Aug 20, 2019

Episode 24

Jay Stein, CEO, Dream Hotel Group


As Dream Hotel Group continues to grow and launch more brands, including Unscripted Hotels and the upcoming 5-Star Chatwal Lodge in the Catskill Mountains, CEO Jay Stein credits a community-oriented approach to Dream’s success. In fact, he points to a piece of advice from his father that has become a core value of Dream’s philosophy: to show respect to everyone on the team. It’s a key tenet that has helped make Dream a lifestyle juggernaut.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Jay Stein of the Dream Hotel Group. Hey Jay, how are you?

Jay Stein: Hey Stacy. Great to be here.

SSR: Yeah, thanks for being here. So we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

JS: Queens, New York.

SSR: Growing up, did you ever have an inkling that you wanted to go into hospitality or in design at all?

JS: Absolutely not. I had no desire and no gut feeling of anything that I really wanted to do.

SSR: What was your first way to get into the hospitality world?

JS: It’s kind of a bit of a long story, but I’ll make it as quick as I can. I got very active in Boy Scouts through those years, and we did a lot of overnights and camping out and I found it intriguing that you could cook meals like out in the middle of nowhere. And I enjoyed doing that and then I started fooling around with that in the house. My mom was not a particularly great cook. And I started cooking at home and I enjoyed that. And after I graduated from school with a bachelor’s in political science, I had no desire to go to law school, had no desire to except to party, go out, and make some money. I started working in a restaurant as a cook because I knew how to cook.

And I was loving New York. I was going out to clubs every night and making good money, and had very frustrated parents with their Jewish son who did not go onto law school. So to get them off my back, I went back and got a second degree in hospitality management because someone told me you can go to the school in downtown Brooklyn and get this degree. And mainly it was to get them off my back. So I went and took this two year program while I still worked and went out to clubs every night. And then at the end it was career day. And so I took a job, I had many offers. I was 26 and had no clue what I wanted to do, but I figured I would try it. It took a job at the Vista Hotel and the World Trade Center with Hilton International making $13,000 a year as an assistant manager in their popular pricey restaurant.

And after a few months I said, ‘You know, I can be really good at this.’ And I was traveling in from Queens on the subway and I finally moved into SoHo, and I was able to walk to to the Vista. And I went in to see my food and beverage director and I said, ‘Mr. Davis, I don’t care how much you want me to work. I don’t care how much you pay me. All I want to do is learn, and I’ve got tremendous amount of energy. I’ve got nothing else to do. I just want to learn.’ And I said, ‘If you’re not happy with my work, I’m sure you’re going fire me anyway. But if you are, don’t hold back. I’ll work seven days a week, and I’ll do whatever you want as long as I’m learning.’

And he said, ‘No, you seem to be doing great.’ And from that moment on my career just started moving to become restaurant manager of the fine dining room and then eventually banquet sales manager and finally became the system food and beverage director of a 800-room hotel, a four and a half star hotel. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I reached my goal.’ Then somebody called me, a head hunter. I didn’t even know the concept at that point and said, ‘We’ve heard about you.’ I said, ‘How?’ And I ended up meeting somebody in Midtown about a job for a food and beverage director position. And I was laughing with my girlfriend, who’s now my wife for 30 years, saying, ‘I don’t think I’m goin to leave’ and after four weeks of interviewing, I took that job in Midtown and that was August ’87 and by October ’87 for those people that are old enough that’s when the stock market crashed. And all my friends at the Vista were like, how did you know to get out of here? And I said, I didn’t know anything. I was just lucky.

And so at that point I was in Midtown working for Doral hotels, and I became a food and beverage director. I got frustrated that I couldn’t control enough of the profits because food and beverage wasn’t that profitable. And I spoke to my GM, who was one of the great mentors I had, and said, ‘Bob, I really want to control more of the profit on our hotel. And I see the rooms people work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, and you’re controlling 88 percent of the profit. And I’m here all the time and I don’t contribute much on the profit side.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you’re the style. You’re what’s making our hotel fun, and why people want to be here.’ And he said, ‘You keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll cross train you in all the room stuff for the next year and if you do well, I’ll promote you from then.’ And he made me an assistant GM and didn’t look back.

SSR: You said he was one of your greatest mentors. Is it because he gave you the opportunity or all that he taught you along the way?

JS: No. A lot more than that. He was a great hotelier. But he also was a great person. He was someone that I really became friendly with. But I learned so much about the hotel business through him. He was really a bright, bright guy, and just had a great knowledge of the hospitality [industry]. And I remember walking the Javits Center with him at the tradeshows early on and everybody knew him, you know. And I said, ‘Wow, I’ll never get that in my career, walking through this thing and know hundreds of people.’

