Showing Off With the Hotel Flagship

The W New York in 1998 was the epitome of cool. It was the first property of the W Hotel brand, then part of Starwood, now Marriott, and boasted rooms with silver couches and mirrored ceilings. The lobby was designed to act as a lounge. The pool was called a wet deck. The presidential suite was titled an “E WOW” suite — Extreme Wow. The W was the most playful hotel around.

Twenty years later the brand has built shinier, more attention-grabbing flagships. One, the Palm Islands of Dubai, opened in February. Guests are greeted by Orsoni glass tiles that reflect the sun, and then sleep in guest rooms with walls designed to mirror the sea and Arabic lyrics written graffiti style. They eat at the celebrity chef Massimo Bottura’s first restaurant outside of Italy.

In the world of retail, flagship properties have always been big in every sense of the world. At Nike’s in New York, visitors can design their own sneakers. At the Microsoft flagship in London, they can play the latest Xbox games in a gaming lounge.

In an increasingly saturated hospitality world where hotels must compete for attention from clients and investors, Flagships give operators the opportunity to put on a show, offering innovative designs, services and amenities.

“The flagship Apple store in New York is bigger, more modern and offers more services than the local Apple store at your mall,” said Barak Hirschowitz, president of the International Luxury Hotel Association. “Similarly a flagship hotel will be in the best location, is usually larger, and offers more bars, restaurants and services than other properties within the brand.”

Like The W Hotels, many brands that have longstanding flagships are replacing them or creating newer siblings. The Ritz-Carlton is building a new flagship in New York City with less formal restaurants and local design elements. It will open in 2021 and most definitely steal some attention away from the old one.

By the end of 2020 Crowne Plaza will introduce six flagship hotels, the brand’s first. To date, the company has 426 properties and 119,494 hotel rooms across the world.

In Hamburg guests will check into rooms with separate places to work, play and sleep. In Paris they will be able to browse local art on the walls of their lobby.

“These properties will elevate our entire estate,” said Eric Lent, a senior vice president at IHG, which owns the chain. “They give our guests a first-look at where the brand is going.”

“They represent places where we can innovate, test, and learn,” said Mr. Lent. A few of these flagships will test out circadian lighting in guest rooms to see if it results in sounder sleep.

Other brands want their flagships to be places that attract attention from key clients and investors in busy markets.

Simon Naudi, the chief executive of Corinthia Hotels, decided to make its London property his flagship because of its prime location (The group has four openings in the pipeline in Dubai, Bucharest, Moscow and Brussels, so it has a lot of choices.)

“We are proud of what we have achieved in London, and we want as many people as possible to experience it,” he said. The Corinthia London has the largest spa in London, along with a new restaurant by Tom Kerridge, a chef made famous when his pub, The Hand and Flowers, received two Michelin stars.

At some of these properties guests might not even know they are staying at a flagship. They might just think they are in a darn good hotel.

Of course, there are the brands that hold tight to tradition and still believe their flagship should be their original property, the place where standards were set.

Foiz Ahmed, president of Quadrum Hospitality Group, which owns Arlo Hotels, wants his new properties in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Wynwood, Fla., to take after his first property in New York’s Soho neighborhood. It has trendy dining areas that change seasonally (think ski chalets in the winter and gardens in the summer).

“We’re always trying to emulate what we have at our flagship, because it’s proven successful,” he said.

The Hoxton, a hipster brand based in London, has new hotels in Chicago, Portland, Ore., and soon Los Angeles. Still, it tapped the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, location, the first on the North American continent, as its beacon. The brand gambled on introducing a retail store and a sprawling rooftop bar there. These ideas worked, so the location gets rewarded with the flagship status.

Then there are the hotel groups that believe even the idea of a flagship goes against the current zeitgeist.

Autograph Collection Hotels refuses to name a flagship property because it wants each of its hotels to stand out, the company said.

“We believe today’s travelers are collecting hotels like a foodie would collect a restaurant,” said Sarah Lipton, a senior director of global brand marketing for Autograph. “It’s hard to pick out one because it’s about getting unique experiences at every single one.”

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