Designer Labels: From haute couture to hotel—brand awareness is already built in

Then again, it might be as comfy as a favorite chair. In any event, the march of designer and retail brands into the hotel space is well underway, drummed on by consumer demand for the novel, the noteworthy and a place that feels like home.

Fashion icons catwalking in the land of lobbies and on-premises laundries include such high-profile names as Georgio Armani, Bvlgari, Baccarat, Salvatore Ferragamo (Lungarno Collection), Karl Lagerfeld, Thierry Mugler and Versace, who are being joined by such food, furnishings and fitness gurus as Nobu, Restoration Hardware, West Elm and Equinox.

And everyone wants to get involved. Take, for example, fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, whose chiseled-in-stone visage is immediately recognizable among the savvy of the world. Last year, the octogenarian designer decided to descend from his atelier long enough to partner with licensing platform Brandmark Collective B.V. to launch Karl Lagerfeld Hotels & Resorts, adding lodging to his growing brand collection of clothing, accessories, bags, eyewear and watches.

The first property is slated to open later this year on Macau, and is being billed as a six-star hotel.

According to Tony Kurz, CEO of Brandmark Collective, “This particular project is a bit different (it is within an integrated resort, operated by SJM). The Macau project provided the impetus for Karl Lagerfeld to build a hotel collection. SJM’s collaboration with Mr. Lagerfeld will reflect a new standard in hospitality, and has been specifically tailored to delight the Macau gaming and leisure guest,” said Kurz.

The CEO was asked how the Lagerfeld brand would be layered over a hotel property, i.e., whether through the design, furniture or amenities.

“The key is to intelligently translate the brand into a series of experiences,” said Kurz, acknowledging the current consumer trend. “That is about much more than fashion and about much more than design. With so much more time being spent in a hotel than in a retail store, this is not about just placing the name up on a building. Mr. Lagerfeld will be involved in the interior concept vision, and together with Mr. Lagerfeld, Brandmark Collective will ensure that vision is translated into an efficient and guest-friendly hospitality experience.”

Kurz indicated hotels are a good vehicle to further expand the Lagerfeld brand. “Karl Lagerfeld is incredibly well known across multiple brand platforms and he transcends multiple age groups and consumer segments, with many millions of devotees and followers. The hotel brand will reflect that breadth, and at the same time remain chic, aspirational, quirky and also welcoming. This same breadth of experience will reflect on the customer base as well. Because of the scope of Karl’s work, the customer reach also will have increased scope,” said Kurz.

Several of Lagerfeld’s confrères also have taken to sewing-up hotel deals with their names on them. Giorgio Armani has brought his signature style to such destinations as the Burj Khalifa with the 160-key Armani Hotel Dubai and the 95-room Armani Hotel Milano on Via Manzoni in Milan, Italy. In nearby Florence, in 1995 the Lungarno Hotel was brought under the label of shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo, and 22 years later, the Lungarno Collection, led by his son, Leonardo, is represented by a number of hotels, resorts and villas in Florence and Rome.

Donatella Versace, the sister of haute couture designer Gianni Versace, who was murdered in Miami Beach in July 1997 outside his villa, last year in Dubai opened a second hotel under the fashion family’s name. The five-star, 215-key Palazzo Versace Dubai (plus 169 residences), where the interiors were designed by the House of Versace, joins the 200-room Palazzo Versace Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, which opened in 2000.

French designer Thierry Mugler’s foray into lodging (with design and architecture consultancy company +Cassia, led by Jean-Paul Cassia) is a 600-room hotel slated for the Domino Towers, the enormous mixed-use development off the coast of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

While no hotels are in the brands’ names, luxury goods group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE owns LVMH Hotel Management, which in turn is responsible for operating Cheval Blanc Hotels, a collection of properties in Courchevel, France; the Maldives; Saint-Barthélemy; and Paris. The latter, which last year opened in the former Samaritaine department store overlooking the Seine, features 80 keys and a Givenchy spa, as well as a boutique that sells goods from LVMH’s designer brands such as Louis Vuitton and Dior.