And now I’m here and I was looking back, he had passed away about 10 years ago, but I always look back and think about those times with him. But he just led me on the right path. He had great advice and he knew he had somebody that was going to work really hard for him and make him look good. And he let me do a lot of things, be creative on food and beverage. And then eventually on the room side, but a great mentor.

SSR: How were you a creative back then?

JS: You know, I am not particularly the creative one. I am the facilitator. I am the voice of reason. I am the calm one. I’m the leader. I always had been since I’m a little kid. So I found out, I had this great chef and he was hard to manage and he would come to my office and slam his fist down and say, ‘I need black plates for my scallop dinner because it’s not popping on these white plates.’ And I would always say, ‘No, no, no,’ because I’m controlling cost and I need to get the bottom line.

And somewhere along the line I realized, you know what, give some of these creative guys what they want and nurture their creativity and kind of make the path easy for them to be crazy, but within the boundaries that could still be normal. But don’t just hammer them down and try to make everyone easy to manage. I found that it was fun hiring difficult people to manage if they had a lot to give. And I was able to manage them enough to keep them within big lines so they didn’t go outside those lines. And I found that’s how I was able to really take advantage of people that other people wouldn’t want. Because they said they’re trouble, they’re difficult. And so I’d look for people with great creativity and then give them enough space where they could have lots of fun and keep them from going outside the lines where it becomes a problem. It doesn’t always work. So that was the, that’s how I got associated with great creativity projects. And because I brought a lot of that and still do. And people sitting next to me, they do that. That’s part of my formula, managing difficult people that have a lot to offer.

SSR: So did you give him the black pates?

JS: Oh yeah. I bought 30 black plates, and he was right. You know, It added a lot. I learned to change and to become adaptable. But again to really look for that, those people that have that sparkle and have that passion and then figure out a way to let them have fun and really go crazy because that’s the stuff people remember, that’s the stuff that sets you apart. And I learned, watching Ian Schrager early on, that being just comfortable and pleasing is a  recipe for disaster. We want to be special, we want to be unique and that’s the way to get there.

SSR: So you were an assistant GM. What’s next? Where do you go? How do you keep moving up in this industry?

JS: So he moved on to run the Doral Telluride, which I’m an avid skier, so when he went out to Telluride I got to go a few times and see when that hotel was getting built and finally opened and I moved up into his position as the GM. And eventually I got to meet one of my other great, great mentors, Sant Chatwal, who’s the chairman of Dream Hotel Group, where I’ve worked for 26 years now. I know, another long story, and I’ll tell you very briefly, but I was brought up to run a hotel that was in receivership. So this was in 1993 when New York was going through real tough times and a receivership had hired Doral to run some properties that they were getting in receivership. And we found that as a way to make some money during very difficult times.

So my boss brought me up and said, ‘You’re going to be managing this crappy hotel on the Upper West Side.’ And he said, ‘It’s paying us good fees, and I need you to do it.’ And I said, ‘All right.’ So I was running this crappy hotel and a couple of months later, the receiver had another deal on 48th and Broadway. And so I went to meet the owner of that company with our chairman from Doral, and they said that his properties were going into receivership and the receiver was going to take over next week. And Doral was going to be the management company, and I was going to manage those two of these hotels. Again, mid 2-Star type stuff. And I wasn’t thrilled, but they were paying me a lot of money. I wasn’t thrilled with the way my career was going.

And then a week later I got a call from my chairman and he said, ‘Remember that guy? He was a Sikh Indian? And I said, ‘Yeah, that deal.’ And he said, ‘He didn’t go into receivership. He was able to stay the receivership and some investment from the UK.’ And I said, ‘He seemed like a great guy. I’m glad it worked out for him.’ Another two weeks go by and he called me again. He goes, ‘Remember the Sikh Indian?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘He wants to meet us.’ I said, ‘Oh good luck.’ And he goes, ‘Us. It’s you and me.’ And I said [to our chairman] ‘Sam, I don’t want to run more of these 2-Star properties, and he said, ‘Just come to the meeting.’ So I went to the meeting and he said, ‘I was able to avoid [the receivership], but I was really intrigued by your company and maybe you could do some consulting for my properties, but I want him to be my general manager.’ And he pointed to me and my chairman kicked me under the table. And he said, ‘I’ll double your salary, take this job on. It pays us a lot of fees.’ So we did it.

