If you’re the person who created W Hotels and St. Regis Hotels, where do you go after that?

Barry Sternlicht, founder and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, launched Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 1995 at a time when the design hotel trend in North America was just beginning to gain steam as a small hospitality niche. Envisioning a much broader appeal of that trend, Sternlicht delivered W Hotels to the world in 1998 and changed the hotel industry forever by proving the demand for design-conscious guest experiences among the mainstream traveling public.

Yesterday, Sternlicht launched 1 Hotels with the opening of 1 Hotel South Beach. The waterfront property is among the largest on the beach, fronting the equivalent of two football fields of sand. The building was also originally built as a luxury condo-hotel, much later than all of the neighboring Art Deco hotels, so the 426 rooms average 700 square feet, or double the size of most standard rooms today.

Two more 1 Hotels are scheduled to open later this year in Manhattan (1 Hotel Central Park) and DUMBO across the river (1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge Park).

During his ten years as CEO of Starwood Hotels, Sternlicht developed or acquired hotel brands covering every market segment, including one of the earliest soft hotel brands, Starwood Luxury Collection. To follow that up with another hotel concept that was defined purely by its physical countenance and style didn’t really excite Sternlicht.

Instead, he opted to build what he emphasizes is a “platform” to spread a message about human society’s relationship with the built environment. He says we’re junking up the world everywhere you look, from the “5 Gyres” of floating plastic flotsam in the oceans to many Asian megacities cloaked in pollution.

Sternlicht wants to set the table for that discussion. His design misson focuses more on the essential and ineffable, so it’s all about being less contrived and more creative in an organic way, with a more tactile engagement with nature. Although, he says, the 1 Hotels brand aligns with the forefront of hospitality in 2015 in terms of the hotel assets and guest experience, regardless of the sustainability mission. The purpose of the eco-sensitive context is really primarily to create a platform for guests to share that discussion with like-minded people.

We spoke with Sternlicht to learn a little more about that purpose.

Skift: You’ve been quoted as saying, “We’re not a brand, we’re a cause.” Could you expound on that?

Barry Sternlicht: After doing W Hotels and St. Regis, I was thinking about what we were going to do with another hotel brand. What could it mean? What would have a purpose besides just coming up with something that was a unique brand? I was thinking how great it would be to mix business with something that’s social, that helps the world. I had been all over Europe and I saw places like Denmark and Holland and how far advanced they were ahead of us in building environmentally-friendly structures.

I’ve always had an interest in the environment. My kids are involved in environmental studies in college, so it made sense to do this. The idea was to do something that matters and that would engage our guests and engage our employees, and it would differentiate us from just another brand and another aesthetic, if you will.

Skift: What are some of the biggest challenges to build or renovate a hotel today in a manner that’s conscious of its environmental impact?

Sternlicht: In Florida, any time you start with an old building it’s always a challenge to do anything green. The systems are difficult. You’re in Florida so you’d like to use solar panels. You can’t put them on the roof of a building in South Beach because of hurricanes. They’ll fly off and become machetes. There were a lot of issues with the physical structure because of how it was originally constructed, so we had to do the best we could, and we made some trade-offs and compromises.

Newer builds, like Brooklyn when it comes online, they are so much easier to convert directly from the start. So it’s an evolution, a journey. I mean, there’s so many buildings that have to be re-purposed and redesigned, which can make them environmentally more sensitive as you try to lower your carbon footprint. And it’s not just the building, it’s also the operations, the way we’re going to run the property.

Skift: What do you hope to achieve with 1 Hotels?

Sternlicht: I think what we are talking about is improving the world one bed, one towel, one plastic bottle that isn’t in the hotel at a time. I was involved with David de Rothschild when he did his project, Plastiki. He tied together a whole bunch of plastic bottles in San Francisco and then floated in the ocean down to that place in the Pacific Ocean where all these plastic bottles are, and it’s like a small island. It’s so gigantic.

I think these are the kinds of things that will bring awareness to our guests. Then, if we create that awareness, then we’re going to make a little difference one person at a time and one guest at a time. I like having that DNA. I like having that at the center of our core. Everything goes back to that.

I was talking to one of our design team the other day and she wanted to put some stainless steel on a column, and I said, “Can you find stainless steel trees in the forest?” I’ve got to bring them back because they want to go away, but that’s okay. I mean, this is about the pushing and pulling of design and doing something that’s good for the guest and is true to what our concept is. Because we have to set a benchmark here.

Skift: So how are you communicating this to your guests, both pre-, during and post-stay? Besides the website, are there any other elements that you’re using?

Sternlicht: Well, we’ll have notes and things around the property as well as stuff in the rooms that I think will inspire people to go to each other and say: “Did you know? Did you know this? Did you know that?” So there’s that messaging, and then the fact that there’s no paper in the hotel rooms. Everything is all communicated electronically so there’s educational moments all over the hotel.

Then, there’s no plastic, so that’s a discussion of its own. For example, you can’t take your amenities home, which to me is sad because I always liked that going back to when I started W Hotels. The first group I teamed up with was Aveda, and I put a little W on the back of the Aveda products, because I thought people would take them home with them, and they would recognize us. But they won’t be able to take our little bottles home because there aren’t any little bottles to take home.

