W Hotels: The McDonald's of Hipster Exclusivity

W Hotels: The McDonald's of Hipster Exclusivity

W Hotels: The McDonald's of Hipster Exclusivity

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 1 2000 2:14 PM

W Hotels: The McDonald's of Hipster Exclusivity

Like countless thousands of others, I have to travel, from time to time, on business. I've had good hotel experiences and bad hotel experiences. But I don't remember ever being as fascinated by a hotel as I am by the newish W chain.

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Staying in W is like living in the Portico or Troy stores in SoHo, or maybe in the middle of a spread in Wallpaper magazine. The place is relentlessly designed--the halls, the rooms, the lobby, the beds, the bathrobes, the woman serving drinks in the bar downstairs. "We've revamped the business traveler's entire hotel experience," the chain's site says coolly. Each room is "a seamless blend of comfort and technology. The atmosphere is created with custom-designed furniture. Goose down comforters. 250 thread count sheets. Aveda products. ...  Dual-line cordless phones. ...  Internet access through your TV. It's a world of luxury and convenience for the sophisticated business traveler."

The point is that these are not just posh hotels, which isn't a particularly new idea. W aims to be a very cool posh hotel, striving for a particular kind of poshness shaped by an awareness that "good design" is the current euphemism for luxury among a new generation of self-satisfied, up-and-coming, laptop-wielding, eminently tasteful road warriors.

Actually, even that isn't so remarkable--it's an aesthetic you can hardly escape from. What's interesting is that W, whose first hotel appeared in Manhattan in 1998, aims to replicate this particular atmosphere all over the country and the world. There are already something like 20 Ws, in San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, New Orleans. W's goal is not to be an enclave of fauxhemian exclusivity; its goal is to be the McDonald's of fauxhemian exclusivity.

Can this possibly work? In the idea's favor is the fact that the vast majority of hotels frequented by business travelers are essentially interchangeable. The Sheraton, the Radisson, the Doubletree--you learn to tell them apart, of course, but none really has a strong brand identity. There's no question that once you've stayed at one W, you know what makes them different, and you can count on dark, muted colors, brushed metal, a hotel staff in black T-shirts rather than white jackets, tasteful photographs, and a reasonably cool bar in which to put an $8 shot of Maker's Mark on the corporate card. If you just can't stand to leave, you can take along a catalog and buy some W products for your home. The robe costs $125.

I wish I could say that I find all of this preposterous, but the fact is I'm a bit of a sucker for W. I'm not going to buy a robe, and if I have time to track down a hotel or bed-and-breakfast with a bit more local flavor, I'll do it. But I've stayed at two Ws, and I would do it again, because I feel reasonably certain I know what I'm going to get. Kind of like the chicken sandwich at Burger King. And I'm not the only one: In announcing its quarterly earnings recently, the Starwood Hotel company that owns W (and a host of other hotel brands, including Sheraton and Westin) noted that it had boosted W's average room rate by 31 percent over the year-ago average.

The risk, I think, is that W is very much of the moment, and thus vulnerable to what happens when the moment passes. Mightn't W be a parody of itself in a few years? And as the chain become increasingly mass, does it risk being overrun by the bridge-and-tunnel equivalent of the 21st-century jet set? Perhaps. But for now, the brand seems solid. When I told a gruff cab driver in Seattle that I was staying at the W earlier this year, he immediately wrote me off as a member of a trend-obsessed mob. So you see? It works.