by Sarah J.F. Braley | September 20, 2017

At the premiere party last week for the 245-room W Bellevue Hotel in Washington State, which opened in early August, M&C caught up with Anthony Ingham, global brand leader for W Hotels Worldwide. While discussing openings to come in Philadelphia (fall 2018), Aspen (early 2019), downtown Los Angeles (late 2019) and Nashville (early 2020), he had quite a bit to say about how Ws have changed in the seven years since the company built a property in the U.S. from the ground up.
 
It's been a while since a new W has opened in the U.S. Has the brand been dormant?
W had a very strong period of expansion in the U.S. in the 2000s, and then shifted to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific. During that time, our whole approach to design has changed. We are now continuing to expand around the world and more evenly, including the Americas.
 
How has the brand philosophy changed?
This new hotel is a much better reflection of where W is today and our international portfolio. The last built in the U.S. was Austin in 2010, but it was designed in 2006-07. There is a quality gap between the earlier Ws and the Ws today. Originally, W took its design principals from Manhattan and took what we knew hadn't been done before and developed properties that were ahead of their time. It was definitely a New York concept in cities around the U.S. Internationally, we realized you couldn't take a New York design and plop it in Paris or Shanghai and have it work. So we took the forward-thinking mentality from New York and used the DNA to reinterpret the process.
 
How is a W Hotel developed these days?
We start with creating a W design-narrative process, doing deep research on the destination. It's a hand-in-hand process with the interior design firms, getting less-likely stories from the destination and putting them through a filter. That gives us the road map for the interior design and the experience design that are 100 percent anchored in the destination through the W lens.
 

The W Bellevue is the best example in the U.S. that was built with the narrative focus in mind. We started with the role of Bellevue as a rugged escape for the people of Seattle, where you had lakehouses and the outdoor sports. We took the furniture, how families got together, what games they played, stories from Native American people of the area and the tech industry for influence. All of these things make up the strands, and the designs show up throughout the hotel. You'll see photographs of families enjoying summer together, A-frame designs throughout and Native American influences in the art.

 
We mash up stories that seem unconnected but are all true stories of this place to create a feeling that is very W, but unique to this place. This hotel could not be picked up and put down in any other destination. The new W Shanghai [which opened in June] has no physical resemblance in any way, shape or form to the Bellevue hotel, yet it still feels like a W, very Shanghaiese and future-forward.
 
You mentioned that some of the older Ws will be dropping the designation.
I can't tell you which other hotels at this stage [will drop the W]. Some transformations already have been completed: W New Orleans, after a $30 million renovation, became Le Méridien. Atlanta Perimeter also became a Le Méridien, W San Diego went to Renaissance. Two were exited in New York.
 
And some of the Ws are being renovated to the new standards?
The W Fort Lauderdale is undergoing a massive renovation, and W Chicago Lakeshore and W L.A. West Beverly Hills, as well as hotels in Montreal, Boston, D.C., South Beach, Atlanta Buckhead and Midtown, Chicago City Center and San Francisco. Seattle's renovation has been completed.
 
More than half of the portfolio is being renovated or finished renovating. This is how a healthy brand works. As you change in design, W has shifted upmarket. You have to make sure the whole portfolio fits. It doesn't happen overnight. It's like turning the Titanic. 
 
Do you have meetings in mind when Ws are designed?
If you looked at the lifestyle segment of the hospitality industry as a whole, it isn't a segment that you think of immediately for meetings. The properties are mostly from smaller operators. W competes with smaller, boutiquey hotels, but some of our most successful ones are larger with a definite meetings element.
 
We've found a white space in the market. For a hotel that can do large meetings and incentives and still be a credible, aspirational hotel brand, W is really the only one that can do that. They attract meetings that want a personality and energy. 
 
I see quite a few more hotels coming in that ilk. The ones that are like that include W Taipei, Doha, South Beach, Fort Lauderdale. We will continue to focus on that. W Dubai the Palm will have something that nobody in Dubai can match. That's a pretty unique proposition.
 
At W Shanghai, we planned carefully for the meetings and lifestyle to coexist. It has a large four-story podium with multiple entrance points. A glass elevator rises through a neon installation to the fourth floor, to a whole lifestyle concept. The three floors below it are meetings. You can choose to mix those elements as you want to. Barcelona was the first to be built that way, Taipei as well. But Shanghai has been very successful at it.