Starwood's Paul James talks about St. Regis’ sparkly new spa concept, crafting indigenous experiences, and paying homage to Peggy Guggenheim.
By Stacy Shoemaker Rauen
Paul James is a man on a growth mission. As the global brand leader for Starwood’s St. Regis and Luxury Collection brands, by 2015, he plans to expand the St. Regis portfolio from 28 to 40, and grow the Luxury Collection from 84 to 90, in places as diverse as Chengdu, Amman, Chile, and Kuala Lumpur. At the same time, he’s renovating existing locations and pushing the brands’ design boundaries to appeal to a new generation of global travelers. Here, James talks about St. Regis’ sparkly new spa concept, crafting indigenous experiences, and paying homage to Peggy Guggenheim.
HD: Why expand and renovate the Luxury Collection now?
PJ: We sat down a couple of years ago saying we have this whole portfolio of amazing legacy hotels, and we really need a refreshed way of thinking about renovations. As an organization we have such a rich understanding of design, and the skill of our designs need to affect that transition so these hotels are relevant. We started in Venice with the Gritti Palace. It’s one of those legendary hotels, but now it needs a whole lot of things to happen if it’s to maintain position.
HD: Such as?
PJ: We wanted to uncover the point of view of the Gritti, to restore this iconic hotel [re-opening in 2013]. The building was the last Gothic palace in Venice, so architecturally it’s very important. The Pisani Family built it in, we think, around 1620. When the family sold it in the nineteenth century it became the Grand Hotel and in 1946 was turned into the Gritti Palace. It is phenomenal because the check-in book has Cary Grant, Hitchcock, Hemingway, Grace Kelly, all the way to the Beatles, David Bowie, Mick Jagger; Peggy Guggenheim lived there while they were developing the Guggenheim Museum.
We did focus groups with former staff and guests, current guests, and potential future guests and included their direction into the design process. Every piece of furniture was photographed, analyzed, reviewed, audited, evaluated. We discovered there’s a wooden floor in the restaurant. We looked at it and said it was probably a twentieth century addition. The archeologists come along, tap it, and go, ‘Hmmm, fifteenth century.’ Each suite has its own inspiration based on the history of the hotel and of Venice. [For instance] we have a Peggy Guggenheim suite with pictures and paintings from her stay and guests get VIP access to the Guggenheim Museum.
We’re talking about indigenous experiences. You should never wake up in a luxury hotel and not know where you are. We have a new-built boutique hotel, Twelve at Hengshan, opening in Shanghai [in August], designed by Yabu Pushelberg, who did the first contemporary St. Regis in San Francisco, then Mexico City, and the third part of that trilogy is [the recently opened] Bal Harbour. Twelve is in the more diplomatic and fashion-y, boutique-y kind of area. It’s a very modern, small, luxury boutique hotel. It’s a glass box where everything happens inside, but it features clay. A hotel should really understand where it comes from—then it can be as contemporary as you like if you’re using that as part of the creative energy.
HD: Can you tell us more about the former Grand Hotel in Florence?
PJ: It had kind of lost its way amid all these trendy boutique hotels and classic renovations. We made a very big decision that we would turn it into a St. Regis, and bring in all of the St. Regis design elements—the grand staircases, the murals, the libraries, the butlers.
One of the things we said is when you’re in Florence you’re probably going out to enjoy the restaurants, so let’s lose the formal restaurant. The hotel lacked a comfortable lobby. So we created an area with a library, a sit-down reception desk, a terrace by the river, and guests can have any of the food and beverage anywhere. It’s the hub of the hotel. We’ve completely restored the old Winter Garden to become a restaurant-bar space, again with that same fluidity; not a formal restaurant, but high chairs, low chairs, quiet areas, social areas with the flexibility of a menu so you can have really high-end food or something more casual. That approach went through the bedrooms, the corridors, and the whole hotel is, of the two styles of city hotels that we do with St. Regis—very contemporary, pared back, and minimalist or traditional and layered like the original New York property—a conversion in that rich traditional style.
HD: Speaking of the contemporary St. Regis hotels, why was it time to steer the brand that way?
PJ: Our customers were telling us. We used San Francisco as a test. Would the traditional customer follow us if we went contemporary? The butler service, the quality of the dining, and the uncompromising quality of the construction were recognized and they clearly understood.
When we sat down and had the design strategic discussion about the brand, we came up with [four] concepts. Metropolitan Manor is about those traditional city hotel spaces where luxury is excessive and multilayered. We can contemporize it with colors, in fabric choices, and we can offset using interesting ways to lighten it. Glass House is the urban penthouse apartment—pared back, minimalistic, discreet technology, with lots of light. Journey’s End is the trans-season weekend escape. It’s my Long Island retreat in the sense that I can use it winter and summer for different purposes in different ways. Castaway becomes the new long, hot, exotic summer destination. So there are four clear genres. The designers can really work with that so those people that know the brand suddenly start to identify these touch points which give that sense of common ownership—the library, art collection, wine room, bed—even though the buildings can be very, very different.
HD: Another new initiative is your Iridium Spa concept.
PJ: It was designed from the ground up as a St. Regis product. It’s not with a dedicated product vendor or spa consultancy firm. It’s an approach that says the one thing that we know about all of our customers is that they lack time so we want to find ways in which we give them time and privacy. You don’t book a Swedish massage, you just book an hour and have a conversation about not only what you’re trying to achieve from that particular therapy, but also about what you are doing after. Then they take you to your suite so you don’t have that nasty shared shower experience, and that’s where your sauna and steam room are. In the resorts they tend to open out onto a garden because the Iridium concept centers around the Iridium room: the central social area. As we start to do the urban ones, and in the cold resorts, that room will actually be a design feature in the center of the suites so that, again, you will have a living space. We took the idea that iridium is highly shiny, based on the iris. There’s a pattern of rainbow and butterfly wing colors that are in the metal, so the qualities of the metal inform the design of the public areas of that spa—you’ll see shiny, glittery, butterfly wings and iris flowers.
HD: It seems that luxury today is creating that personal connection for each guest. Is that what this spa concept is based on?
PJ: That’s exactly what this is about. Everything we try to do revolves around giving you an individual experience. It’s the heritage of the brand. Butlers have been there from the very beginning, initially with their little notebooks. Every time you come back they know what side of the bed you sleep on and what kind of tea you like.
HD: More than ever, brands need to respond to how new generations travel.
PJ: I was in Jaipur and we were converting what used to be a Sheraton into a Luxury Collection. It was designed originally twenty years ago around this idea of a wealthy Northern Indian merchant’s house. There was a business center and the only reason people went to it were to photocopy and fax. Now that whole area has been blown out to become a quiet zone with books, a couple of laptops that are discreet and out of the way; it becomes a space where you might want to spend time. It’s recognizing that work doesn’t stop anymore, but also play doesn’t stop anymore. This is not a resort or a business hotel. This is a hotel that looks after international travelers who do both things at the same time. It’s at the heart of, ‘How do we make what you need happen for you?’
Paul James photo courtesy of Yomiuri Shimbun