Skift: Can you describe some those educational moments in greater detail?

Sternlicht: We’re working on that. If it’s appropriate, it will be great to do outings, walks, nature walks in Central Park or on the beach. We’ll do yoga by the beach and we’ll do Pilates. We’ll do lots of stuff that is natural and organic. The spa will enhance that, too. The spa is going to be coming probably by Thanksgiving…. We’re doing a bunch of kids education programming around science. Doing science programming on the beach. Doing stargazing to teach people about the solar system. There will also be farmer’s markets in the lobby of every hotel.

Skift: How would you define the interior design narrative in South Beach, both in the public spaces and the rooms?

Sternlicht: Our concept from the start was to celebrate the day. Miami’s about the night. We actually like the night, but we like the day too, so we wanted this to be a white, plain, crisp, fresh, sensuous, and beautiful aesthetic design with lots of wood. It’s a light palette. I think it makes you happy. You’re in the sun. It’s supposed to be happy. Even on a cloudy day it’s happy. The rooms are happy, the quarters are happy, and the lobby’s happy. The restaurant’s really happy. It’s a little darker, though.

I think the thing about Florida, for me, is you want to bring the outside inside, and it’s seamless in South Beach with the scale of the lobby. We doubled the height of the windows and then opened it up to the rather large porte-cochère, and there’s a lot of plants inside and out.

There’s also a lot of the beetle wood in the ceilings, and that goes out under the awning of the hotel. I mean, that’s really cool stuff because this was wood that was killed by the beetles in Colorado that people were throwing away, and now we’ve used it all over the property. It’s even in the rooms, the furniture, it’s everywhere.

Skift: So the design vibe is more organic?

Sternlicht: I think so, I think our design is … I think we’re different. I mean, we wanted to do something that was very different on the beach. There’s nothing quite like this. It’s a little zen-y. It’s a little more calming. It’s the decking. The kinds of plantings we did. We did a lot of plantings and we tried to stay indigenous to create shade areas that will grow in over time. I think people will see it’s really pretty.

Skift: Do you feel there’s a move toward deconstructing design and doing more taking away now than adding, and being less obviously designed, so to speak?

Sternlicht: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think what’s definitely being done is it’s more bohemian. It’s more sound. I think people are less interested in, with all due respect to Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn. If you look at what’s the design aesthetic in the city today, I mean, you see the Bowery’s and the NoMad, even though it’s grunge, but they do look a little more curated, a little less manufactured.

So the lobby at South Beach, it’s like everybody’s living room. It’s got a lot of different types of furniture. It’s very eclectic. It’s in a theme and it’s in a palette, but it’s eclectic.

Skift: How is the rise of mobile/digital impacting your business strategy and design strategy, and also technology in the room?

Sternlicht: Well, we have our key cards. Your mobile will allow you to check in, like the big guys will be doing, in about a month or so. Then, we have quite a bit of proprietary technology in the room, which allows the guests to do lots of things from a tablet in the room. The whole stay is actually controlled by what we call our “Field Guide,” which is a mobile application that we’ve developed, which can control your stay from start to finish. It controls everything in your room from your TV to temperature. It’s how you order room service, contact the valet, and text down to the front desk to request products.

It sits on both a device in your room and it can be downloaded to your phone…. But I would say it’s not tech for tech sake. It’s tech to allow us to do the environmental stuff we want to do and to get rid of paper.

Skift: How does that impact the guest service experience?

Sternlicht: For service sake, we’re eliminating areas that traditionally have tons of mistakes. There’s usually all of these hand-offs that take place in a hotel. I was in a hotel in the city early in the week and I forgot my toothbrush. I called the front desk and half an hour later there was no toothbrush, because obviously someone got busy and forgot. But if I texted it to them, they would remember.

At least 50% of hotel guests encounter a problem during their stay. When I was CEO of Starwood Hotels, that was the statistic that astonished me. The way to remove those is to basically remove the areas where you can make those mistakes, right? We’ve done that. I hope we’ve done that.

Skift: Traditionally when we talk about eco-friendly properties, that often doesn’t create a lot of excitement among many people, unless it relates to a resort in a pristine natural environment. So how do you feel you’ll engage enough guests around that vision?

Sternlicht: I think they’re going to love our hotel. They’re going to love the fact that it’s green. I think if we don’t build a great property to begin with that’s distinct with a purpose, I think it wouldn’t work. But that’s the whole goal, it’s about creating a great luxury experience and having people say, “Oh, I can live like this, and it’s good for the world.”

That’s when you make it a cause, rather than a brand. That’s all we’re talking about. That’s why we call it “1.” It’s one world. We’re all responsible for each other. When you stain those skies in China, they wind up polluting the skies in California. Everybody’s got to do their part. That’s all we’re trying to do. A little bit at a time.

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at go@skift.com.

Photo Credit: Landing page for the 1 Hotel South Beach website's food and beverage section. 1Hotels