Dec 25, 2018

Episode 7

Brad Wilson

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Brad Wilson started his career working with his mom to open a series of bakeries throughout Chicago. It was a natural step, then, to go into hotels, helping to launch brands such as W Hotels and the gamechanging Ace Hotels. His pragmatic approach to hospitality has evolved into a deep love and understanding for the industry. “I’m sort of a junkie” for it, he says. “I crave it.”

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Hi, I’m Stacy Shoemaker Rauen, editor in chief of Hospitality Design magazine, with HD‘s, What I’ve Learned podcast. My conversation today is with the talented Brad Wilson. His career actually started as a family affair, working with his mom to open a series of bakeries throughout Chicago. Moving into hotels, he has launched many brands, including being the No. 3 employee at W, and now he continues to make a mark on the industry with Ace Hotels. What makes Brad interesting though is that he is a very pragmatic approach to hospitality, but also has a deep love and understanding for it, which makes it exciting to see what he and his team are doing next.

Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, it’s Stacy. We’re here with Brad Wilson who’s the president of Ace Hotels. Brad, thanks for being here today.

Brad Wilson: Thanks. Good morning.

SSR: Thanks. So let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

BW: Well, I was born outside Boston, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I really grew up mostly in Philadelphia and Chicago.

SSR: And growing up, were there any design cues or memories of hospitality? Were you surrounded by this industry that you fell into?

BW: Yeah, very much. My mother was a chef and ran a catering company, and later a bakery. And so, my whole childhood I worked with her. I think a lot of my early inspirations come from those events that she held and how the production of an event, and just how you bring people together and make a social setting.

SSR: What were the types of events?

BW: Yeah, since she was a caterer, they were everything from birthday parties to wedding receptions And she did cite-specific catering, so we would go to churches sometimes, we’d go to backyards or homes and all that kind of stuff.

SSR: So fun. And did that lead you to Cornell?

BW: I always told my mother that I wanted to own a restaurant and she said, ‘Well, you have to go and learn how to run a restaurant.’ So from very early on I wanted to go to [Cornell School of Hotel Administration]. And actually when I went to Cornell, I learned more about hotels and so my eyes opened wider and there were more options.

SSR: What were some of your takeaways from Cornell? What were some of the greatest lessons learned?

BW: It’s funny, when I graduated from Cornell, I went to work as the bar manager at the Oak Bar in New York at the Plaza Hotel. I came out of Cornell and basically was doing what I had done my whole childhood. So I was like, ‘Oh, I could’ve done this without going to school.’ And it took me a while to start actually getting into jobs and positions where the business education that I had gotten, because Cornell is essentially a business school with hospitality connected to it. And to appreciate the fact that I understood numbers and I could work out business plans and things of that sort that my peers just had never had exposure to, I started learning, ‘Oh, that’s why I went to Cornell.’ So it took me a little bit of time as an operations person to value that.

SSR: And so you started at the Oak Bar, what was next? What was your career path after that?

BW: Well, actually, ironically, I started at the Oak Bar and I was working at the Oak Bar for a while. My mom invited me to move back to Chicago to take over her company. She was going to grow beyond just doing catering and open a series of bakeries. So I went back to work for my mom for about seven years actually, which in some ways was an MBA because I ended up finding the locations, finding the designers to build out the locations, doing the construction, hiring, developing the distribution systems, all that kind of stuff. So I was doing these little openings, which in a lot of ways isn’t unlike what I do today. It was the creative process of starting up little businesses over and over, and opened a series of bakeries for my mom. A lot of that is the underlying of what I do today from site selection, to design, to staffing and opening, all of that kind of stuff.

SSR: That’s awesome. And what was it like working with your mom?

BW: My mom was just an amazing person and people who know her always will be like, ‘Oh, your mom was so amazing.’ And she was a dynamic and amazing person. She was also a tough boss, and I definitely learned that when you work for family, you can get taken advantage of. So I spent seven years without a raise. It was a tough period. It was enough to convince me I wanted to change jobs.

SSR: When you did change jobs, did you go into hotels next or did you continue with restaurants for a bit?

