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Game changer

The concept of boutique hotels has become meaningless, says Ian Schrager, the very man who invented it.

The concept of boutique hotels has become meaningless, says Ian Schrager, the very man who invented it. He talks with Lance Richardson about what’s next and why his idea of simple luxury has endured.

When Ian Schrager entered the hotel business in the early 1980s, he found himself confronted by what he terms “a barren wasteland”. Schrager had created, with Steve Rubell, the most legendary disco of the 20th century – Studio 54.

Behind a velvet rope it pulsed with glamorous unpredictability: a giant man-in-the-moon glowed above the likes of Andy Warhol and Diana Ross; the setup changed so frequently that, night to night, nobody knew what to expect. Sometimes the VIP room turned up in the kitchen.

The hotel scene was very different. “Everything was based upon efficient execution,” recalls Schrager. “Sameness was considered a virtue, experience wasn’t important.”

The entrepreneur followed his instinct, identified an opening in the market, and decided to rock the boat. The result, Morgans on Madison Avenue, triggered the boutique hotel revolution with its groundbreaking design and attention to service. If all the other hotels at that time were department stores, this was an exclusive tailor. It sold one thing, a specific attitude, and honed its product to perfection.

These days Schrager dismisses boutique hotels entirely. The very concept has become “meaningless,” he says. “Any hotel that has a little bit of colour, that makes some effort to do something design-wise, is now a boutique hotel.” Design, too, has become “a Frankenstein’s monster” – striking at first but ultimately vulgar.

Schrager has no patience for repetition. He exhausts a concept and moves on to something else. He’s a man with a compass keenly tuned for new directions. So intuitive are many of his ideas (the lobby as living room) and so successful are the projects that deploy them (The Delano and Mondrian groups, and NYC’s Gramercy Park Hotel, which he has since sold), he has come to assume the stature of an industry legend. Where Schrager goes other hoteliers invariably follow. His word, spoken in a husky Noo Yawk whisper, is treated like the wisdom of a proven seer.

The subject today is the future of hotels. “I think that the services hotels have offered for the past 80 or 90 years are up for re-evaluation, from top to bottom,” he says from his modest offices in Greenwich Village. “That includes when you enter the hotel and check in to when you leave and pay your bill. And everything in between.”

Re-evaluation doesn’t mean iPads in the suites, though. “I call that an ‘amenity creep’. That’s not a fundamental change.” Rather, he argues, change comes through a rethink of what sophisticated hotels should really be like in the contemporary world. They should be increasingly residential, for example. “You want the experience in a hotel that you can’t get at home, but you want it to feel like home,” Schrager says. This experience should collect the best entertainment, bars and restaurants a city has to offer beneath a single roof. “You’re not really going to have to leave that hotel to get the best of everything.”

The change, in other words, comes through making hotels complement the time-strapped lifestyle of modern travellers.

Take porters (or, as Schrager calls them, bellmen). “Today, everybody’s cases are on wheels,” he says. “Everybody is used to going to the airport and lugging their suitcases a quarter of a mile to the plane. I think most people, they go to a hotel, they’d rather carry up their own bags and avoid having to give a tip and all the ceremony involved with that.”

Schrager’s latest venture, the Miami version of his Edition group and the Residences that sit above the hotel, opens early next year. This follows the opening of the Istanbul Edition, while London’s Edition is slated to open this coming northern hemisphere autumn.

At Public Chicago, Schrager’s most recent US project, the culinary creations of award-winning chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten come delivered in paper bags. “That’s the best part about it,” says Schrager, who never underestimates the power of a good surprise. His projects are full of them.

The best part is actually the shift in value. Porters are a significant expense for hotel management. Room service around the clock requires chefs around the clock, too. Remove the gold buttons, epaulets and fine bone china – features most guests don’t care about – and, as Schrager notes, “you’re allowed to charge less for your room rate”. Public Chicago offers rooms for less than $250

a night, with affordable room service. The project represents an unprecedented step towards making the sophisticated hotel accessible to a wider audience. (A Public New York is currently under construction.)

Perhaps the idea of scaling things back is surprising from a man who once ran a club famed for burying its floor beneath 10cm of glitter for New Year’s Eve. But Schrager’s vision remains rooted in luxury, just of a simplified kind. “When you’re in a place that has great style and it’s been done in an effortless kind of way and feels simple, it’s comfortable by definition.” Besides, he says, simple luxury has another name too: good taste.

Taste is both the most enduring and most revolutionary of Schrager’s touchstones. Steve Jobs is a notable influence here, and Schrager cites Jobs’s ability to intuit needs that consumers didn’t know they had, to appeal to a sensibility that transcends specific demographics.

For Schrager, demographics have always been less important than catering to a sensibility. “It’s like when you look at a potential lover. There’s a kind of visceral response.” What he means by sensibility is ineffable but real, an individual’s feel for things – in Schrager’s case, their appreciation for good design and openness to new experiences. A certain type of person buys Apple computers.

A certain type of person frequents Schrager hotels. Increasingly, other hotels will seek out “their” person and sculpt an identity to cultivate the relationship. To do this well, Schrager says, hotels must throw away the stylebook and be creative.

He has similar advice for future hoteliers. “Keep trying new things. Don’t get complacent. Shake things up. Disrupt the status quo. Try and come up with your own idea, the next generation of hotels from your perspective. Do something special.”

Basically, do what he did by doing something completely different. Figure that one out and you could become a legend too.

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