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Schrager’s 20th Century concept has been successfully updated

The trouble with trying to be ahead of the curve is that the feeling is always ephemeral.

In the 1980s, when I was often in New York, I read about a hotel called Morgan’s. It was run by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager who had owned the celebrated 1970s nightspot Studio 54. Rubell and Schrager, the article (in Vanity Fair, I think) said, were now trying to do to hotels what they had done to nightlife.


I went to Morgan’s (very hip, very dark) and then became a regular at their next hotel, the groundbreaking The Royalton, where I once saw Rubell strolling expansively around the hip lobby restaurant which soon became a fashionista hangout. (The food was fine but as the fashionistas never ate anything, it didn’t really matter anyway.)


   The Royalton, which made designer Philippe Starck’s reputation, was like no hotel I had ever been to before. There was no visible signage outside the door (though it did say Royalton on the pavement if you looked closely enough), only a fashionably dressed guy near the entrance who doubled as doorman and bouncer.  The lobby was like an elegant lounge with tanks full of Japanese fighting fish, the staff (including the bellboys) wore designer clothes and looked like out of work actors (which many of them were). The rooms were chic but small (the loft suite — basically a larger room — was the only one I found comfortable enough to stay in) and had fittings that were unusual for that era: stereo systems and VCR players. You had access to a music and video library and could call down for whatever entertainment you wanted —which included a collection of porn videos.


   Later Rubell died young and Schrager went on to open the cheaper Paramount (where I once stayed) and The Sanderson (trendy, not very well run) and the St. Martin’s Lane Hotel (where I stayed for many years) in London and ran hotels in other cities.


   Various terms were used to describe his hotels. They were among the first hotels to be called ‘hip’ or ‘boutique’ or ‘designer’ or ‘lifestyle’. As a habitue of his places, I felt very ahead of the times.


   But within a few years, every single one of Schrager’s innovations began to be copied by other small chains. Many of these chains were very good and so were the new hotels that followed the Schrager model. What was once avant garde began to seem mainstream.


   The big change came in 1998 when global hotel giant, Starwood Hotels, launched W, a corporate version of the Schrager-style hotel. Like Schrager’s New York hotels, it started out by converting old hotels, tried to turn them hip and followed the formula down to the last detail; W also treated the lobbies as ‘the drawing rooms’ of the properties.


   The concept was so successful that future W hotels became more ambitious and were constructed from scratch around the world. Some were pretty terrible (Bangkok, for instance), some were vast and touristy (Barcelona), some were outright flops (London), some were fun (Singapore), some were let down by terrible service (Dubai) and some were dodgy but commercially successful (Goa).


   But in no time at all, the concept W had borrowed from Schrager had been reduced to its basics: play loud music in the lobby, dress your staff fashionably and don’t bother about running a good hotel because hey! The vibe is just so hip, man!


"You could take Schrager’s concepts and create refined but hip luxury by adding the sort of high end service that only a luxury hotel company can provide."

   I don’t know how Schrager felt about the corporate ‘borrowing’ of his ideas but I don’t imagine he was too pleased. Then the success of W led other chains to try to create their own ‘lifestyle’ brands. Starwood sued Hilton for trying to steal proprietary secrets about the W brand. Hyatt launched Andaz, a ‘lifestyle’ brand that is still groping for an identity. And suddenly everybody wanted to be hip.


   Schrager's full-fledged return to the space (he sold the older hotels) came when he tied up with Marriott to start a new chain called Edition. When I first heard of the tie-up, I was sceptical. Schrager’s hotels were meant to be the antithesis of the Marriott-Hilton hotel. How could a collaboration work?


   When I interviewed Arne Sorenson, Marriott’s chief executive and the architect of the deal (Sorenson died of cancer a few years ago), I told him why I was sceptical. By then, a new factor had entered the equation. Marriott had bought Starwood so it now owned W. How would Marriott run Schrager’s new hotels along with W the chain that had created a cookie-cutter version of the original concept?


   At that stage, the Edition deal was in its infancy so Sorenson was tentative. W had its own formula, he said. It would continue along the same lines. The Editions would be more sophisticated, more individualistic and more distinctive. Though he did not say so in so many words I got the sense that the Editions would be the grown-up versions of the original Schrager hotels: hip but also luxurious.


   I wondered about that when I visited my first Edition on Berners Street in London (opposite The Sanderson, Schrager’s first UK Hotel) which is massively successful but whose defining characteristic seemed to me to be darkness. (Darker even than Morgan’s used to be.) You stumbled in the bar because it was so badly lit and you couldn’t see the food in the Jason Atherton restaurant because of the poor lighting.


   Despite this experience, I went, last fortnight, to the Tokyo Edition with an open mind. And I found, to my surprise, it was exactly as Sorenson had suggested it would be: hip but luxurious.


   There are some familiar Schrager touches: the lobby is like an elegant living room; the staff look like models in their sleek designer wear; the rooms (as white as the Royalton’s were dark) look like the work of a top designer (they are; one of Japan’s top designers was involved), there is a hip bar hidden away on the ground floor, there is not much in the way of visible signage, a famous chef (in this case Tom Aikens from London) runs the restaurant and the bathroom fittings are top end.


   But here’s where it differed. My room was huge. (Room sizes in the Tokyo Edition are at Four Seasons/Ritz Carlton levels.) The service (always the weakest point of Schrager’s early hotels) was outstanding. And the coldness that sometimes infects design hotels had been replaced with an overwhelming warmth. The staff went the extra mile to make you feel at home.


   The excellence of the hotel suggested to me that perhaps Sorenson had been right. You could take Schrager’s concepts (the design and conception of the hotel are all Schrager) and create refined but hip luxury by adding the sort of high end service that only a luxury hotel company can provide.


   Some of this I guess will vary from hotel to hotel. While the Tokyo rooms are large, some Editions have smaller rooms: the one in Times Square in New York has rooms the size of closets. And the General Managers must make a difference. In Tokyo, Anshul Kaul, a veteran of the Oberoi and Four Season chains is a roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-the-job-done kind of guy so the outstanding service may reflect the ethos he has created.


   For instance, when I checked in there was enormous pressure on front office because of the number of arrivals and departures at that time so Kaul was handling luggage delivery himself. Later, when I called for an adapter plug from an overloaded house-keeping department he brought it up himself.


   I have no idea whether all Edition General Managers are as outstanding but I guess most of them are because Marriott is focussed on making the Edition concept work. If they can repeat the luxury and the success of the Tokyo property then Schrager may finally prove Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum wrong. Yes, there are second acts in American lives: Schrager’s 20th Century concept has been successfully updated and upgraded to provide style and luxury in the new century.



Posted On: 11 Apr 2023 11:25 AM
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