In 2011, LVMH acquired a majority stake in Italian jewelry designer Bvlgari, which 10 years earlier had formed a joint venture with Marriott International to create a new upper-tier brand for the chain.

Currently, there are Bvlgari hotels open in Milan, London and Bali with an equal amount set to debut this year and more in the pipeline.

“We are doubling the footprint by the end of this year with Bvlgari hotel debuts in Dubai, Beijing and Shanghai,” said Herve Humler, president/COO, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis and Bvlgari Hotels & Resorts. “The distinctive, bold and contemporary Italian style typical of Bvlgari is reflected in the hotels’ unique design concept and favored by our guests. All of the Bvlgari Hotel services and amenities are crafted with the same attention to quality and detail that has always distinguished Bvlgari creations.”

Humler explained how having a retail brand in the Marriott portfolio helped the overall image of the chain.

“The Bvlgari hotel brand, founded on the principles of the renowned Roman jeweler, is a truly unique, complementary addition to Marriott International’s diverse luxury brands portfolio. These exquisitely styled, contemporary hotels and resorts provide a refined experience for global luxury travelers. The exclusivity of the Bvlgari brand, combined with unparalleled levels of service and design, together with the power of Marriott International’s sales, marketing and distribution systems, make the collection of Bvlgari hotels and resorts exceptional in the industry.”

Similarly, Carlson Rezidor previously had a five-year relationship with Italian fashion house Missoni via a five-star property in Edinburgh, Scotland, before that partnership ended in 2014.

French crystal maker Baccarat was brought into the lodging loop when Starwood Capital Group acquired its parent Groupe du Louvre in 2005, and Chairman/CEO Barry Sternlicht layered the Baccarat name and aesthetic over a New York flagship. The 114-room hotel was sold in 2015 to China’s Sunshine Insurance Group for $230 million. However, the brand has ambitious expansion plans for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Paris, London, Milan, Geneva, Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Dubai, Doha, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Sydney, Bali and the Maldives.

“Innovation in lodging can enhance the customer experience, making a stay more personalized and individually rewarding. Today, travelers can choose a hotel property or brand that fits their tastes or lifestyle,” said Claire Bennett, EVP/GM of American Express Travel, which recently hosted a panel that looked at how lodging and lifestyle are converging for consumers. “Our lodging programs are comprised of a variety of hotel options, carefully curated with our card members in mind. Every year, we evolve our portfolio of properties based on hotel industry and customer trends and partner with the best of the best in the industry. We’re committed to advancing our programming to align with today’s industry standards and keep a keen eye on the ever-changing hotel landscape, especially the new lifestyle brands that are breaking into the hotel space.”

On the panel were Annbeth Eschbach, founder/CEO of Exhale, which offers fitness classes, spa, healing therapies and wellbeing programs; Greg  Keffer, principal at Rockwell Group, which designs for Nobu Hotels, an offshoot of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurants; Andrew Benioff, founder/chairman, Independent Lodging Congress; and David Bowd, principal, West Elm Hotels.

Also the CEO of SALT Hotels, Bowd has joined forces with David Wasserman and Kim Phoebus to form DDK Management, to work exclusively with West Elm Hotels, the hospitality division of the über-trendy and sought-after residential furnishings retailer led by President Jim Brett and parented by Williams Sonoma Inc.

And not a moment too soon. West Elm Hotels is under construction with not one, not two, but five hotels in major markets, specifically Charlotte, NC; Detroit; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; and Savannah, GA, where the contents of its eponymous stores are aspirational buys for millennials and the like-minded.

“We’ll go forward in the future when the hotels are up and running. We will only manage West Elm Hotels; that’s the goal. We’re sort of a unique combination of operations, design and brand. We work as one unit. We don’t see much separation among the groups,” said Bowd, who said conversations around launching into the hotel arena started germinating about four years ago.