BW: It was interesting because when I was at the Plaza and worked at the Oak Bar for a little while and  they gave me an opportunity because of the Cornell background to go into more of an analyst position. So they put me into a position, which was an analyst position, and my title was very romantic. It was profit improvement manager. But ironically, it gave me the ability to stick my finger into every department and learn how a hotel works.

When I did start getting exhausted from my 14-hour days with my mom and only having Sunday off, I started thinking I wanted to go back into the hotel business and I wanted to move back to New York. So I started applying for jobs. In those days, you actually looked at The New York Times and circled the jobs you thought were interesting, so I circled a job in The New York Times that said, ‘Hotel analyst wanted for a hotel company expanding in U.S.,’ and so I applied. I very promptly got a response back, ‘We’re very excited about your application.’ I’m like, ‘That’s great,’ because I didn’t think that I had so much inexperience opening hotels and everything. It turns out the reason they replied back to me because the position was for a hotel opening in Chicago, and I think I was the only résumé they got from Chicago. So I ended up working for Nikko Hotels to open and reposition their hotel in Chicago, and later moved with them to open their hotel in LA. And that’s how I got into opening hotels more.

SSR: What was it like opening your first hotel? Looking back is there anything you wish you’d known today that you learned then?

BW: I entered the Chicago Nikko when it had opened, and it had a relatively difficult opening. It was their first opening in the U.S. Nikko was a division of Japan Airlines and they had opened and nothing was working that well. So I came in and restructured the hotel. And it made me, right from the start, aware of how important that process of opening a hotel is and planning for it. And I was able to get that hotel up and refocused. Because of that, they asked me to move to LA to open their next hotel, and that was my first, literally, ground up opening. So I started when they first acquired the land and I worked with the designers to lay out and program the hotel, all the way through operating it for a few years after.

SSR: Then you were one of the first employees for the W brand with Barry [Sternlicht] at Starwood. How did you end up there?

BW: I think I actually was the third employee. When I was working for Nikko and we opened the hotel in LA, the hotel was very successful in the entertainment market, and a lot of that was the positioning and the marketing that was done by a woman Diane Briskin, who was the director of sales and marketing for that hotel. And Barry hired Diane to move to New York and start this new brand that at that point nobody knew who Barry Sternlicht was or what he was doing. But she said, ‘If we need somebody from operations, would you be interested?’ I’m like, ‘I always keep trying to move back to New York, so I’d probably be interested.’ So she called me and she said ‘Barry’s now looking for somebody for operations.’ So I moved back to New York to take up the first operations position for W Hotels and laid out the operations, laid out all the initial training, did all the original brand training for that brand, opened a series of hotels with Barry and the W team, and then eventually became vice president of operations for W Hotels worldwide overseeing, probably by the end of my duration there, about 20 hotels under the W flag. We had a really good time.

SSR: What was it like creating a brand like W from the ground up?

BW: I think I joined in ’97, something like that. We opened our first hotel in ’98. I was general manager of the first hotel. That year before, it was mostly brand building and a lot of brainstorming like what will this hotel company be. A lot of that vision obviously coming from Barry and then us trying to figure out how to take his ideas and operationalize them. So it was a very creative period. It was both creative from the design and the development of the hotel. But because we were creating a brand, it was also very interesting to start out-thinking the industry and say ‘What do we want to change?’ And W back then, it was a different brand. It was very design focused. Today when we think of W, they have a corporate design or a kind of look, but they’re not at the forefront of design as we were at that time. If you think about the first W I opened, it was David Rockwell’s first hotel. We then did the W in Times Square, which was Yabu Pushelberg’s first hotel. At that time, we were setting and creating the future of design for the hotel industry. So it was very interesting, a very creative period.

SSR: Because the only competitor was what Ian [Schrager] was doing with Morgans and a couple other smaller hotels at that time.

BW: That’s absolutely right. And especially in more of the higher end design, it was really just Ian. He was the only one who was embracing high-end design in the hotel industry. And let’s be honest, Barry borrowed a lot from Ian’s playbook. We made it a little bit safer for the bigger populous, but a lot it was borrowed from Ian’s playbook.

