Skift Take

Marriott has been promising a W Hotels makeover for years, but a recent string of openings and deal signings show there is finally some momentum in reviving the brand.

Series: Early Check-In

Early Check-In

Editor’s Note: Skift Senior Hospitality Editor Sean O’Neill brings readers exclusive reporting and insights into hotel deals and development, and how those trends are making an impact across the travel industry.

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With every hotel company trying to get a foothold in the lifestyle hotel space, one of the original players is out to show it can still be relevant.

The nearly 60-hotel W Hotels brand is part of the foundation to today’s lifestyle hotel segment, hotels that focus on food and beverage offerings more than the average property. The brand, originated by Barry Sternlicht and eventually folded into Marriott International because of its 2016 Starwood Hotels & Resorts takeover, was known for lobbies — labeled the “living room” — and bars and nightclubs that were the pinnacle of the see-and-be-seen crowd. 

W was the hotel industry’s uber-cool sibling of the late 90s and early 2000s. But there’s a problem with being the uber-cool sibling. Younger siblings often come along and snatch away all the attention.

Accor has been the most bullish in its push into lifestyle hotels, through a mix of its own brands like SLS and Mondrian and now partnered brands like The Hoxton and Gleneagles under an Ennismore joint venture. IHG Hotels & Resorts competes in the space with brands like Kimpton — viewed as the originator of the lifestyle sector’s predecessor: boutique hotels — and Hyatt has brands like Thompson Hotels and Andaz. 

W even competes for attention within its own brand family, as Marriott has added others like Edition — the brainchild of a partnership between Marriott and hotel and nightlife legend Ian Schrager. The buzz around Edition can sound awfully like W’s from 20 years ago.

Many younger brands across a variety of hotel companies ate away at the attention and cool factor W Hotels once firmly had a grip on, and Marriott International hasn’t exactly been quiet that it needs to find a way to bring back the buzz to its lifestyle hotel concept. 

“It’s no secret that W Hotels transformed consumer expectations of what a hotel can be. W took a transactional place to sleep and order room service into a socially-driven destination that is as integral to locals as it is to someone from out-of-town,” Tom Jarrold, global brand leader of W Hotels Worldwide, told Skift. “Now that many hotel brands function that way, it’s all the more reason for us to refresh and evolve.”

Like Spots on a Giraffe: Marriott leaders aren’t quite ready to provide much in the way of details for what the W brand refresh is going to look like at the property level, but Jarrold said it will roll out over the next two years “across all brand touchpoints, and include design, guest experience and marketing” in a manner meant to be “inspiring, modern, playful, and original.”

Some of the hotels in the company’s development pipeline can be built from the ground up in the brand’s new direction while existing hotels could focus more on revamping guest rooms and public spaces. 

Marriott de-flagged several W Hotels — including the brand’s original New York City property — several years back when concerns about the brand’s dimming star status were regular headlines in hotel news. But the brand today is in growth mode. 

New properties opened in recent months in Philadelphia, Rome, the Chinese cities of Xiamen and Changsha, and Nashville, Tenn. New W properties are slated to open over the next two years in Macau, Dubai, and Tuscany.

The company points to the recent openings or deals in the works as how the brand is once again jockeying to a leadership position within the lifestyle hotel sector. Some of that means abandoning the industry’s old playbook of making these kinds of hotels only about dim lighting and a mention in Page Six and instead rolling out the welcome mat for more than VIPs. 

Accor’s ascent in the lifestyle hotel space is about inviting in the surrounding neighborhood for a drink or meal. Expect something like that to get amplified with the new look of a W Hotel; though, Jarrold noted the brand has “always designed our hotels with locals in mind.”

Details on the refresh may be sparse, but W’s brand standard is that each hotel is going to have its own unique approach to fitting into its surroundings. 

“While we aren’t ready to show our cards just yet, we can say that our evolved vision will be robust and inform design, service culture, dining and programming – the entirety of the guest experience,” Jarrold said. “One thing that will always be paramount is the way each W embraces its local destination. We will continue to draw from the city’s cultural and social insights in ways that are authentic, distinctive and unexpected – adding to our competitive advantage.”

The recently opened W Nashville has six ground floor entrances meant to signal a welcome for neighbors to frequent the property’s dining and retail venues. The property also features The Spanish Steps, a nod to the original in Rome, that serves as both a meeting place and amphitheater that also features live music.

But there’s still some exclusivity: The Tennessee hotel also includes the Welcome Den, a new guest-only W Concept where visitors can use their room key to access a space to relax, grab a drink, or take work calls.

The new W Rome leans heavy on the lifestyle hotel sector’s embrace of design, including a hidden door leading to the Parlapiano — a secret garden featuring traditional Italian stone, greenery, and water fountains.

Wooing Owners: A brand refresh, no matter how much independence is given to an individual property, still requires the owner to pump money into their hotel. That can be a tough sell right now at a time when there’s so much uncertainty around what long-term demand drivers will be for the hotel sector. 

But investors seem on board with moving ahead with the brand evolution. Roughly half of the W Hotels U.S. portfolio was under renovation in late 2019, according to a Skift report at the time. 

Some of the brand’s best-known properties continue to attract buyers, and there’s good reason to. W Hotels has a diversified portfolio of hotels in both major global cities as well as popular leisure destinations.

Marriott International bought the W Union Square — an anomaly, given most hotel companies don’t own many of their own properties and instead franchise out brand rights — in 2019 for $206 million with plans to significantly renovate the property in the brand’s new look. At that point, owners of W Hotels in North America had committed $200 million for renovations at properties across the U.S. and Canada.

Trinity Investments acquired the W Hollywood from Host Hotels & Resorts at the end of last year for just shy of $200 million. While Host CEO James Risoleo noted in a release the hotel had a “need for major capital investment,” the Trinity team doesn’t think that means abandoning the W brand.

“When we were working on W Hollywood, we spent a lot of time with Marriott and [asked about] the future of W,” Sean Hehrir, principal and managing partner at Trinity Investments, said in an interview with Skift. “They were able to convince us they are going to reinvent W … We believe that there’s a major commitment from Marriott to really invest in W as a brand and take it to the next level.”

Mandarin Stake Reveals Plummet in NYC Luxury Hotel Values

It might be the only bargain associated with the tony Mandarin Oriental New York in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. Indian firm Reliance Industries purchased a 73.37 percent stake in the ultra-luxury 248-room hotel for roughly $98 million

That would value the entire property just shy of $134 million, well below the $340 million the hotel was valued at in 2007, according to a New York Post report. The bargain sale is a result of how hard the pandemic hit hotels in major cities that rely on a mix of business and international travel to fill rooms. 

But potential guests shouldn’t take the real estate discount as a sign rooms are getting a similar price chop. The best available rate for Sunday night at the Mandarin Oriental New York was $735, according to the hotel’s website.

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Tags: Early Check-In, marriott, Skift Pro Columns, w hotels

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