Next Generation Hotelier: Ian Schrager

After more than five decades in the hospitality industry, Ian Schrager shows no sign of slowing down. The founder of the boutique hotel concept talks about the hotel of the future during the Expedia Partner Conference in Las Vegas

Ian Schrager at the Expedia Partner Conference 2017.
Ian Schrager at the Expedia Partner Conference 2017.

Ian Schrager has been working in the industry since the 1970s and achieved global recognition when, along with his partner Steve Rubell, he founded the Studio 54 and Palladium nightclubs. From entertainment and F&B, hotels came next: Morgans Hotel opened in 1984, and introduced the concept of the boutique hotel to the world.

He’s also responsible for Marriott International’s Edition brand, which has now been around for more than a decade, with the unlikely partnership between Bill Marriott and Ian Schrager coming to pass. More recently, Schrager launched his brand Public Hotels with Expedia, and also has several luxury residential projects under development in New York City.

It’s been a relentless 40-plus years of Schrager overturning the hospitality status quo with his work, and he says the start of his journey began because, at the time, everyone liked everything to be “put into a box”. With Studio 54, he says, the idea was to offer no ramifications. “It was magical, and you were able to be who you wanted when you went there, and [it] gave you total freedom,” he explains.

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Fast forward to the opening of Public Hotel in New York, and Schrager says the same rules apply. It’s about making hospitality accessible, fun, and relevant. What makes the Public brand revolutionary, Schrager muses, is its universality.

“[It’s] the idea of doing something really special, really sophisticated, magical […], the same kind of entertainment, and food and beverage offerings, and doing that at a really reasonable price and making it accessible to anybody and everybody that might want it. We attract a diverse group of people of all ages, at all income strata — and when those people get into a room, something combustible happens,” he says, adding that he believes Public may be the most important idea he’s had.

And he’s certainly had a lot of ideas, and implemented them. Through the decades, Schrager has caused his share change in the hospitality industry, but  has also witnessed changes wrought by external factors. One example is the disruption caused by increasing use of  home-sharing apps such as Airbnb. He doesn’t mince his words when he says that hoteliers should be taking the threat posed by these new services more seriously than they are currently. 

“I think they should be in a panic,”  Schrager says. “I don’t know why the industry is in denial about it, but [despite the fact that] recently the gloves have come off between a lot of big companies and Airbnb, I always tell everyone that Airbnb is coming for our kids. I think that fighting for legislation and all those things will perhaps delay them, but it won’t stop them.

“We have to focus on the hotels as a distinctive product, and we have to focus on communal space because the magic of the communal spaces can’t be [replicated] by Airbnb. We have to do what they can’t do. Disruptive things come along every [few] years and you have to adjust the model.”

Schrager believes in adapting to the times of the market. He is a strong supporter of technology in hotels and challenges those that say it leads to the ‘dehumanisation’ of the experience. Areas of the hotel experience that he says should receive a high-tech overhaul include elements such as room service and the front desk.

He discusses at length the check-in/check-out process, which he is adamant is in urgent need of an update. Schrager tells hoteliers: “Invest in the check-in process and in not having a person have to check out.”

He explains: “You want to get a person up to the room as fast as possible. They don’t want to sit down and have a glass of champagne, they want to get up to their room. And then, when they leave, they don’t want to stand in line and deal with anything, unless they have a question about the bill.

“Managers say they need to know if the room is available for housekeeping. Well, find another way. The check-in process is unnecessary.”

He continues: “The hotel industry is a product-centric industry. Every one of the great hoteliers loved developing new products. We should stop worrying about the efficiencies of execution [...] and worry about creating a distinct product.”

Schrager says he has no intention of  taking his foot off the gas: “I love what I do. It was never about the money.”

In fact, he expresses how keen he is to work on more hotels with Marriott’s Edition brand, as well as Public, saying he wants “to do a bunch of others”.

“I’m about to make an announcement,” he adds.

Schrager remains frustratingly tight-lipped about the details, but it seems possible that, even now, the best may be still to come.

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