And that’s where I got to meet Mr. Chatwal. I worked with him for a couple of years and then Doral needed me back because I was taking over the whole Doral New York City portfolio. And Mr. Chatwal wished me great success. I went back over and a less than a year later, Starwood had bought a three of the Doral properties, including the Doral that became the first W in the world. And so I was managing a couple of Doral properties and I ended up working with Starwood for a couple of years. At Starwood, we were hotels 16 and 17 of the original portfolio. And when Starwood was about 750 hotels two years later it, I just had so many new people and one of my bosses, I don’t know that if he didn’t like me or didn’t like the quality of work, I had never experienced that ever in my life that I didn’t have a boss that like my quality of work, but I could tell he was just vying to getting people that he knew because a lot of Interstate guys were coming in and still I would at that point. And anyway, it was just not a comfortable situation.

And I was living in Manhattan and so I met Mr. Chatwal for lunch, which we would do occasionally. And he said, ‘How’s it going?’ And I said, ‘Not great.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you come back? I’ve got eight properties I’d love for you to be the VP and run the whole thing.’ And sure enough I ended up back with him and a year later we talked about doing the Time Hotel, our first lifestyle hotel. In ’97, we bought it and started renovating it with Adam Tihany and did the Time, one of the first great lifestyle hotels other than Ian and other than what Bill Kimpton was doing on the West Coast. The Time was really one of the first boutique lifestyle hotels in the world. And we were on the cover of the Sunday [New York] Times magazine, The London Times Magazine, the LA Sunday magazine section. All within a month we were on three of those covers. It was amazing the attention we were getting. That’s, that’s how we did it.

SSR: And just to go back a little bit, was Doral a lifestyle at all or was this something new for you to try out?

JS: So I wouldn’t say it was the lifestyle, the way I think of it today. But it was a boutique-y, and they had smart designers that they were working with. And we did have some great food and beverage. It was kind of on the edge of thinking about that and kind of developing into that. But we were right down the block from Morgans. It’s two blocks from where the Doral was. So I was going to eat in Asia de Cuba and what was going on with Morgans at that point. And I was just so excited by seeing what was happening. And there was nothing else. I’d never seen anything like it.

So then Mr. Chatwal son, Vikram, was really in tuned to that type of thing. So he went to his dad said I want to do a real boutique hotel. And his dad came to me and said, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Chatwal, I think it’s going to be phenomenal.’ Vikram is really in tune with this stuff and I understand it. And I think Ian Schrager is onto something for sure. And sure enough, 25 years later, everybody thinks they’re doing lifestyle hotels.

SSR: We’ll get to that in a second. So the Time, what do you think was so great about it that got you all this coverage? What do you think resonated with people, with the media?

JS: So we took that philosophy and I tried to copy a lot of what Ian was doing except I had come from Hilton International. I had come from great hospitality service. And the one thing I didn’t think Ian was doing really well was the service side, but it worked for him. He would hire actors and models and people that didn’t feel comfortable. And I understood it. I stood on many a velvet rope and didn’t get in many times. But for our side I wanted to make it New York and really sophisticated, but add a real hospitality’s edge to it. But in a sophisticated manner, not in a folksy, ‘Hi, I’m Mike. I’m going to be your server.’ You know, in fact, I wouldn’t do name badges. And that was like the norm. You had to have a name badge if you worked in hotel.

But we just did a symbol and it was kind of a red square and that was the symbol of the Time hotel. So you know, you would see all these people walking around with these little red enamel pins and you knew they were employees. We did the great lobby bar. So the concept was when you come upstairs, because the restaurant was on the first floor and we had like the spaceship elevator that took you to the second floor. And when you come out there was the front desk. But if you looked over your shoulder, there was this unbelievable lobby lounge packed with great looking servers, great looking New Yorkers. It was just the hottest little club in there. And so people would walk in and say, could you just take my check my bag? And they would go into the bar and wouldn’t even check into the hotel yet. And they just loved the scene. That was the magic. If you could tell somebody, ‘Oh I’m coming in New York.’ And then they say, ‘Oh, I want to take you to this great bar,’ and it’s the bar that they’re staying at in that hotel. That was always the concept. How do we pull that off?

SSR: And so from the Time, where did you go from there? Was Dream next?