SSR: And you said he had a really good time those 10 years you were there.

BW: Yeah, it was about 10 years. It was good because we were opening a few hotels every year. We always had new projects going. I personally got to work with some of the best designers in the industry. And in many cases, like I said with Rockwell and Yabu Pushelberg, these were the first hotels they did. So I was very much involved in translating what a hotel is to these designers and then learning how they look at it, and how it evolves. It was definitely a creative period.

SSR: I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for some of those meetings.

BW: Some of them were fun. Some of them were ugly.

SSR: But they turned out great.

BW: It turned out pretty good.

SSR: And you then left to go onto James Hotels, correct?

BW: I did. So I worked very closely with Barry for a long time. Many people know the long history of Starwood, but Barry left Starwood. And shortly after Barry left, I had the opportunity to go and work with Danny Errico, who founded Equinox Gyms, and Steve Hanson from F&B fame, and start a small company of our own. So we opened the James Hotel brand.

SSR: Why did you want to take on forming another brand again?

BW: I guess opportunity for us to do it ourselves. And also, at that time, I was somebody who enjoyed design and modernism, but also understood the hotel experience and how warmth and comfort are so critical in that environment. I think that it came up with this desire that I felt there was a warm modernism that was appropriate, and a lot of [it came from Yabu Pushelberg work]. So we started the James with a very strong point of view from a design basis, working with Deborah Burke on the architectural side and some other consultants to say what is a real, modern interpretation of a hotel but within a warm and comfortable environment. And James gave us a platform to really express that.

SSR: And how many of the James did you do?

BW: Four. The first James was actually in Scottsdale, Arizona. We followed that with Chicago, New York, and Miami.

SSR: Then they were bought.

BW: Danny Errico, he founded Equinox Gyms, which was good for him and his whole family. Anyone I’ve ever worked with [said he was] probably the savviest investor, and Danny could smell an environment. And one day he just said, ‘I think that the economy is about to change.’ And he said, ‘I think we should bring in a partner.’ We went out looking for to sell about 85 percent of our equity and keep control of the 15 percent. We got a great offer from a great company to do something very different from what we thought, which was sell 100 percent of our equity and merge into their company. And so we did that, sold the company to Denihan Hospitality where I worked as their COO for a couple of years thereafter merging the two companies.

SSR: And Danny was right because this was, what, 2008 or so?

BW: It did happen that he was right.

SSR: It was right on the cusp of the downturn, but the good thing about the buyout, among other things, is you got to also do the Surrey on the Upper East Side.

BW: Yeah, and that was a lot of fun. The Surrey was location-wise probably one of the best opportunities you could ever have. We looked at that building and in that neighborhood, you can drive any average rate you want. It’s a pretty obvious luxury move. We sat down and started talking about New York and what luxury is in New York and wanted to figure out the right play between modern traditional references in a luxury space. We started looking at how Upper East Siders live and the elements of that and came up with a point of view for that hotel. Some people know that my husband happens to be an interior designer; his firm is Rottet Studio. And we looked at a whole bunch of designers and it wasn’t quite as easy to hire the husband, but we looked at a lot of different designers and eventually, he was always in my ear saying, ‘But have you looked at what we did with this project or that project,’ and presented it to the Denihan family, and we came back with a concept on the hotel. We ended up doing it as a team, and the hotel turned out beautiful. It is very modern, but it has all the similar values as a traditional luxury hotel. A highlight certainly being that private roof bar, which is just spectacular. And it must have worked somehow because I think Condé Nast has had it on its list for years as one of the best hotels in New York.

SSR: There hasn’t been major renovations to it. It still has very many of the same aspects that it had when it first opened.

BW: It’s sort of a modern luxury classic.

SSR: Yeah, with really good art work.

BW: With very good artwork.

SSR: And so, you had known Alex Calderwood, the founder of Ace Hotels personally, correct?

