W Hotels going through ‘Soul Searching’, in between premium and luxury positioning

After my stay at the W Hotel Leicester Square in London, which I exceeded my expectations, from all points of view, both hardware and software, I had the opportunity to experience and review one of the early opened W Hotels in the world – W UNION Square, New York.

Since it was set up, the brand has been gradually losing its luxury positioning consistency in the U.S. with many properties, like those in New York, becoming outdated in less than a year since opening. But why the US and specifically New York, which is the birth place of the W HOTEL brand? At the time of the launch of W, direct competitors such as Gansevoort Hotels, Morgans Hotel Group and Hyatt’s Andaz also battled a positoning dilemma, between affordable luxury, premium and luxury.

In the past years, Starwood Hotels has firmly positioned the W Hotels brand in a corporate cluster which also includes St Regis and Luxury Collection, therefore, clearly aiming for a luxury positioning. Unlike in the case of St Regis and Luxury Collection which have been following a very consistent path in the recent years, W Hotels would still send mixed signals, from property to property.

I must admit I was hesitant to stay at one of the W Hotels in New York, but I was excited to hear that W Hotel Union Square is one of the New York W’s recent renovated. I would not anticipate the hotel would make me reflect on the question of whether service can compensate for a lacklustre / outdated hardware.

The W Union Square fulfils several characteristics of a luxury hotel from service, location to F&B. However, the hotel seems to have been refurbished and redesigned with a ‘politically correct twist’ which the GM explained that the majority of regular guests include business travellers in their late 40′s and early 50′. So, the decorators seem to have purposely avoided any design traces that would be so common at other Ws, breating the ‘WOW factor’.

Unfortunately, in the case of the W Union Square, the renovated hardware would not be able to compensate for the very high level of service standard. The lack of sound-proofing, the 10 year old Tv, a small and un-renovated bathroom with separate shower and bathtub which can only be used for kids. Not even the bed was as comfortable as the one in London and for some reason, after housekeeping and turndown, the bed sheet would alwats look wrinkled. Again, in terms of furnishings, leather immitation and plastic dominate new decor items.

The highlight or the hotel is the Living room, a generous lobby space, ideal for a snack or drink but also to catch up on work on your laptop or meeting business partners. I would suggest covering windows with an art installation or special velvet curtains, which would add to the residential feel.

The lack of the Spa, the very used elevators and poor lighting in lobby are just some of the details which were overlooked during the recent renovation. On a positive side,  the Olives restaurant outsourced to the specialized restaurant group, is one of the highlights of the hotel, especially for lunch, brunch and dinner. As for breakfast, selection is rather modest and service would be somehow impersonal, in part justified by the fact that the restaurant is not run by the restaurant.

Luxury, premium or affordable positioning does not change the comfort of your sleep or your experience with the hotel staff. But what is certainly most important is that each and every W to command a unique DNA. The hotel brand cannot afford to be so different from location to location. I do understand dealing with owners (most Ws are managed by W Hotels under a third party management agreement), especially in the current international political and macro-economic environment. But at the same time, when such a property is renovated, they should realize they raise expectations, especially with photos which look much more glamourous than in reality.

To sum up and for you to better understand my experience, I preferred to down-grade to a lower room category (from the corner suite), in order to avoid noise.

Oliver Petcu in New York