JS: The Time opened ’99. We opened the Ava Lounge, which was the first real velvet rope club rooftop bar in the world. There were rooftop bars, but they were really for hotel guests and they weren’t really marketed to the community and they certainly weren’t nightclubs with velvet ropes with a line around the block kind of thing. And we opened up the Ava Lounge in 2003. And then in 2004, the first Dream opened up in the same building. We opened the lounge first and we were renovating the hotel at that point. But yeah, someone will write a book on rooftop bars and they’ll research it and they’ll realize that we really did start the craze. And fast forward, you can’t build a hotel in Boise without a rooftop bar or anywhere in the globe. It’s just the norm now.

SSR: And was that intentional or did  you have this rooftop that you could do something with while you were renovating?

JS: Oh, no. It was intentional. We just thought, it wasn’t all me but I was part of it, that how cool would it be to have drinks up here and overlook Times Square and we  saw what was going on at the Peninsula, which was just for hotel guests and we just said, ‘Let’s do this on steroids and blow it out.’ And so it worked.

SSR: So you got into that velvet rope?

JS: At that point I was getting in. Like I said, I tell a lot of people, I waited 10 times to get into Studio [54]. Never once during the heyday, never once got in. And then I was a street kid from Queens in jeans, and I wasn’t a disco guy and I didn’t belong there. I shouldn’t have gotten in it and didn’t get in. And then we heard there was a new punk club opening up down on White Street called the Mudd Club. And that was more like a Roxy. We went on opening night and it was a great vibe and cool DJ spinning music that I really liked. And then we went almost every night. And about a month later we go on a Saturday night and it’s 200 people trying to get in. They all look like they’re from Studio, and I looked at my friend and said, ‘We’re done, we’re never getting in again.’ And the doorman kind of looked over and said, ‘Guys,’ because he had known us coming from all and he said, ‘Come on up,’ and gave us some drink passes. And then I had this in, finally with the doorman, and then it became AM-PM, and Area and Danceteria, and then Inferno, and then I became part of the scene.

SSR: What was the idea behind the Dream? What did you want to create? And where are you guys intending on creating a brand? Or was this just going to be a one off, see how it goes?

JS: Yeah, so they were all one offs, and that was the concept. Let’s do great keep lifestyle hotels come up with great designs and great food and beverage elements. So now there was no plan to do it as a Dream. And if there was, we never would’ve picked that name. I think it’s a great name, but you can’t trademark it. And it’s very difficult to trademark. We got a trademark in the States and selectively globally in certain areas, but it’s very difficult. So that’s why you see most people that pick brands spell it wrong or spell it differently. So it’s easy to trademark. But I wasn’t that smart back then. And so no, that wasn’t the plan. It was to just keep doing what we’re doing, doing these great hotels that, at that point they weren’t called lifestyle, they were called boutique hotels. I kind of say it’s like pornography, you know it when you see it.

People ask me to describe what is a boutique or a lifestyle hotel and you know, we were good at it. We knew the food and beverage was important. We knew that the community, using the facilities, was important and to this day that has, that formula hasn’t changed and it’s still what we do.

SSR: Well, it’s kind of interesting how you said, when you started out F&B, it was 2 percent, and now, I mean F&B, maybe you could talk a little bit about how important it is and how much that drives [revenue], especially at Dream.

JS: It’s still hard. Just because we’ve done it and we’ve done it in some cases really well and big numbers and we’ve partnered with some of the best and you know, working with the TAO Group and with Serafina and Geoffrey Zakarian and Todd English. But it doesn’t make it easier. The hotel side is selling the room side, running your fair share of occupancy is much easier than F&B. Ask Danny Meyer, not every Danny Meyer restaurant has worked, most of them have, but they don’t all work. And every Marriott hotel that ever opened worked. It ran its fair share of occupancy and then every hotel that we’ve ever opened. We’ll run our fair share of occupancy and get a good rate. It’s not easy, but it’s easier than the food and beverage.

So there’s no easy formula that makes it work every time. Just dropping in something that works somewhere else doesn’t work necessarily either. So we don’t do that. We like to look at food and beverage unique for every property we’re doing. Everybody says, we want to be authentic, we want to be local and all that, but we know that that doesn’t have to be local by doing just local cuisine. You could do a great Mexican restaurant in Seattle. I don’t believe that it has to be Seattle food in Seattle and that kind of thing. But it does need to work. It does need to be something that the local people in that area are excited about. And it has to last. To be hot for six months and then be nothing two years later is a disaster. Or you need to be nimble and change it. You’re not changing your hotel every two years for the food and beverages is hard. And it’s an important factor. So we’re still figuring out the ways to hedge our bets and to it well, do it fun, do it exciting. But trying to minimize the downside that could be on food and beverage. It’s tough.