BW: I did. Alex and I started chatting when he was working on the Ace New York, and at that point, I had already sold the James. And our conversations were everything from, ‘Would you be the general manager?’ to me saying ‘Well, no, because I run like 20 hotels,’ to him saying, ‘Can you help me on housekeeping?’ And we just built a good relationship. He was just one of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. He collected people, so he liked to know people who knew things, and he would always pull in ideas to help him build things. And so, some part of me was very proud to be included in that. I just adored him as a person. He was a great person. Over the couple of years, we just chatted and talked about how it would be great if we could do something, and eventually figured out a way to do that. And so, I stepped into Ace Hotels and had the opportunity to restructure Ace and launch it into a bigger international hotel company.

SSR: What was it about his vision that drew you to Ace? What did you love about what he and the brand was trying to do?

BW: My personal battle in the hospitality industry has always been between this idea of the generic hotel, the chain hotel, the big companies and how that size and scale does create something that’s generic and I think creates something very lonely for a traveler. When you travel and if something’s very generic, you don’t become part of it. I’ve always searched for this authentic link into whether it be design or the environment of a hotel or something that makes people feel at home and comfortable and engaged in what it is.

Whether you talk the luxury of the Surrey and the art programs there, that’s all very thoughtful and engaging, and it makes you feel like when you’re in the hotel it’s not just neutral time, you’re engaged in the experience there. And Alex did that better than anybody. He personally was just such a truly authentic person. But everything he did, he did in a real, true way, thinking about how people interact, how people play, how people enjoy time, and how you use that intellectual connection to engage people into things.Very quickly, I saw that what he was doing, it resonated with me, but you could also see how it resonated with people. I remember when the Ace New York opened and everyone in the industry was suddenly talking about Ace this, Ace that. When you went there, you felt this is not a hotel, this is a place. That’s what I’ve always looked for in doing hotels. It was that a hotel needs to be a place.

SSR: We’ve talked about it a little bit that it’s called the Ace effect or called the Schrager effect. It’s when somebody does something so well that everyone wants to replicate it. What the Ace New York did, and correct me if I’m wrong, but they made people think differently about what a lobby could be or what a hotel could be within a community.

BW: I totally agree. As, as I said, I always had been seeking this ability to make a travel experience less lonely. That was at core of Alex’s vision. His first hotel, the Ace in Seattle, he built a hotel for his friends. He never thought of the traveler as being separate from the family. For him, he was building hotels for friends, people that he related to who would relate to him. He used to say ‘If you do what you love, the rest is going to follow.’ And in real, true sense, I think that works because people can feel that. In Ace New York, you could feel that kind of positive energy, the kind of draw of the space. And certainly everybody was always focused on the lobby and that you could just hang out in that lobby. But that was core to Alex’s vision, just the idea of being able to hang out in the lobby the same way you would hang out in your living room at home with friends. And so all of that became a movement in an industry but was based on an understanding of how people live.

SSR: Very true. And unfortunately, Alex passed away a couple of years ago, but how do you and your team continue to create this? What I think Ace does really well is that authentic space that you’re talking about. How do you continue to make sure that happens in Chicago, in LA, in New Orleans, in wherever you go next.

BW: It’s interesting, when Alex passed, one of the first phone calls I got was from Ian Schrager. He was friends with Alex as well and he was obviously sad. But he also said to me, he said, ‘If I can give you one piece of advice is whatever you do, always evolve and always be changing.’ And he said, ‘One, because that’s what Alex stood for, but two, I know when I left Morgans, a lot of people at Morgans kept trying to do what Ian did.’ And Ian said to me, ‘But that’s not what I do today. So what you have to understand is you can’t keep doing what Alex did. You have to believe in what Alex meant and was going for and evolve toward that.’

I think we’ve used that to try and keep Ace moving forward. Whereas a lot of brands can be ego brands. It’s very easy to be Ian Schrager hotels. And then without that, it gets very difficult. We had a huge advantage, and Alex was never that ego creative in that sense. Alex was a person who brought people together to create collaborative environments to leverage ideas. So in many ways, Alex taught us from the beginning a method and a style that supported evolution, and wasn’t really dependent on him. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be a million times better if he was still around, but the process that Alex had always focused on was work with great people who love what they do, understand that you can always find somebody who knows something better than you do, and you can have that person to leverage that. And so, the concept of partnering and the concept of evolving in each hotel and project being a unique opportunity for us to find something new and find something fresh is important to us at the core.

