Q&A: Ace Hotel President Brad Wilson
13 MARCH 2015 7:34 AM
Executives at Ace Hotel don’t scout for new locations with mountains of data and due diligence. They go by gut instinct and word of mouth. That’s one of their secrets to success, the brand’s president said.
BERLIN—Attend a conference panel on boutique or lifestyle hotels, and odds are panelists will reference Ace Hotel at least once during the conversation.
That’s not what the brand’s creators envisioned when they opened their first property in Seattle, said President Brad Wilson. The brand now counts seven properties with 1,058 rooms.
“Absolutely we did not ever think that anyone in the hotel industry would ever notice us,” he said.
But as additional openings followed—particularly those in New York City and Los Angeles—Ace Hotel emerged as the poster child for all things trendy and unique in the hotel industry.
During a break from the 18th International Hotel Investment Forum in Berlin, Wilson discussed the brand’s unlikely path to prestige, the secrets to that success and how gut feelings drive development more than analytics.
Hotel News Now: To what do you attribute the brand’s success thus far?
Brad Wilson: “In some sense (parent company) Atelier Ace is not so much a hotel company as it is a creative company. Hotels are one of our products. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s make a hotel brand.’ We made a brand, and that brand happens to run hotels. Probably in doing that we do things differently than the hotel industry. I guess we’re lucky enough that some of that has resonated and people have noticed.”
HNN: Ace hotels are located in a mix of primary and secondary markets. How do you choose locations for expansion?
Wilson: “We learn a lot from the people we work with. We learn a lot from people who say, ‘I know a person and they say this is going to be the next area. We should be in this city.’ We go there; we meet with people. That all fuels itself. A lot of our locations come from people who make suggestions about it being a cool place to go.”
HNN: Your next hotel is an adaptive reuse of an old YMCA in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, for instance.
Wilson: “(That location) kind of got forgotten by the city, but it’s an amazing part of Pittsburgh. It’s a city on the upturn and a very interesting city at its core. It’s a perfect Ace match.”
HNN: Global chains employ a variety of metrics and analytics tools in their due diligence process before planting a new flag. It seems your team relies largely on gut instinct.
Wilson: “We don’t sit around and calculate demographics and foot traffic on locations. We are an instinctive company. We feel things. We feel a location. The energy comes from that. We feed off the location, the neighborhood, the building, the community and the culture of the places we build. The things that we find inspiring to use become part of the project and part of that hotel. That’s why it also inspires community because it comes from the community.
“That’s why we go to places that people don’t normally go with hotels. We’re looking for the things in cities that are interesting and engaging. That’s more important to us than where people are currently. We try to lead people. We look for what we think is interesting. We think people will relate.”
HNN: How do you mitigate risks associated with that approach?
Wilson: “We have the luxury of the fact that our projects have been extremely successful. … That helps you get past the nerves of risk taking. I don’t think we’re ever all that confident. You’re always testing how you feel against likeminded people and if your thoughts are resonating with them. We’re testing much more with likeminded creatives and people in the city that feel the city and destination so that they can relate to what we’re trying to do. If they’re inspired by it, we just know it’s going to be working on the biggest scale.
“If you’re going for safe, I don’t know if Ace would be your first choice. There’s a balance between risk and return. We’ve made far above market returns.”