SSR: Is there one that you think you’ve done really, really well that you look at and say, ‘Wow, you did this right?’

JS: Obviously Dream Hollywood and Dream Downtown. I think we’re both done really right now. Those were partnerships with TAO Group. Nashville, we just opened and we’re doing all seven of the venues by ourself in that one. And a number of them are doing really well. They’re not all doing really well, but it’s too early to change. We still have time to change it around and get it the way we want it to be. But I think Nashville is a phenomenal product. I think the Unscripted in Durham, though some of the food and beverages leased out to some local operators, we just run this little cool kind of seasonal rooftop pool scenario and then kind of this hipster lobby thing that just does small plates, but it’s great.

We do amazing revenues in those areas. I think we did it all ourselves, created it all. So that one was I think very rewarding. And we have a lot more coming up with a lot of food and beverage. And again, we don’t have to do it all ourselves. We’re doing more of it ourselves as time goes on. I always say what’s the solution that’ll get that hotel to be the most fun, exciting hotel in its particular market? Not just grow concepts that we want to just drop them in.

SSR: And why did you decide to take it in house? What was the reasoning behind that?

JS: Because we felt that we could do it. And there is good money to make on it. We brought in some amazing talent and some guys out of sbe, some that have been at a Hillstone’s, we brought some talent out of TAO Group. And we are building up our team. We love the Hillstone’s concept. We love that straight down the middle, great quality, just good food that’s not special occasion kind of stuff. So that’s kind of our philosophy of our food on the food and beverage side. And on the beverage that that’s ever changing. What bottle service was doesn’t work necessarily in every market and even where it still works, it was Champagne two, three years ago and so you only got five glasses out of a bottle for $400. It was unbelievable profits. Now it’s tequila and you’re getting 15 glasses out of a bottle, so it’s not as profitable, but it’s ever-changing.

SSR: So you’ve mentioned a couple of brands, Dream, Unscripted, Time, and Chatwal. Can you kind of give a sense of where they fit in the market and how they differentiate?

JS: In my mind, they are all Dream. Chatwal is the luxury 5-Star version of a great lifestyle hotel with great food and beverage working for the community again but at a very high level and high price point. Dream is Dream. Time is the same as Dream. It just doesn’t have to have as much food and beverage. I’m fine with one great bar in one great restaurant where Dream needed more. And a higher energy nightlife component where Time didn’t have to have that high energy nightlife component.

And Unscripted, again, another version of Dream. It could be upscale as opposed to upper up on the positioning. But it also works well in secondary locations where Dream and Chatwal really should be in the primary markets. So that’s kind of a real quick down and dirty of how I see it. I fight with my team sometimes on that description. They’re all trying to get much more involved in and we need better descriptions and the brands need to be separated more. In my mind, they’re all great lifestyle hotels. And the distinction that I just gave you gives us the ability to go to more places and talk to more developers because we have a product that will work.

SSR: And talk to me about the lifestyle segment today. Do you think it’s too saturated? Does anyone really know what lifestyle is? I mean, you live and breathe this world, what are the challenges and opportunities?

JS: I really don’t think that there are lifestyle hotels or it’s the opposite. They’re all lifestyle hotels because they always should have been that. We should never have gotten into what we did in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. And we stopped by the ’90s, but other companies kept going for awhile. And thought that just, you know, a design that was not offensive to anybody and food that was good for everybody staying in the hotel, that they can get an omelet and a soup and a salad and whatever, that, that was really the right thing to do. And the industry realized it’s not because so many of these great lifestyle hotels was where people wanted to stay.

To your point, I think every hotel should be a lifestyle hotel. And now every brand is trying to act like they are. They all want a living room feel. They all want a residential design aspects. They all want great coffee and a great beverage and take advantage of the things they do well locally. And I applaud it. I’m not frustrated by it. I don’t think they’re copying in a bad way. I think they just realized, this is what we should be. This is what our industry should be. And I’m proud of the industry for realizing that and going that way. And I think when you stay in, and I’m not knocking any, even a 1-Star, but a smart new 1-Star brand, they know they need good coffee, they need good beverages, and the little food that they serve should be good quality. And no one’s going to accept crap. And so I applaud the industry for that.

