The W makes its mark

Updated: 2013-02-22 07:16

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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The W makes its mark

Employing a combination of color and unique design elements, the W Hotel has created a name for itself as one of the trendiest hotel brands in the past decade. Provided to China Daily

Guangzhou hotel is just the beginning of the chic brand's foray into China

When the first W Hotel opened its doors in New York in 1998, a new iconic, hip hotel brand that would revolutionize the industry was born.

Now, 13 years later, the stylish W, managed by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, has expanded to more than a dozen countries with 42 hotels in search of urban hipsters and cool travelers who adorn the "whatever, whenever" lifestyle the hotel boasts.

The year 2013 will mark the brand's first foray into the Chinese mainland. Four hotels are planned by 2017 and the brand is eying the nation's fashion-friendly middle class as it brings its unconventional design to South China.

The W's first footprint in China is about to begin and media calls are in full swing to build the inevitable buzz, but behind the deafening sound of drills, boxed furniture and cool shapes emerging from Guangzhou's newest district lies the story of a major US brand betting its future on changing landscapes in China's tourism market.

Aiming to challenge the notion of tourists whose hotel stay extends to just a few hours sleeping in the room, Arnaud Champenois, brand director for W Hotels in the Asia Pacific, says China is ready for a hotel experience where anything goes.

"We want to be a local hero," he says during a recent interview in the plastic wrapped lobby of the soon-to-be-finished Guangzhou property.

"That's why I'm obsessed with what's new and what's next, how the movers and shakers of Guangzhou operate, because I think we can create a close collaboration. And the closer we are to these emerging scenes the better experience we will deliver to our guests."

Protective about the financial details regarding their partnership with KWG Property Holdings, Guangzhou's largest property developer, the company would not offer specific investment figures for their launch in China.

But if previous sale prices of W hotels worldwide - which range between $125 million (93.6 million euros) and $330 million - can be used as a barometer, China is a multibillion yuan project for the luxury hotel brand.

With local tourism booming among Chinese travelers - reports show that $35 billion was spent on domestic travel during the seven-day Golden Week holiday in October 2012 - the investment is likely to pay off.

Aiming to repeat its success as an industry innovator, Liu Weili, vice-president of design and technical services for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Asia Pacific, says the design of every W hotel is heavily dictated by the local culture.

Guangzhou's theme has been titled "vibrant tapestry" and is a take on the city's reputation as a business hub and the Cantonese people's love of food, he says.

"This is mainly focused on Guangzhou's features as a vibrant hub of commerce business and people to people exchange."

The W makes its mark

The company did so in part by employing the minds of Hong Kong-based Rocco Design Architects Ltd to handle the interior design and internationally renowned Bill Bensley and Brian Sherman to handle landscape.

In anticipation for its hard launch in early March, the 317-room hotel opened its doors for the first time to provide a sneak peak of its new property on Jan 25.

Despite its unfinished interior, the building's unique architecture is already noticeable amid the heart of the city's Pearl River New Town, Guangzhou's new central business district.

Flanked by the Guangzhou Opera House and the Guangzhou Twin Towers, Champenois says location is important when embedding into the local culture.

Champenois, who has helped transform the brand's Taipei and Bali properties into hospitality success stories, says China presented a unique cultural challenge.

"Anywhere we go we have to make sure that we are respectful of local culture. In the US and other places, we are very hands on, very involved with customers," he says. "In China we have to be a bit more cautious and establish a respectful, but sometimes more distant relationship with the customer than we're used to."

Removing the fourth floor of the Guangzhou property - an unlucky number associated with death in Chinese culture - is one of the adaptations the brand has made for China.

The brand successfully adapted to local style when the W Hong Kong branch achieved a ranking on the coveted Conde Naste Gold List.

With seven bars and three high-end restaurants, the hotel aspires to be one of the city's social hotspots, attracting local residents as well as international travelers.

"With a cutting-edge design that embraces the past, present and future, combined with the W brand's passion for design, fashion and music, W Guangzhou will set a new scene within this trendy and buzzing district," says Brian Segrave, general manager of the W Guangzhou.

While locals and business travelers will look to the new hotel as a fresh spot to hang out, the brand's move into China is also a source of much sought-after high-end service jobs (and training) for hundreds of local residents.

The first location is expected to add several hundred jobs, contributing to Starwood's lofty goal of tripling its China-based staff from 20,000 to 90,000 by 2015.

The W's foray into the Chinese market comes as hotel chains around the world are gearing up to attract a fresh wave of Chinese tourists. One of several brands managed by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the W is part of a bigger expansion plan by the Connecticut-based hotel management company.

In late January, Starwood Hotels and Resorts announced the expansion of its Le Meridien brand with two new locations expected to open in the mainland within the next 12 months.

The Paris-based hotel brand, which currently has 100 properties in more than 40 countries, will expand into Zhengzhou in May and Qingdao in October.

They are just two of 100 properties in the pipeline for Starwood in China, which is the company's second largest market, topped only by the US.

Starwood's Sheraton hotels, which were the company's first hotel brand in China with the opening of the Great Wall Sheraton in Beijing in 1985, are also set to see 15 new locations open over the next 12 months.

(China Daily 02/22/2013 page16)