Jan 06, 2014

    Marriott goes for flash with Edition


    THE 81-year-old chairman of Marriott International, Mr John Willard Marriott Jr, flew to London in September to inspect his company's new jewel: Edition, a sumptuous boutique hotel intended to anchor a new 100-city chain.

    But Mr Marriott did not stay overnight at the London Edition, as the new property is known, with its laser-lighted nightclub and guest-room paintings of women wearing toilet-paper turbans. He bedded down at Grosvenor House, one of the company's more traditional luxury hotels.

    "This is what I know, but I'm the past," he said, sitting in the old-fashioned floral splendour of a Grosvenor corner suite.

    Edition, conceived in partnership with boutique hotelier Ian Schrager, is about the Marriott company's future.

    "We're trying to get some flash," Mr Marriott said. He rose wearily from his chair. "I'm off to see the flash."

    Marriott is big. The company operates 660,000 rooms under 16 brands, including Courtyard, Renaissance and Ritz-Carlton; more than 800 new Marriott-operated properties are in the works worldwide.

    Marriott is dependable. When you're stranded overnight on business in St Louis or Denver or Chicago, the red glow of a Marriott sign is there at the airport to offer you a clean, comfortable room.

    Marriott, in the words of brand experts, is boring. Nobody raves about the disc jockey at a Courtyard.

    So how do you recast this company as cool and current - a "brand constellation" of everything from standard-issue roadside rooms to six-star oceanfront suites? This is Mr Arne Sorenson's conundrum.

    Mr Sorenson, 54, took over as chief executive in 2012, when Mr Marriott stepped aside after 40 years on the job. Making this task trickier is the fact that Mr Sorenson is the first CEO in the company's history who isn't a member of the Marriott family.

    To move Marriott's image from "a sea of sameness to a world of difference", as some company executives summarised it, Mr Sorenson is relying on new brands.

    Moxy, announced in March in partnership with Ikea, is planned as a stylish, economy 500-hotel chain centred on Europe. In June, Marriott said it would bring AC Hotels - its three-year-old European chain "inspired by the runways and fashion houses of Milan" - to the United States.

    The Edition chain - rooms start at US$425 (S$538) a night in London - is by far Marriott's biggest bet.

    With a location opening next year in Manhattan and nine more announced elsewhere, Edition is the one that Marriott has to get right - even if it has meant gritting its teeth through an odd-couple relationship with Mr Schrager, the swaggering Studio 54 impresario who helped create the boutique-hotel concept back in the 1980s and 1990s.

    Analysts say that too many boutique hotels may sacrifice service for style, turning off consumers ultimately, or at least making it hard to maintain prices. Perhaps Marriott's customer service could spare Edition that fate. That, at least, is the goal.

    So far, people seem pleasantly surprised.

    "Only one of the sofa sets in the lobby is outright irritating," a travel writer, Mr Matt Rudd, wrote in a review of the London Edition in The Sunday Times there. "The rest are, and I can't quite believe I'm saying this, comfortable."

    After just three months, occupancy is high - nearly 80 per cent - and the hotel's restaurant, Berners Tavern, is a runaway hit. (Harry Styles, the floppy-haired One Direction heart-throb, has partied there.)

    "People want luxury that is surprising," Mr Sorenson said. "Younger guests in particular tell us, 'Please, whatever you do, don't give me another beige room'."