it doesn’t talk to the property management system. That’s frustrating. So I think we’re going back to the desk, though not a traditional, visual desk.
Glowczewska: Can you give us an example of the problems you’ve run into with this sort of technology?
Schrager: If you come in with a group, if your name is spelled wrong, if you make a special request, if your room isn’t ready, the self check-in can’t deal with that. That causes delays.
Or you have one system that allows you to pay at the front desk, but if you wanted to use Foursquare for credit cards at the restaurant, which is cheaper, you can’t sign at the restaurant and have it go on your hotel bill.
Virshup: I have to say, I like having human interaction. When I walk into a hotel, I like having a person say hello. I don’t need a traditional check-in, but when someone says, “Would you like a glass of water? Would you like a coffee while you’re checking in?” that sets a tone for me. The real idea of luxury is that you are seen by the hotel.
Schrager: I agree 100%. It could be a greeter; your presence has to be acknowledged and you have to be guided to where you’re supposed to go and told if there’s anything you should know. Luxury is about how it makes you feel, not how much it costs.
Weissmann: Amy, let me ask you this: If you have, on one hand, a kiosk available when you enter the lobby and on the other you have a front desk with eight people in line to check in, which do you prefer?
Virshup: Well, if there’s a line of eight people, that’s a problem. That hotel is not giving good service.
Guccione: If there’s a line of 20 or 30 people, then it’s really a problem. We’ve all checked into those hotels.
Redman: And which country are you in? Do they speak English or do you speak their language?
Guccione: We’re all aliens the minute we go somewhere. In Germany, we’re aliens, in Ethiopia, we’re even more aliens. Hotels can be an anchor saying, “It’s OK, we’ll take care of you. Do you understand how the electricity works? Do you understand the language? We’ll take care of it for you, it’s all right.”
Ashlock: You know, earlier we were talking about wanting surprises and the unexpected. But you do need those reassurances in order for the surprises to be OK.
The editors had travel plans. Then, borders closed.
Traditionally, the Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable ends with editors revealing their travel plans for the balance of the year. This roundtable was held shortly before widespread travel restrictions related to Covid-19 were put in place. Their original answers are below, but we recently followed up with the editors to get an update on whether the close-in trips occurred, and if others were postponed or canceled.
Amy Virshup, the New York Times: My big trip planned for the spring is to Japan.
Jacqueline Gifford, Travel + Leisure: I’m planning to go to Charleston, S.C., and I’ll be going to Australia in May.
Update: Charleston did happen. Australia was postponed until, hopefully, the end of the year. We’re trying to work that out now, but obviously I won’t go on the road until it is responsible to do so.
Laura Dannen Redman, Afar: Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and probably Puglia or Sicily, Italy.
Update: We were supposed to go to Playa del Carmen for spring break but had to cancel. We’re trying not to think of anything as truly canceled, though — just postponed — and we’re talking about redoing a family vacation over Thanksgiving week.
Italy was going to be our New Year’s trip; we hadn’t made any concrete plans yet. But the minute Italy opens back up, we’ll start those conversations again. We have a number of domestic weddings that are still tentatively on — in Boston in June and two in California in August — and those will be the first real tests of travel. We’re hopeful.
Jesse Ashlock, Conde Nast Traveler: I’m doing a week in Oaxaca, Mexico, with my family. Following that, Dubai and India for work and Switzerland for a conference in April. Late in the summer, friends and family will take over a small B&B in Tinos, Greece. And then, Northern California to see my dad. That’s kind of my happy place.
Update: The weeklong family trip to Oaxaca happened, and we had a wonderful time. Dubai and India are postponed indefinitely. The conference in Switzerland has been postponed until September; fingers crossed. The owner of the Greek B&B graciously offered to let us rebook for summer 2021.
And we’ll see my dad whenever the lockdown has ended and we feel comfortable flying with the kids to the West Coast. I think after this is over, we’ll be seeing a lot of family travel — travel with family and travel to go see family.
Klara Glowczewska, Town & Country: Bhutan for 10 days, the entire country. I’m hosting for Town & Country. I’m toying with a summer in Sicily or Crete or Northern Europe.
Update: The Town & Country trip has been postponed until the end of May 2021. Only one person of the group asked to cancel; all others are happy with the rain date.
The virus put summer planning on hold. With borders closed, I might try to organize something in the United States: Martha’s Vineyard, maybe Rhode Island. And, depending on flights, maybe out West or down South. And hoping to attend the Pure conference in September.
Bob Guccione Jr., WonderlustTravel.com: I think Ukraine — I might host a fam trip for Ukraine International Airlines. Other than that, I have no plans, but the place I’d like to go most in the whole world is the Empty Quarter [in Saudi Arabia].
Update: Ukraine I can do anytime, and want to, but haven’t rescheduled it. The Empty Quarter is an eternal ambition and relies purely on the operators who take you there being in business. It’s not going anywhere, and there’s some suggestion that the desert may outlive me.
Because of how coronavirus changed everything, I now hunger most for things I took for granted. I want to leave WonderlustTravel.com in the hands of my smarter editors, rent a villa and disappear into Tuscany for a fortnight, turn communications off, go into the village, speak poor Italian just well enough to buy groceries to cook later that evening and sleep under foreign stars.
Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography
Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography