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Q&A: Ian Schrager Believes Luxury Isn’t Just for Rich People Anymore

The hospitality innovator weighs in on the future of hotels.

Delano South Beach Photo: Delano South Beach

Ian Schrager is rarely indifferent. The founder of the legendary nightclub Studio 54 and the mastermind behind some of hospitality’s most enduring hotels has reinvented his industry enough times to know that trends are fleeting—and rules were meant to be broken. Now, 34 years after opening his first hotel, the godfather of hospitality is taking a look at the changing face of luxury travel. Robb Report sat down with the innovator to find out how the modern hotel was born—and where its founder will take it in the future.

What did a luxury hotel look like when you opened the Morgans Hotel in 1984?

At that point in time, everything in the market was generic and institutional. You couldn’t tell the difference between one luxury brand and another. But the Morgans changed everything. It made sameness a vice and distinctiveness a virtue. It raised the notion that a hotel was more than just a place to sleep.

You invented the boutique hotel concept with the Morgans. What was the impetus for that?

Morgans was a very personal expression of what I myself wanted. There was no hotel that resonated with me at that time. There was nothing out there that manifested my popular culture, that told me the world was responsive to what was important to me.

Ian Schrager

The famous hotelier, Ian Schrager  Photo: Chad Batka

You were also among the first hoteliers to partner with leading designers and artists.

Back then, the industry was a barren wasteland when it came to design. I thought it was worth the risk to work with a talented person—regardless of whether they had hotel experience or not—to create a unique and individual product. I thought if you were willing to underwrite that risk, you had a possibility for creating something unique. And it paid off.

Gramercy Park Hotel

Bold interiors at the Gramercy Park Hotel  Photo: Gramercy Park Hotel

How has the concept of a five-star hotel changed in the last 30 years?

When luxury first began to evolve, it was restricted only to the richest people. But now, everyone understands the concept of luxury, no matter where they come from or even how much money they have. I think that luxury is permeating every level of the industry. It’s not just reserved for five-star hotels anymore. In order to survive, every hotel is going to have to provide a “luxury” experience.

Shore Club

Inside the Shore Club  Photo: Shore Club

What is driving the hospitality industry today?

Technology. Because of technology and social media, everybody has the possibility of creating their own magazine and their own media. And that has changed everything.

For instance, when I was in the nightclub business, there weren’t any cell phones; if there were, a lot of things that went on wouldn’t have been able to go on! It stifled the party and the festivities. Today, cell phones have a tremendous impact on the way we meet people and how we communicate and how we run our lives. You have to be a social scientist in the hospitality business in order to engage people.

Does that mean hotels should be focusing more on connecting with their guests via social media and technology?

You don’t have to make something Instagrammable to create a hotel. That’s the tail wagging the dog. You have to create a great product. If you’re creating a great product, you’ll have great success. You have special effects in a movie but if the story is bad, you don’t have a good movie. It’s the same thing. You have to have a good story.

Morgans Hotel

Foyer at Morgans Hotel  Photo: Morgans Hotel

A lot of hospitality brands are going to great lengths to target millennials. Is it necessary to create a hotel for a specific demographic?

I don’t believe in age demographics, and I don’t believe in doing hotels for millennials. I believe in psychographics and appealing to a person’s sensibility. I’m 71, and I make hotels that I would like to go to. There is no difference between somebody young and somebody old. It’s in their brain and soul.

Public, Chicago

Refined interiors at the Public Hotel in Chicago  Photo: Public

How is your newest hospitality brand, the Public, redefining luxury travel?

We’ve gotten rid of the outdated and old-fashioned notions of luxury. I believe people can see through those frivolous gestures. Modern travelers don’t care about having a bellman with golden epaulets and white gloves—their suitcases are on wheels! And they don’t want to wait 45 minutes for their room-service coffee to come in the finest bone china and sterling silver. They want it good, and they want it fast. Real luxury is appealing to a person’s sensibility—and that’s what the Public does.

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