We remain Atelier Ace, which is our think tank, collaborative creative group. We’re always rethinking what we do, rethinking what the industry does, and we’re always trying to evolve and change and keep up with it. So I would say each of our projects in turn, hopefully, still feels fresh. They don’t feel like we’re redoing what we did. You said it’s very flattering when somebody copies you, and it certainly is very flattering. I’m always honored when people talk about like the Ace effect, as you say, particularly when Four Seasons says they want their lobbies to be like Ace. But I will also say that we want to learn from what we did as well, but I don’t think we ever want to do what we did. So tomorrow we do something different every time.

SSR: I think it’s also huge testament that a lot of the core group all work together.

BW: So the head of our brand, our chief brand officer, Kelly Sawdon, started with Alex right from the beginning, as did Ryan, who’s in charge of our marketing, is our VP of marketing. So the core team, it is family, it’s part of our lives in a lot of ways. It just makes sense that we’re altogether.

SSR: Is there one project you’re really looking forward to or one that you just finished that you’re really excited about?

BW: Of course, it’s like the whole round circle, right? I told you I worked for Japan Airlines, so we’re going back to Japan. Alex was a serial entrepreneur. We weren’t the only company Alex started. But one of his first entrepreneurial things was actually buying vintage jeans in the U.S. and selling them in Tokyo. And so he had a connection to Japan. Ryan who I mentioned, who’s the head of our marketing group, Alex found him when he was at school in Tokyo in Japan. So he speaks fluent Japanese. We’ve always, as a company, had these overlaps and roots, myself having worked for Japan Airlines and Nikko Hotels. We’ve always wanted to be in Japan. We are now building an Ace Hotel in Kyoto, Japan, which is the cultural capital of Japan. People always ask us, ‘Why didn’t you go to Tokyo?’ We’re like, ‘Because Ace would probably not go to Tokyo. We’d probably go to the cultural capital.’ It seemed to fit for us, and we like it. It’s a beautiful city, and it’s an amazing project. It’s very much our style. We get to combine one of the most historic buildings in Kyoto, one of the first buildings the Westerners built after the war. We combine that with a completely new expression of Japanese architecture by Kengo Kuma, who’s one of the most famous architects in Japan.

SSR: That’s great. And a perfect segue, let’s talk about how you work with designers. As you’ve said, you’ve worked with some amazing people along your career, but what do you think defines a successful collaboration and how do you work with a designer to make sure that collaboration turns out well at the end?

BW: We have the advantage. We have a very good internal design and architecture group. We have a large team who know what we do, understand our values, and how to express those through design. And they work very closely in collaboration with all of our designers. That’s critical because there’s always this opportunity when you design hotels that is it your brand or is it the designer’s brand. Some designers can be so specific that you can go to their hotel, whether it’s a Four Seasons or Park Hyatt or a W Hotel, and you can feel it’s their hotel. And that’s great, but we’re really trying to express something a little different in our hotels. We feel that it’s important that the hotel be built around the Ace values and how we see the world. And as I said, that has to evolve and a lot of times the designers bring new ideas that you learn and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that really works,’ and how to tweak that. And sometimes perfect design can be too perfect. We have to allow for that quirkiness that allows the humanity to come in if it’s too perfect and you don’t feel comfortable in a space. It’s a balance.

SSR: One of the things that I’ve loved that you said on panels is that good design is edited design.

BW: Without doubt, Alex used to say, ‘We have to spend some time on un-design.’ I probably use the term edit. There’s this balance about perfection is a rejection of humanity, so you do need to edit, you do need to make sure things are comfortable and a little bit quirky and squishy. There’s a risk in a perfectly designed space where everything fits exactly right. Suddenly, as the person you walk in and you’re just like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be here.’ Well, that’s not successful marketing in the hotel business.