But I think what I call lifestyle hotel or what we’re doing is different. Everybody says we care about the neighborhood because that’s what you’re supposed to say. But we really build our concepts for the community. And I don’t care if the hotel guests likes them because they’re not my main concern for my restaurants. If they could get a place for breakfast and a cocktail, pretty much they’re good. They don’t really need anything else in my hotel. Now when they come downstairs and see it packed with goodlooking locals having fun, I never see them upset and go, ‘What kind of hotel is this that has all these goodlooking locals having fun in it?’ So we really embraced that full on that we’re building it for the community. And then the hotel guests follows, and it works out fine. So I don’t think a lot of other big brands and smaller brands really embrace that to the same level. And we’ve been doing it long. We’ve been doing it since ’97 and most people have been doing it for two years or three years.

SSR: And how do you embrace that local community? Not to share all your secrets, but how do you go into a market and really understand it and create something that you think will resonate with them?

JS: So it’s hard work. It’s science. We go in and we study. We use sometimes outside sources that know markets better than we do. And then we spend time with them, and we take a few trips and we spend a good amount of time really understanding the marketplace, what’s there, what’s working, what’s not there that could be working, what do we have that may work well here and who’s killing it locally that maybe we would partner with. That’s a lot of things to look at and then decide. And it takes us, if we do it really quickly, maybe three or four months. So when we do proformas for new prospective developers, it’s really a placeholder. We don’t know the answers yet unless it’s a market we know well and so that’s really the hard work that goes into it.

And some of it is a taking a chance and hopefully getting lucky that what you thought would work, people are excited about. And then comes to hard work, breathing the life into it, hiring the right people and training them and then doing a great menu that has great quality food like we’re talking about that locals are going to say, ‘I love that place. I love it for lunch. I love it for brunch. I love it. I eat there two, three times a week.’ That kind of feeling that it’s not just great for a special occasion or there’s a couple of really cool appetizers, but the rest is just boring. And if it’s boring, it may sound boring, but at least when it gets to your plate, it’s like, ‘wow, that was the greatest meatloaf I’ve ever had.’ Or, you know, amazing chicken parm. That was phenomenal. How they did it. So anything we’re going to put out there, we want it to be really special. Every item on the menu should be special. The butters should be special. Everything that we serve, thought goes behind it.

SSR: Right. And that applies to design as well?

JS: A hundred percent.

SSR: And how do you look for the right collaborators? What do you think makes for a successful collaboration between a designer and brand like yours? What would you suggest to a designer listening to this that they should think about?

JS: We have been a real creature of habit, not so much because we’re lazy. And not so much because they gave us a great, because they charge us a ton of money and sometimes we are paying more than we probably would need to. But they do great work. People look at it and they say, ‘Oh, we could have done that. Oh, I could do that.’ But when I give you a blank piece of white paper and say give me your ideas, I guarantee you they’re not going to be the ideas that I got back from Rockwell’s team or Meyer Davis’ team, and the stuff that we’ve done.

We have done a couple of things that we didn’t love and maybe felt we got burnt on and that was a hard pill to swallow. think that’s been a big part of us kind of staying in our comfort zone with a lot of the same designers. But we have moved out a little bit and I’m sure because the deals are different that we have going forward, there’s going to be even more change. And I think for those kinds of people, if they wanted to talk to us, it would be to show us what you’ve done and not just in a pretty book, but for us to physically go and see some stuff that they really proud of. And really outside of the box kind of thinking. We’re not looking to just copy another concept that’s been there. My team uses a lot of the same words, they want to have different vignettes, they want to have discovery, and not show everything right at the start.

So that’s kind of what we like to see out of the presentations for ideas for our hotels. We love indoor and outdoor spaces and we love rooftops and we love pools and things that will look good, that’ll make it sexy and will make it fun. And new ways of thinking about that. Also, how people are changing. Health and wellness is a big deal. Healthy environments are a big deal.

I have certainly employed Barry Sternlicht and what he’s done with one 1 Hotels. Barry was head of Starwood when I was there with hotel 16 and 17.  I know Barry well, and he’s always been brilliant. And it’s little things that he just says, I’m going to hang my hat on this or that. And now it’s an industry trend. How can you do that more than once and be able to pull that off? And that’s when somebody is a genius and just have great respect for that. So we try to find some of those things and find collaborators that may help us in those areas.

SSR: And you said that you guys will be a little bit different. Can you talk about what that means?

JS: Some are smaller, some are in not the big bicoastal cities. So the deals are changing. And I think the size of some of the Dream products may not be as big as as they were in some of those cities. So we just announced Memphis. We’re excited about that. It’ll be a little smaller footprint than some of the other Dream properties. But still great food and beverage. And so we haven’t picked a design firm there yet. And I think it may be different than just our comfort zone as we move into these kind of more unique Americana, great cities.

SSR: So you mentioned Memphis, you’re in Durham and Nashville. What else is in the pipeline?

