Ian Schrager, the visionary hotelier of the 21st century

Public Hotel Chicago

He made disco rock at Studio 54 and went on to invent the ‘design’ or ’boutique’ hotel that has been ripped off by virtually every hotelier from Birmingham to Boston. Without Schrager, there would be no lobby ‘scene’, no go-to bars, no signature scents, no hot staff and cool nightclubs, no baffling taps in the bathrooms. Hotels would still be full of swags and ruffles.

At 65, with millions in the bank, a new wife, young son, and a box-fresh 8,500 sq ft, threelevel, $50m John Pawson-designed penthouse in New York, you might think he would hang up his mood boards. Not a bit of it. Schrager is working harder than ever. Which is why on one of those Chicago days that is so hot even your shins seem to sweat, he finds himself rearranging planets in the Pump Room restaurant at the former Ambassador East hotel on the banks of Lake Michigan. ‘We call this The Universe. It’s just arrived from Milan and I love it,’ he grins.

The lighting installation that Schrager is assembling – 500 ivory-coloured balls suspended from the ceiling – is an apt metaphor for his latest venture. The master tastemaker senses the universe is turning on its axis again, just as it did when the old-fashioned class divisions that ruled New York nightlife were swept away, enabling him to create Studio 54. Or when travellers decided they wanted hotels that lifted their spirits with fun and frolics, opening the way for places like the Morgans, the Royalton and the Paramount in New York, the Delano in Miami, the Clift in San Francisco, the Mondrian in Los Angeles and St Martins Lane and the Sanderson in London.

‘The cultural trade winds are changing,’ Schrager says. ‘You can see it everywhere. People are more interested in value for money. There’s a new simplicity. And it’s not just because of the weak economy. It’s structural. It won’t change when the economy gets better. We want to do a hotel that is dynamic and distinctive and responds to the new mood. A hotel that creates a new simplicity and a new luxury.’

That hotel is called Public. The first opens this month in the shell of the old Ambassador East in Chicago that Schrager and his backers bought for $25m two years ago and have just spent $35m refurbishing. More Publics will soon arrive as the brand rolls out to London, New York, LA, Paris and Miami. Never backwards in coming forwards, Schrager insists Public will be ‘an entirely new class of hotel’ that will be ‘as big a wake-up call to the industry as the boutique hotel was all those years ago’.

When the doors open, what can we expect? At first, it looks like same-old, same-old Schrager. There’s the statement lobby with modern, minimal concrete floors, offset with jaunty chandeliers and desks inspired by Anish Kapoor’s ‘bean’ sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The distressed wood columns and ceiling in the bar are redolent of his Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. The bar is white gold and the restaurant full of muted no-colour colours.

What’s new is the service and the price. Public is ‘the world’s first essential service hotel’, as Schrager puts it. He is convinced that the days of over-attentive service, found in many hotels, is over. These days, all of us, even rich folks, do more for ourselves because it’s easy and we like to be in control. When we do need help, we want it to be just what we need and no more. ‘It’s not about gold buttons or white gloves any more. It’s about getting what you need, quickly and simply when you want it, with friendliness and grace.’

Schrager gets most of his inspiration for his hotels from outside the hotel industry and uses the computer industry, notably Apple, to illustrate what he means by essential service. ‘ We use our iPads and iPhones to do, ourselves, many of the things we used to need other people to do – book hotel rooms, book flights – because it’s reliable and simple. When we need assistance we go to the Apple bar in the Apple store where brand ambassadors, rather than sales assistants, fix our problems easily. No buck-passing, no delays, no fuss. That’s the new luxury.’

Service at Public will be less intrusive, yet more efficient, he says. When you call guest services, whoever answers the phone will be trained to answer whatever question you have, to prevent guests being passed from department to department. There will be fewer of the services that hotels offer but few guests use. ‘We won’t have 24-hour room service. And what’s the point of having a bellman take your bag, and give it to the doorman, who gives it to the valet, who puts it in the car, leaving you to pay three sets of tips, when most people have wheels on their luggage these days? People don’t like or need that, so we won’t do it.’

Eating will be casual and flexible. You can enjoy Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s innovative dishes in the modernised Pump Room, a venerable restaurant where everyone from Frank Sinatra to Queen Elizabeth has broken bread. Or, if you’d rather, you can head for the Library where there will be Vongerichten’s small plates and desserts available all day, plus a gourmet coffee bar and regular bar. You can grab what you want, when you want, and stop when you’re full. No meal times. No rules.

The Library, it turns out, is Schrager’s take on Starbucks – another non-hotel source of inspiration. ‘Starbucks has had a huge success. You have to ask: why? What makes people spend $2.75 on a coffee when they can get it for half a buck elsewhere? It’s because they feel comfortable, because they can work or read, because they can get a sandwich or a piece of cake, because there’s the chance of meeting someone. We wanted to take that concept and take it up a notch, to a new level of sophistication, rather like an old European coffee house.’ Cue a wide range of rare coffees, a roaring fire and fancy Venetian-style stained glass windows.