SSR: How do you also dive into each culture? Because I think each of your hotels really speak to the location that they’re in be it New Orleans or London in Shoreditch. How do you as a team really get to know the area?

BW: That’s a super strong team thing. Certainly, Kelly and Ryan are geniuses in that realm, but it’s a lot of work, to be honest. It means engaging in many levels of your environment and learning the environment through people. And frequently people ask like, ‘Where do you choose places? Where do you go?’ And the funny thing is we usually end up going places that our friends are suggesting. So it ends up being our friends are saying like, ‘Have you been here?’ And before long, we go there and they show us around, we learn something, they introduce us to people. We start building a friends network and as I said, we build hotels for friends and through friends’ eyes. And that, that network helps us educate and learn about the nuances of the new cities and new environments, and then how we can program around that and understand that, and make sure we’re including that in our world. Our hotels are as much about the local people as they are about travelers. For us, making that right connection locally is very important. It’s how you become part of that city and when the city embraces you, the rest comes naturally. It markets itself.

SSR: I love it because you look for partners at all levels, not just the restaurant but the things that go in the room. It’s almost every touchpoint that you go through your hotel.

BW: We’re fortunate we have a very good, strong team. Each different area actually starts looking within their group at what we should do, even if it’s for operating supplies and equipment, but we look for: Is there somebody locally that could make the minibar basket if that’s what it is? Locally for us, it’s more personality than I think it is a thing. And we laugh because we went to New Orleans and I think our hotel in New Orleans is quintessentially New Orleans in a lot of ways. I watch other people go to New Orleans and localize it by painting a trombone on the side of the building. It’s very different from what we do. What we do is impossible because it’s just too people intensive. It becomes very hard for other companies because what we do is handmade in the end, and handmade means lots of people authentically doing it. And that’s very hard to create in a cookie-cutter world.

SSR: Once we talked, and I said, ‘Aren’t you excited for the hotel to open?’ And you’re like, ‘Yes, but now the work begins.’ Talk to me a little bit about that, about how you look at spaces and they might not function the way you thought they did, and how you didn’t have to learn how everything moves and breathes because it is a living, breathing organism in some way.

BW: Development is so important to us. New hotels always become very important. But one of the things that we’re proud of is that we operate hotels extremely well. And whether that means the kind of engagement from what I think is some of the best front desk people in the industry, because they just like people and care, and that’s a huge accomplishment. The team that trains and develops those people focus on this idea that we do hotels for friends. It’s a friendly place and that means just don’t take it too seriously, just understand you’re helping people and as long as you’re helping people, then you’re giving good service and it becomes a natural thing. We like people, we like personalities, so I think a lot of our front desk team and our front of the house people have a lot of personality and care about people. My favorite thing is when we get people saying like, ‘Oh my gosh, everybody was so nice.’ “So nice” is important to us. We opened our London hotel and one of the first articles that came out was, like, how did these Americans come to London where service is not friendly and find all these nice people to serve? And that, I think, we can be proud of, and maintaining that is really important.

It is true that once you open there are a gazillion more things to do than all of that design and planning, which is so important, but now you need to look at everything and say, is it working for our guests and is the flow right and can we tweak it? I said originally I started in events, and I think every day at a hotel is another event. So unless you’re thinking about how the lights are set and the mood of the room and how things are flowing and the music, the volume, and is it too high or too low. These are all critical things that add up to an experience and an event. And that to your guest, who is only going to be there one or two nights, and those are going to be their events. Unless you execute all of those consistently and perfectly, it’s easy to lose somebody.

SSR: On the design side, I mean, you travel a ton, you see a bunch of different hotels. It there anything that you see in design that just drives you nuts? Is there a pet peeve either design or operational?

BW: Fortunately, I stay in really good hotels. People who know me will tell you my pet peeve’s pretty easy. One of my biggest design pet peeves is people who say you need a pop of color. It just makes me go mental. And if we need color, maybe we need color, but a pop of color seems so superficial to me. And such this weird pat answer from people who are not necessarily seeing a bigger picture. That’s definitely a design pet peeve [for me]. In a meeting just say to me, ‘Oh, maybe we need a pop of color.’ That will just do it.