JS: So Palm Springs is under development. Dallas, Atlanta. We have four deals in Mexico. Two projects, a Chatwal and Dream. And in San Miguel de Allende, the greatest city in the world, we have an amazing Chatwal project. And then in a Tulum, not on the water in Tulum, back about a mile or so toward the town, is an Unscripted. So we love Mexico. We’re also looking very intently in Mexico City, which we think would be a bit of a gamechanger for us. We’re not ready to announce it yet, but that’s a deal that we’re working on.

SSR: And you’re also expanding Chatwal into a lodge concept in north New York.

JS: In Bethel. And that will be a small project probably start with 25, 30 luxury villas that go around this beautiful lake up in Bethel, New York. That’ll feed back into a 15,000-square-foot main building where we’ll have our food and beverage and reception. And it’s chance to do something very high end, 5-Star less than a two hour drive from Manhattan. You could go up and in jeans, hopefully turn your phone off and spend two days walking in the wilderness and taking a kayak and staying in this beautiful villa that just looking over this gorgeous lake, whether it be frozen in the winter or just gorgeous blue water in the summer. There’s trout fishing up there. We see families going up there and the mom and daughter going out and doing an overnight hike and our team setting up a campsite for them, and doing stargazing walks and really doing what nature offers and not building too much more than that. There’ll be an a little equestrian element to it as well, and foraging and learning what foods you can eat from the woods but doneat a really high level. And so that’s the Chatwal lodge concept.

SSR: If you need any testers, just let me know. And everyone talks about experiential travel and creating these amazing experiences and this sounds like it will definitely fit in that bucket. Is that something you see the brand trying more? Not that not every hotel is an amazing experience, but taking it to the next level, like a lodge concept. Can you see yourselves looking into that?

JS: Yeah, and people want that, you know, people look for those kinds of places. That’s why I think Aman, when you think of where are they are and there’s no other hotel near it. And I’m intrigued by that. That’s the kind of stuff I would love to do. You’re hiking and you end up in place and you go, ‘This is gorgeous, and is there a way to stay there.’ That’s why I think some of the glamping is really cool. Or to build these kinds of wilderness lodges. And they were there 100 years ago in the Adirondacks. People still lived in cities, but they went up to these places and you know, there are some great concepts, so I think this is just piggybacking on that. As much as we change and we’re so tech savvy, people are still people and you get blown away by nature and you get overwhelmed by the beauty. We still look for us serenity at times and I don’t think we’ve changed all that much. I know people say, you know, kids today, they don’t talk, they just used their phones. I don’t believe any of that. I think it’s technology in it. Sometimes it takes a bigger position than maybe it should, but I really don’t think people have changed all that much. And so we try to tap into emotion and keep people excited about living and meeting people and ending up in places they’re excited to be in.

SSR: And coming from your background as a CEO, you have a very interesting perspective coming up on the management side. Is there something to that you stress your team and to let it trickle down to make sure that these experiences happen no matter where you are?

JS: So that was kind of our early philosophy was people would come to our fun hotels in great locations and they wouldn’t be locals. And how do we get them to feel like locals like in an hour or two, you know, so we would strive to make sure we could give them information about a great restaurant that just got written up last week that I can get you a table at tonight, or this really cool boutique on Avenue A, or just being comfortable to take the subway. You know, don’t, don’t take an Uber. Just go, walk to that corner, go down, here’s a metro card, slide it through that thing and just look for this green sign, get on it and get off at that stop, walk up. There’s going to be the museum that you’re looking for.

And they come back at the end of the day and they’re all excited. And we try to get them to feel like New Yorkers or people in Hollywood or whatever it may be. And so we know the market well enough. We know the things that are going on that night, that week that are special and that they may not be aware of. And then try and make it easy for them to to get assimilated and then end up in the right place for that night of the week. And there’s nothing better than having 48 hours somewhere and saying, ‘God, I felt like I belonged. It was fantastic.’

SSR: And looking back at your illustrious career, has there been one greatest piece of advice or your best lesson that you still take with you or incorporate throughout your day to day?

JS: My dad was a cab driver here in New York City and he just said, ‘Son, respect everybody.’ That was always my philosophy, and I used it as a little kid. And I gave everybody to the time of day and would listen. I learned very early on that there were two sides to every story. And often I was the manager or the department head or the GM or the CEO, or whatever it is. I would know that sometimes I didn’t listen or listen carefully enough to the other side and really try to understand what happened. I would be embarrassed, maybe I wouldn’t admit it to everyone, but I was embarrassed to myself and learned a lot of those lessons.