Bowd works dishcloth by drainer with Peter Fowler, VP of hospitality and workspace, who drives branded design for the hotel group.

“The brand is a very nimble yet faceted brand, we’re a very democratic brand. We talk to people day to day in a two-way conversation, which is very unusual for a retailer to do. Generally, everyone’s just pushing one-way communication and we have such a strong social network in what we do. We’re masters at building communities,” said Fowler. “So, taking all that energy and harnessing that into a new venture was the brief.” The company went down two avenues: the West Elm Workspace line and hospitality.

“We’ve always had a lot of our products being used in hospitality venues; there’s always been a huge interest in our brand. It was a way for us to engage with customers in a 24-hour experience a store or any commerce platform could never create. The idea of us creating unique properties in a hotel venture allows us to just broaden that experience in such a dynamic way. It was one of the only experiences, actually, that when we looked at expanding the brand ticked so many boxes,” said Fowler. “What gave us the initiative to do it was finding a partner like DDK that could actual roll out the service portion of this venture in that way that we wanted to execute.”

“As a hospitality person I’ve always been a fan of the brand, and the evolution of boutique hotels and lifestyle brands,” said Bowd, whose own SALT Hotels are considered authentic lodging experiences. “When I heard West Elm was interested in getting into the hospitality field, to me it felt like a very natural transition because the brand is so strong and so very, very popular.”

The brand launched in September 2016 and Bowd described the response as “phenomenal.”

“We have had such incredible success gaining and creating such interesting communities in cities that have revitalizing futures. They’re all going through a change that will lead them down a path of something pretty unique—and they all have their unique characters to them: some are historic, some are more industrial, and that’s what we’re really looking to bring to life and really put a frame around. What does Detroit mean in the American market? What does that hospitality experience look like in a boutique sensibility? We intentionally went after those cities because it’s not to be in the top-tier cities in that approach,” said Fowler. “The big cities are on their way. We’re a New York-based brand so New York is obviously exciting to us. We just had such interesting conversations around those cities that we couldn’t let them go.”

Most of the cities where the hotels are underway already have, or will have, West Elm stores nearby. “It’s a piece of the existing community. That’s a pretty incredible asset to have: a group of people there who already know and love you; we’re definitely counting on their support,” said Fowler.

“We want the hotels to be unique and very locally focused to the neighborhood that they are in,” stressed Bowd. “I think that’s one of the things that’s exciting to me as a hospitality-based person is that each hotel will be so locally focused, which I think some brands have done well but I think there’s more room to do it even better. One of the things I knew about the West Elm brand is the design is all very specific to the areas that they’re in. That’s what we’ll be able to bring to the hotels as well.”

He added, “One of the things West Elm Hotels is really focusing on from a guest-experience point of view is choice.  How you check in, if you want to use a website, a kiosk, the front desk or a mobile app. We want these hotels to feel, essentially, independent—that they’re a collection rather than a brand of hotels. That would allow us to really grow in a very fast way. That’s one of the things that’s so exciting. There’s no cookie-cutter approach or strict rulebook of standards that they’d have to be. We want them to be very organic and have a very natural evolution.”

Currently, the hotels are averaging 150 to 175 keys, with Savannah, GA, the smallest at 93 rooms.

And lest anyone think they’ll be staying in a West Elm display room, Fowler indicated not every stick of furniture in the hotels would be the brand’s FF&E.

“Everything we’re doing is custom,” said Fowler. “When it is a West Elm collection piece pulled from the West Elm floor, it’s technically created for that location specifically. We have a group that’s creating those pieces for us internally; we have a really robust design team. But we also love to work with local designers, mill workers, artists, craftsmen, and that’s a huge part of our story.”