While removing the elements that he thinks travellers don’t want, Schrager is adding features he thinks guests will want. At Public there will be grab ‘n’ go sandwiches, coffee and mini-picnics to pick up as you leave to go out for the day or to the airport. Guests will be able to customise their minibar with the things they actually want – and will buy – rather than items they don’t want. ‘Who wants a minibar overstocked with $5 Hershey bars and ten different carbonated sodas?’

Schrager will also weed out some of the charges that drive travellers mad. There will be no delivery charge for room service that, at many hotels, sees the price of your hamburger miraculously double in the time it takes to get from the kitchen to your room. Wireless internet will be free. Lest anyone should confuse Schrager with Mother Teresa at this point, it’s worth remembering that in his boutique hotel days he, himself, was notorious for ‘hidden’ charges. Bar staff took a 12.5 per cent fee simply for pouring the wine from the bottle into your glass – as if there were any other way you could drink it.

Cutting formality and service means Schrager can reduce room charges. Public will be cheap. A room in Chicago – there are 285 – costs from $135 a night, which is exceptional value when you consider the hotel is just off the Magnificent Mile and Rush Street and the room comes with a white oak bed, a stylish wrought iron desk and chair and a natty – if small – bathroom. Not that Schrager uses the word ‘cheap’. He prefers ‘value’. ‘We’ve gone through a period of indulgence. Value and a little bit more financial modesty are the new watchwords. Look how many rich people fly JetBlue or EasyJet.’

The end result of all these innovations is, Schrager hopes, an affordable hotel with ‘just so’ modern luxurious service that will be public in more than just name. ‘We want to be inclusive, not exclusive. This is a hotel for everyone who gets what we’re trying to do and wants it.’ Its motto and slogan is: ‘Stay Public. For everyone.’

Schrager’s decision to open Public has prompted some critics to argue that he is rejecting his previous work in the nightclub and boutique hotel sector, where he deftly used velvet rope to keep out all but the hippest guests to create exclusivity and buzz. Schrager finds the notion fanciful. ‘No, no, no! I’m doing what I’ve always done: following my instinct. It’s all I’ve ever done and it just so happens that what I like to do, a lot of other people have liked to do, so it’s worked. There weren’t nightclubs that I wanted to go to, so Steve Rubell (Schrager’s late former business partner) and I set up Studio 54 and people flocked to it. There weren’t any hotels that I liked, so Steve and I set up Morgans and the other boutique hotels and the market moved to us. Now the time is right for Public.’

He argues that many big hotel chains have failed to keep up with the consumer, creating a gap in the market for Public. He believes the countless big operators that have tried to copy the boutique hotel have misunderstood it and ended up creating ‘a Frankenstein’s monster that is neither boutique nor fashionable but just outdated, over-the-top and meaningless’. At the same time, traditional luxury operators have lost the plot. ‘You can’t tell the difference between each hotel. They all have the same offering. They all look the same. The service is a bit obsequious, a bit pretentious. Just because they are expensive doesn’t mean they are luxury.’

The future is all about simplicity, accessibility, transparency, and value. Indeed, while he rolls out Public, Schrager is also creating another mass-appeal brand. He has partnered with the world’s biggest cookie-cutter hotel chain, Marriott, in a £1bn joint venture to create Edition, a series of modern boutique hotels, without all the off-putting ‘design on steroids’ offered by wannabe hip hoteliers. The idea is to combine Schrager’s aesthetic integrity and cachet with Marriott’s mass-market experience.

Unfortunately, the launch of the Edition project could not have gone worse, especially for Marriott which, in an unprecedented move, got ousted from the first Edition Hotel which has been operating for less than a year in  Honolulu. The owner of the hotel claims Marriott has not fulfilled its commitments and the concept has failed to perform as expected. The second Edition opened in Istanbul, other properrties being planned for Barcelona, Mexico City, Miami, London, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Rome, Naples and Mumbai, Los Angeles, New York, Manchester and Edinburgh will be next. It remains to be seen whether the ongoing legal battle will have any effects on the development of the Edition chain.

But fans of the old Schrager bling needn’t despair. He hasn’t given up on haute hotels altogether. Slowly, quietly – in fact, this is the first place you will read about it – he is planning a third and final act to his career as a hotelier.He’s going to found a luxurious hotel brand in a handful of cities in the US and Europe. ‘They will be small – 20 to 80 rooms – and have the kind of service that you get in the guest room of a very wealthy friend. It will be the real deal.’ The name of this new brand? Schrager. Few doubt he’s earned the right for a shot at immortality.

adapted from Wallpaper magazine