NEW YORK—Inspiration can come from the strangest places.
For Ian Schrager, hotel icon and inventor of the now-ubiquitous “boutique” hotel concept, he found it while perusing a local Apple store.
There was just something about the experience, he said—something about walking in and immediately being met by a “brand manager” who exudes passion for all things Apple.
“It’s almost part of a cult. That person does everything and anything necessary to make your shopping there easy, quick, informative and to make sure you’re treated well,” Schrager said. “When I saw that, I thought to myself, ‘Well what kind of service is that? Is that luxury service? Or is that some kind of uncategorized service?’”
And thus, the Public brand was born.
Defining a new segment … again
Schrager said the Public brand defines a new space within the crowded hotel industry that offers sophisticated travelers a luxury hotel experience at a limited-service price.
The hotels themselves, as exemplified by the first Public property which opened mid-October in Chicago, feature the same stylish aesthetic Schrager pioneered in 1984 at the Morgans Hotel in New York. But the fittings and fixtures come at a fraction of the cost.
“You’re not obliged to use very expensive finishes and details. As long as they come together and fit well, they can look very good and stylish,” he said.
Gone too are the oft-frivolous hallmarks of luxury service that many guests don’t want and many hoteliers don’t want to pay for. When a guest orders room service, Schrager offered as an example, she’s isn’t forced to choose between 40 items, only to endure a 45-minute wait and an overblown presentation upon deliver that includes white table cloths and silver cutlery.
At the Public Chicago, that same guest would choose between five gourmet-quality items that are delivered within seven minutes outside her door—at a price of US$8 to US$12.
“We’ve stripped it away and only put those things that were essential and really resonated and were important with people,” Schrager said. Call it anti-amenity creep, he added.
That approach makes running the Public brand a less cost-intensive affair for owners, who can then pass the savings on to guests. A standard room at the Public Chicago booked for the week of 31 October would cost US$135.
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That price point is well below Schrager’s old stomping grounds in the boutique segment. When asked about the evolution of that space, the hotel pioneer shared mixed emotions.
The stylish Pump Room exemplifies the Public brand’s high-end take on affordable F&B.
“We invented that word ‘boutique’,” he said. “When we started in the boutique space, it was the future of the business. … But the space got a little too crowded for me, and I wanted to move on. “
Just as each Public hotel will exude its own sense of design, so too will development vary from one hotel to the next.
“I’m completely opportunistic about that,” Schrager said. “We went out of the box. We can do a large inner-city hotel that has a thousand rooms, or we can do a lot smaller one with a lot fewer rooms.”
It all depends on the property and location and, of course, whether the numbers work, he said.
Target locations include major, "24-hour," international cities such as Los Angeles and Miami. Schrager's already purchased sites in both New York and London.
Schrager declined to reveal development costs for the hotels.
While the Public Chicago is owned by entities controlled by Schrager and iStar Financial and is operated by the Ian Schrager Company, the hotel veteran is up for alternative arrangements such as third-party management.
Schrager envisions 15 to 20 hotels within five years, though he anticipates some challenges along the way.
“It’s very difficult to get deals done in this environment,” he said. “The banks haven’t been moving. It’s just very difficult to get a transaction done. When an asset becomes available, it’s sort of very competitive.
Additionally, he said asset prices haven’t dropped in response to the economy, so good sites are few and far in between.
Having established a foothold below the boutique segment, Schrager said he’s eager to broaden his stance and move above it.
“We would love to do a luxury brand as well. I think there’s an opportunity on that end.”
For now, however, Schrager’s got enough on his plate with Public.
“All of the opportunities are coming into the Public space, and that space is wide open. There isn’t anything really original with the kind of exciting food-and-beverage concepts and the great service we provide and the exciting visuals. We’re going into that select-service space and providing luxury service but all at the same value.”