SSR: So it should not be in a designer’s presentation to you?

BW: A pop of color? No.

SSR: Speaking of evolving, you’re now launching a new brand called Sister City. Can you tell us a little bit about what that’s all about and what you hope to bring to the market?

BW: As I said, we keep trying to evolve and Sister City represents an interesting evolution forward and a rethinking of our past successes. We developed Sister City looking back even at what we did with Seattle when we first opened Seattle, and this interesting niche that it played for creatives coming to Seattle, and a balance between the high and low, and the efficient, affordable kind of offerings. And said, what would that hotel be today? I think that led to what we’re doing with Sister City along with the fact that, as I said before, I think most of us, even Alex, were rooted in modernist design. Some of our design came out of that more modern thing, and I think everybody thinks of us as being this recreation of the old. We weren’t ever. I often find it interesting when people say that wood paneling looks very Ace. And I’m like, ‘No, it doesn’t actually.’ Because everything Alex did was authentic. We never had wood that was beaten by chains and then put up on a wall. And a lot of Alex’s core design aesthetic was probably more modernist than it was anything else.

Sister City, we designed ourselves. I think it gave us an opportunity to go back to some more modernists roots. It’s very warm, it’s very comfortable. The team kind of designed it and talk about it as a combination between a Japanese Bento box and a Finnish sauna. So I guess there’s a lot of a wood there. And it’s pretty cozy and comfortable, but it’s also an opportunity to see what is critical and what is important in a hotel, and what do hotels mean today, and how we use them. Particularly, in a city where you have this urban density, how can you get a hotel down to its core?

SSR: When you say down to its core, what are going to be some of the key elements that you’re including or not including?

BW: It’s interesting because obviously a lot is included. We’re in the process of developing what I think is going to be an amazing restaurant. We brought in some great chefs, putting together a good program. It will be vegetable forward. It’s not vegetarian. It’s good for you, but not health food. It represents how people want to eat today and I think it’s going to be an amazing product. We also have a good view of the city, so you can go to the roof and have a cocktail and see the city.

It’s a full-fledged hotel. Some people hear us talk about the core of an experience and think somehow it’s lesser, but it’s actually not. It’s a full-service hotel. We are dabbling into technology and how to make a hotel guest’s experience much more technology based by reducing interactions where appropriate. Let’s face it, we all have originally embraced this idea of flying on airplanes and never having to interact with the desk, where we used to wait in line. Today, we fly through, we pick our own seats, we check in ourselves. We’re experimenting with a lot of that technology and how to do that within the hotel industry, and make it a much more efficient experience, I’d say. I think we’ve learned through technology as people that we can have an easier life sometimes by eliminating those interactions that sometimes can cause that friction. I don’t like waiting in lines anymore. It seems fast to just check in on my phone. So we’ll figure those things out. That being said, there will still be people there for when you need somebody, because sometimes we all need a hug.

SSR: And by major, are the room smaller? You said it’s not a microhotel.

BW: The rooms are definitely smaller. They’re very efficient and they’re definitely smaller rooms.In a pure industry class, it would fall under a microhotel. But they’re all organic materials and high touch, so they feel very special and very comforting.

SSR: The first one’s in New York, right?

BW: It is in New York, on the Bowery at Rivington.

SSR: It’s a Lower East Side.

BW: Between the Lower East Side and SoHo.

SSR: And are their expansion plans? Are you guys just opening the first one and taking it from there?

BW: We have some conversations going on, but we look at every hotel as a hotel, right? And we look at this as a brand because every hotel has to have a brand. So, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a chain. Branding is about how you market and how you create. Where that brand applies to another site, another location, we definitely are interested in that. It’s an urban concept and we look at busy cities, so it could pop into any of the major capitals.

SSR: And Sister City is the name came from the fact that it is just the sister to Ace or was there something else?

BW: There’s like 20 different dimensions on every name, right? Naming is the hardest part. But Sister City certainly there’s a reference there to the fact that it’s obviously a sister hotel to Ace, but also, it is an urban concept and obviously Sister City represents the sharing between cities, the sharing of culture and exchange. We feel like it’s a great name because it represents a lot of what’s going on with that brand.

