Strange bedfellows innovate in hotels

I was intrigued to read of the planned joint venture between the inventor of the "boutique hotel", Ian Schrager, and the Marriott chain. It will one of the marketing events of 2008 that I look forward to learning more about. The idea is to create a string of 100
boutique hotels in major cities across the
United States, South America, Europe and Asia.

The two parties are at first sight strange bedfellows. Schrager is the design genius behind the Morgan group of hotels, that he sold in 2005, including the amazing Delano in Miami. He invented the idea of a hotel as a destination for local trendy types, where the bar and restaurant are as important as the rooms. Marriott is a global hotel behemoth with $2billion in sales and 2900 properties.

Here are a few interesting take-outs from this story:

1. The power of collaboration:
This is the latest in an increasingly large line of big brands tapping into the design flair of creative gurus (e.g. Karl Lagerfeld and H&M; Kate Moss and Top Shop). When it works, the combination of leading edge design and manufacturing muscle is very powerful. In this case, we should get great design and operational excellence. The major gripe with Schrager hotels was that they looked fab, but the rooms were small and not always comfortable.

2. The growth of "masstige"
This horrible word describes the concept of "mass premium" or "accessible aspiration". A growing group of consumers no longer what boring middle of the road stuff, they want it all: great design, a bit of flair and a reasonable price. Marriott have watched the growth of Starwood’s W brand from a few US hotels into a global chain of boutique hotels, and have decided the market is now big enough for them to enter. Good design is a great way of upgrading a category, and making everyday stuff that bit more special.

3. The individual chain
Schrager’s vision for the new chain is that it won’t feel like a chain. Each hotel should have an individual feel, in sympathy with its surroundings. Upmarket UK restaurant chain Pizza Express did this well, with each outlet having a different look and feel, but delivering the same reliable service.

4. "I don’t trust the intellect. It’s the instinct"
This is a quote from Schrager himself, talking about how he bases things on his gut instinct. The Sunday Times reports that "He has not analysed the market or gone to focus groups – despite Mariott’s requests". He goes on to say "I get an impulse for things", he says "And I’ve got an impulse for this".

This is a good example of what I believe about great marketing: it comes from having an emotional, visceral understanding of the market and consumer, and having a feel for what will work. After all, research is only a rear view mirror telling  you what has happened in the past. It cannot tell you where to drive in the future.

It will be fascinating to watch if Schrager and Marriott can stay in bed long enough to consumate their relationship.Personally, I think it will be a real feat to create one hotel, never mind 100!