Showing respect to everyone, it’s so much easier to get the respect back. If you don’t show the respect and give it up front, there’s a good chance you won’t get it back and then your job is just so difficult to pull it off, especially when you have of  thousands now employees and low-skilled employees and people from all over the world that don’t speak the same language. I was always amazed at how many managers thought people weren’t bright because English wasn’t their first language. Just because they have an accent doesn’t mean they’re stupid. And so I got very comfortable with working with different kinds of people and showing them respect and then they’re willing to work really hard and feel like they were part of the team. They weren’t just told you have to do this otherwise you won’t get paid. You know they felt like they had something at stake, so that was big part of it.

SSR: We always say here that you learn more from a mistake than a success. Did you ever have an early mistake that you look back and be like, ‘I’ll never do that again?’

JS: Yes. I just mentioned one, right? Like not listening or not hearing both sides of the story and then being proven wrong and being completely embarrassed, being the manager or whatever I was. That was one of the big ones. I remember looking in the mirror and then having a conversation with myself and saying that was so bad, so rude to do that. So that was something that paid big dividends later on in life for me. But lots of mistakes, not only in business but also in life. I bought real estate at a young age that my dad had advised me not to do. And I bought this condo in Jersey City and I lost my shirt on it and ended up selling it for probably 40 cents on the dollar or something. But it turned out to be the best thing I ever did because I hated doing that, but it taught me so much about all my next moves. That that $60,000 that I threw in the garbage that I could not afford to at that point in my life probably saved me a couple of million dollars later on because I had learned that lesson of not just being so anxious cause I just want to do it. And so that taught me to slow down, think more, look at it, be careful, talk to more people. And even though I tell my dad, ‘You were definitely right on that, but I’m glad I didn’t listen to you.’ I learned a huge lesson in life on that.

SSR: So are they proud of you now?

JS: Yeah. Very proud. My dad passed away a couple of years ago. My mom’s still doing great. Great relationship with them, and my sisters. We don’t fight a lot as a family and we always got along very well, even though my parents had gotten divorced. But the family was still a family.

SSR: Do they ever come watch you play?

JS: Play what, Stacy?

SSR: Play guitar. Can we talk a little bit about your extracurriculars?

JS: Yeah, they both used to come. My dad used to come a lot cause we would play at at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, and my dad was a gambler. That’s why they got divorced in part. And so whenever we play there, he’d love to just go and I knew some of the hotel guys there and I’d get him a nice suite, and he felt like, ‘Oh, my son was in the band and I’m staying at a suite.’ And he used to come a lot and see us play. And my mom came up a bunch of times as well, and still does.

SSR: And playing as a band is that one of your creative outlets?

JS: One hundred percent. I was not a natural talent at music. I just had a great passion for it. I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan that February in 1964 and was just blown away by it. And again did not have any natural talent for it. So it took a really long time. I didn’t have lessons. I just stuck with it. And many, many years later, my mom would say to me, ‘When did you learn actually how to play the guitar? All I heard was noise for so many years.’ But that passion paid off over time. It’s a great thing to have. At the end of the night instead of sitting down and reading books, I go and play music and I even love to go to rehearsals.

There’s something really unique about playing in a band because to have five people, whatever the number is, all doing different parts and it’s sounding like one thing, it requires real teamwork anda bit of expertise and passion and, you know, the ability to get along. You know it’s not always easy, all these different personalities. But when it works and it’s almost like it becomes one sound, even though there are five different things going on, and we feel it when it’s really working and it’s almost like you could take your hands off the strings and they just ring and it’s just perfect. I love that. I love that feeling of making music, not just listening to it. That’s what I love about music. You know, with art, you’re painting it and people aren’t watching you paint per se, and then you have it and it’s done and you look at it. But music,  you could listen to it but could also make it live. And so it’s a great creative release for me for sure.

SSR: Almost like a hotel, you know a good one when you feel it.

JS: I loved great pop songs. I would always pride myself on being able to hear a song and know that that is going to be a huge hit the first time I heard it. And I think there must be at least six times I would say to my wife the first time I hear it. So that’s going to be song of the year without a doubt. And usually I’d be right.

SSR: Well, thank you so much for being here. I’ll have to come and watch you play one day. But it was such a pleasure as always.


SSR: Yeah, Plain Jane.

JS: Actually, it’s, but it’s really

SSR: Thank you so much, Jay.

JS: Thanks, Stacy. Great to see you as always.

SSR: You too.