SSR: You said it before, everything needs a brand and not a chain. Do you think brand is getting a bad rap now in the industry? That everyone’s so afraid of having a brand because that means brand standards. Do you think some people are calling their hotels “collections?” We’re afraid to even write the word chain in our magazine because it has a bad connotation.

BW: Everybody hates the word chain, and so they use the word brand to call their chain a brand. Look, more power to everybody who’s launching new brands. It’s not how we look at a brand. We look at a brand as being the root of everything you do. It’s not a marketing tool. It’s not a sign. I do think in the industry there’s a lot of misunderstanding between what a brand truly should be and what a chain is. As you say, people don’t like to use the word chain. Somehow it has a derogatory thing. And so, they’ve used the word brand for their chain, but it’s more a chain than it is a brand. So, it’s chain standards. It’s funny because when we talked about W Hotels, when we opened the first W, we had more in common with the people at St. Regis than the people at Sheraton. And the reason is because St. Regis is a branded hotel. They have a true belief in what they do. It’s rooted through all of the operational points that they handle. It’s within their marketing. It’s in their feel and their guests feel it. And luxury hotels have always done that. You can pick any independent luxury hotel in Europe and you can feel their brand. A brand is an emotional thing. It’s not a sign, it’s not something created by marketing experts. There’s a lot of hype that goes into creating those kind of chains, and there’s nothing wrong with them. They serve a great purpose. They’re just a little bit different than as when we say brand what we mean by it.

SSR: You’ve worked with some amazing people throughout your career: designers, Steve Hansen, Eric, Alex, I mean, just some great people. Has there been somebody that has served as a mentor or somebody you’ve gotten your greatest lesson learned from, or somebody along the way that just changed how you look at things?

BW: I think it’s different people along the way. I worked for Barry about 10 years and I learned more from him than I could ever imagine learning from a single person, some good, some bad. I just really learned how to think beyond what the industry is telling you a lot from him and to just challenge that. And the whole concept around having a very high level of expectations and really driving for them. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

I think Alex Calderwood, as I said, he taught me more on what it means to be authentic and a partner than I could ever imagine. I have to add, obviously, Ian early in my careerAndrei, the people who are doing special things in hotels, you learn from all of them. One of my favorite things is if I go to a conference or something like that and somebody’s trying to start their own little thing, and they have good ideas. I love hearing that. It’s funny, before it was the guys up there who were inspirational to me. Today, I think the people trying to do new things are inspirational to me.

SSR: Is there a cool company, it doesn’t even have to be in our industry, that you’re enamored with or have been following?

BW: I think it changes all the time. I had dinner with a gentleman who’s doing these five-room hotel concepts that I find fascinating and impossible. So it intrigued me. I think you can learn from everybody. It’s a lot about listening and pulling ideas, and that fosters things.

SSR: And you’ve had a lot of great success in your career and had an amazing journey. Has there been something, a failure that has not left you or a failure that you remember, that taught you a great lesson that you then applied it moving forward? I feel like people can really learn from their failures more than their successes.

BW: Everybody has failures all the time. In our industry, in the hotel business, I get to come to work every week and have new failures. So I don’t think it’s ever stopped. Embracing that is really how I think we end up finding solutions. Offhand, I’m not thinking of one specific failure. I think I told you my learning with Barry, early on it was failure, failure, failure. Failure is how you learn, and it’s your best learning experience. But I think we’re in an industry where in the hotel business, it’s awful hard to get it right every single day. And people come and people go, and each change creates a new challenge, and it’s one of the reasons it never gets dull.

SSR: Is that why you love this industry so much?

BW: I think so. I definitely love the energy. I love the energy of opening hotels and building hotels, and creating hotels. I love the energy of a team focused on serving a guest. And it sounds funny, but the whole process and energy around hospitality is really inspiring to me. And I told you I grew up in it and so I’m sort of a junkie. I think I crave it.

SSR: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. We really appreciate it.

BW: Thanks for having me.