In partnership with Marriott, the hotel guru propels his largest undertaking forward.
Interview by Spencer Bailey
Portrait by Weston Wells
June 07, 2017
When Ian Schrager speaks, his voice is as soft as the sophisticated interiors of his hotels. It’s also raspy, with thick traces of Brooklyn, where he was raised. And like his hotels, Schrager makes strong statements. At 70, the hospitality maestro is one of the most seasoned in the business. Since partnering with Steve Rubell to open the Enchanted Garden disco in Queens, New York, in 1975, and the infamous Studio 54 nightclub in Manhattan shortly thereafter, Schrager has gone on to create many of the world’s most talked-about hotels, including Morgans in New York, the Delano in Miami, and the Mondrian in Los Angeles.
His path to creating what will be his furthest-reaching venture ever, Edition Hotels, in partnership with Marriott International, has been circuitous. The effort reflects both a new Schrager and a new order in the hotel business. In Marriott, Schrager found a partner with breadth and deep pockets; in Schrager, Marriott has a legend attuned to creating intimate, homey-feeling spaces and extraordinary experiences. When Schrager was getting his start in the industry—shortly after spending 13 months in prison in the early 1980s for charges of tax evasion, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy, for which President Barack Obama recently pardoned him—he and Rubell pioneered the idea of the “boutique” hotel, referencing a personal approach to hospitality that was about far more than just the rooms. What the two conceived was an all-encompassing effort, from the design, to the food and drink, to the lobby experience, to the nightlife. The ideas they came up with back then have been copied to the point ofbecoming a standard today.
In 2005, after selling Morgans Hotel Group, Schrager established the Ian Schrager Company. To date, the outfit has created and developed the Gramercy Park Hotel (in which it no longer has a stake) and residential projects that include the Herzog & de Meuron-designed 40 Bond, where Schrager lives in the penthouse. Among its current projects is the Public Hotel on New York’s Lower East Side, which opens tomorrow, and 160 Leroy, an under-construction condo complex in the West Village.
Schrager’s attention these days has largely been on Edition. In 2013, he debuted the London Edition, followed by locations in Miami in 2014; New York in 2015; and Sanya, China, in 2016. To date, he has partnered on these spaces with designers such as Yabu Pushelberg, John Pawson, Rockwell Group, and Soo K. Chan. (His company has its own in-house design team, which Schrager is heavily involved in, that collaborates on the projects.) More than 20 future Editions are in the works in cities including Abu Dhabi, Bangkok, Barcelona, Reyjkavík, and Singapore. Here, we speak with Schrager about the Edition brand’s bold, expeditious growth.
Why did you decide to partner with Marriott on Edition Hotels?
I had never done anything on such a big scale. I was never really interested in being the biggest. I was never even really interested in being first. I was interested in being the best.
At some point, Bill Marriott started to take notice of what we were doing. He came and visited me in the office a couple of times, and he would always leave with a shopping bag full of marketing materials—I was really so impressed that a guy of his stature was still a student of the business. Later, when I was away on holiday, somebody called the office and said that Bill and a bunch of people from Marriott wanted to go to the Gramercy Park Hotel. When I heard that, I flew back to meet them. I mentioned to [Marriott International CEO] Arne Sorenson in that meeting that we should work together. I thought it would be fun to do something on a really large scale.
Everything that I had done when we started in the hotel business was treated with such skepticism. While I did get a measure of validation when Barry Sternlicht did W Hotels, doing something with Marriott was the ultimate affirmation. We just started negotiating and came up with a deal together.
At its inception, Edition experienced some serious snafus. When you launched the first two Editions—one in Waikiki, Hawaii, the other in Istanbul—both were soon no longer a part of the brand. It wasn’t until the opening of the London hotel that the Edition seemed to find its legs. What happened?