Indeed, one of West Elm’s unique attributes is of some 100 stores, no two are alike in what they offer. Each shopkeeper selects his/her own merchandise based on the local community.

“We’re not creating a standard that’s rolled across all the hotels in terms of the exact same pieces being used in multiple locations. We’re creating individual interior pieces per property,” said Fowler. He did note, however, they would be contract-grade pieces.

He also sees opportunity to sell such pieces to the public, much like hotel brands sell items such as beds, lamps, linens, etc., from their guestrooms.

“We’re going to be doing it in a uniquely holistic way. So we’re going to have a signature bedding collection, as well as furniture available. It does bring a whole new life to what the guest expectation and opportunity is because they can live with their experience beyond their hotel stay,” said Fowler, noting items will be sold on the company’s e-commerce platform and likely local stores and, perhaps, the hotels.

West Elm itself does not own any of the hotels, which are coming online via various holding structures. “One is a strict management agreement, one DDK has a small equity piece in, some are just larger local investors,” said Bowd, who noted the majority of owners either have or have had hotels.

“I think they’re people who are looking at what the next trend is. What’s the next wave of hotels and hospitality experiences? When we talked to them, there was such an excitement from these partners about being in the very early stages of the hotel’s development. It’s really why they signed up so quickly. They understand the brand and feel very comfortable with West Elm. As a company [DDK], our management experience also is considerable. We tick all the boxes from a design point of view and a management/operational basis as well,” he said.

Asked why West Elm didn’t go the soft-brand route, Fowler said the company wanted “to create something that broke the mold of that regimented experience that you can count on with some of those larger brands. What we really like to do is reflect the guests’ interactions day to day. Having a nimble, like-minded management group that wanted to create that standard with us, plus all their history and involvement in the hotel industry, was a big part of driving that decision. At the end of the day, our brand is the most important thing
in our day-to-day lives and the equity we have built up in that is clearly the number-one thing we’re looking to protect.”

“There was a great meeting of the minds from the very first meeting—a small group of super-passionate people who believe in the West Elm brand but also believe in it to transcend into the hospitality field,” said Bowd, who noted West Elm Hotels would refer to the general managers as innkeepers, much as the retail stores refer to their managers as shopkeepers.

He also expects to have a “robust booking engine” via the hotels’ dedicated websites, noting “we have a significant database through the West Elm and Williams Sonoma family, so we’ll be bringing those on to our platform. We’ll also have a strong local sales force on the ground of each hotel.”

Equinox expects to open its first hotel in NYC’s Hudson Yards next year

And, as with Bowd’s SALT Hotels, where there’s a SALT Academy aimed at training locals to work in the properties pre-opening, West Elm Hotels will have a similar academy-style operation that will solicit local talent and bring them into the industry via training.

“Then when guests come and stay, they’re being looked after by somebody who knows the local area and can help them engage in the community,” said Bowd.

As to the guest mix, Fowler said, “We’re known as a millennial brand in the home furnishings industry and we’re definitely focused on that. We also have a very broad demographic and our psychographic has a very strong narrative of urban-minded people who love to travel and who love to explore. That does play up to the hospitality market perfectly. We also have a strong B2B connection, big business partnerships through our corporate sector as well, so that’s a massive opportunity in the business-travel context.”

“With the areas we’re going into, being able to find beautifully designed hotels in those locations that are very focused on the neighborhood and that are very interesting, I think that’s where our major successes are going to be,” said Bowd.

“Retail brands such as West Elm, Equinox, Baccarat and Nobu have built a loyal customer base and are now engaging their customers in new and innovative ways,” said Amex Travel’s Bennett. “Across the board on our panel, it was evident design is a major force behind a hotel’s personality and, according to our own research, a key factor for consumers when selecting lodging. Another common theme was the idea of convergence—merging residential style with traditional spaces in hotel design with the integration of personalized, authentic service and smart, user-friendly technology. It’s an exciting time to be in the lodging space.” HB

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