Well, look, [Marriott’s] business model is different is than mine. In my business model, we own. My business model is a tyranny, not a democracy. Their business model was that they partner with a developer. In Hawaii, it was like a perfect storm of things going wrong. It was the first time I had ever done a project and lost control of what we created. I suffered some of the consequences, even though I had nothing to do with it, because the problems were in the operating level of the hotel. Istanbul was a project we did with [architect and designer] Michael Gabellini. It was a nice project—until the owner started to get involved with some design decisions. Honestly, we were going to get out of it from the very beginning, but because it was close on the heels of Hawaii, Marriott wanted to wait and so they did. It was really a Marriott decision.
So it was some missteps on the Marriott side that led to—
I don’t attribute it to Marriott. It’s just our different business models. And what a difference—I mean, Donald Trump gets into office and runs the country like an entrepreneur. He’s instinctive. If you make a mistake, no big deal—you dust yourself off, you pick yourself up. I learned in dealing with Marriott that they can’t afford to be like an entrepreneur. They’re a big public company. They can’t afford mistakes. As a consequence, everything’s by consensus. Everything is very careful and analyzed. Now jump back to Trump: You can’t run the country like that, either! You have to evaluate everything. I learned this with Marriott in the beginning—the basic differences between a big public company and a freewheeling, turn-on-a-dime entrepreneur.
So you attribute the early challenges to finding a balance between your style and Marriott’s.
It wasn’t their fault. That’s just the way things started. When we first announced the partnership, we were deluged with offers to do hotels. Then the economic meltdown happened, and it became difficult. They had to work with what was available. I think they weren’t so much missteps; they were more so the choices of projects that probably should have never been undertaken.
London, in a way, was redemption. It received high acclaim.
Marriott owned the building. Historically, hotel companies have owned the first ones, because they get to control the brand and create it and all the nuances, setting the standard. They don’t have to answer to a third party. They made a very, very big commitment with the London, Miami, and New York Editions. They had almost one billion dollars invested.
Now there’s an Edition in Sanya, China.
China was a particularly difficult Rubik’s Cube to unravel. The China of today is not going to be the China of a year from now or two years from now. It’s a little bit like trying to land on a comet. There was this balancing act that was somewhat complicated because it’s a foreign culture. You’ve got to find out what they do, what their DNA is, and you’ve got to make sure you don’t do anything to offend them.
What sorts of things were you thinking about in terms of attracting a Chinese demographic?
When we first went to Sanya, it was essentially a family place. I felt that as the economy evolves, and the middle class emerges there, that young people, successful people, wealthy people, and single people would all go to Sanya—not only families. We had to do a hotel that was suitable for families, but also suitable for this group. This was just an instinct. I don’t have any data to back it up. I just felt it. I felt it because I’ve been to and vacationed in Shanghai and Beijing. I just saw it happening. Sanya was too accessible not to turn it into a great vacation place. I had the same idea when I went to Miami in 1990, when it felt abandoned.
We had to make sure that we understood the cultural differences between Chinese people and Western people. The Chinese have different dining habits. They dine as families and eat big, big breakfasts. Many there prefer private dining rooms. They don’t like certain cuisines. They have different swimming and beach habits—they don’t like to be in the sun.
Putting that cultural puzzle together interests me. It’s a pleasure to go to a place that hasn’t been globalized yet. There’s a very distinctive personality in Chinese people. It was about reconciling that while staying true to who we are [at Edition]. I wanted to make references to the Chinese culture, but I wanted them to be subtle and sophisticated—and respectful.
What was the version of China you wanted to capture?
One of the last times I went to China, I took my daughter to Beijing for a high-school graduation present. We went to this incredibly cool arts district, where the UCCA [Ullens Center for Contemporary Art] is. It was very well done. It made me confident that if somebody did a cool place that was at the intersection of what was happening in old and new China, it would be successful.
Among the many amenities at the Sanya hotel are bumper cars. Why?
I wanted bumper cars in the shape of dragons. But they couldn’t do that. [Laughs] There’s still a child in every adult, and I remembered from when I was a kid that bumper cars were one of the most fun things!
You also created a 20,000-square-meter private “ocean” for guests to swim in. What was the thinking behind that?
It was a simple idea. The idea was to have a floating barge where you can eat and be pulled around with hundreds of candles in the water. It’s very romantic and lushly landscaped. The water’s still not the color that I wanted—I wanted it to match the ocean exactly. We’re going to be putting turtles and lots of fish in there so that guests can go scuba diving, almost like being at a reef. I want it to look uninterrupted from the South China Sea. If it’s not beautiful, people won’t go in it.
Unusual hotel amenities seem to be a proclivity of yours. In Miami, there’s a bowling alley and an ice rink at the Edition, and in Sanya, there’s also a rock-climbing wall. How do you decide what will help bring people into hotels?
Instinct. We’re doing four hotels in the Middle East. Someone mentioned to me that we should do a bowling alley and an ice-skating rink in Doha. I’m not doing a rink in Doha. I knew it would work in Miami, but I don’t have a feel for it in Doha. I’m not going to take the chance. I don’t think I can sustain something that’s not successful and still be able to tell everybody “I want to do it my way.” I’ve got to have a hit in order to tell people that.
It seems like your work is largely about trying to tap into emerging locations.
I try to do this every time I open a hotel. I think a hotel has to manifest a sense of time and place about where it is. That’s what makes it special. I’ve been saying this since 1984. Now, all of a sudden, everybody else is saying it, too.
How do you maintain the vibe in your hotels?
We have lookbooks. When we finish, we go through the hotel and distribute them. We take a picture of everything because I never know which detail pushes something over the top. Every detail is a matter of life and death. We have to maintain the integrity of what we do. I’m not sure which things make it successful—everything’s a part of it. The details can’t slip. I went to the Miami Edition a couple of weeks ago and one of the tables that had a lot of crystal on it looked light—because four pieces had broken. I told them to order new ones. We’re not making it on execution; we’re making it on imagination, and you’ve got to keep that alive.
So tapping into imagination is key to your success?
If it weren’t for imagination, I wouldn’t bebringing anything to the table. I can’t out-execute the big companies and reservation systems and all that. But I think it’s all moving away from that. It’s all moving to—
Exactly. I remember when I did Morgans with Steve [Rubell]: We said we were giving more than just lip service when we said the room had a “residential feel.” Because the fabrics weren’t indestructible, and because the sheets were white, even though they showed stains, it felt residential. Now, especially with Airbnb, everybody’s starting to make hotels feel like the comfort of home. It took thirty years for the industry to get here.
How do you see the Edition brand evolving?
Because every hotel is in a different place, and because every hotel has a different physical plant, and because the designers will be all different, each is going to be different by definition. It’s not quite like Richard Meier with all those white buildings. We don’t have the Richard Meier approach—we have more of a Herzog & de Meuron approach, in which every time we step up, we try to do something new.
Do you see your muted approach to design as a means for attraction in today’s loud, chaotic world?
It’s like an antidote to what happens on the outside. The two places that create the most perplexity for me are the Middle East and China. We’re dealing with the Middle East now. They don’t understand simplicity so much. But I can’t do something over-the-top.
For Doha, I wanted to submit something for them to embrace. Our concept for Doha is a little bit like the Clocktower [the New York Edition], but it won’t be like that exactly. We were looking at the Adolf Loos American Bar in Vienna and its black-and-white tiles, which is very much my style. But it’s also classic and decorative and ornate. These are not design ideas; they’re just points of departure, for direction. We can do fancy, no problem, but it has to be our way.
So you’re willing and open to bring in other cultural ideas, but always in a way that works for you.
It should be a customer here in Manhattan that would go to this Doha hotel and like it. There is a tribe of us. It has to work for all those people that I’ve always done things for. Everybody’s got to understand it the way they do quality entertainment—a pretty woman, a good-looking guy.
In other words, they have to lose themselves in the hotel.
I still love doing hotels, I’ll tell you. I just love it. I tell my wife, I tell my kids, “You’ve got to do something you love, and then you can be good at it. If you don’t love it, it’s bullshit.” I’m working on more than twenty Marriott Editions all over the world. I’m still having a ball.