Say goodbye to dark and clubby: Here's what's next for the W brand
Close your eyes and picture a W Hotel. While you do that, we'll turn up the bass.
If what comes to mind are dark hallways, neon signs and a moody nightclub aesthetic complete with velvet and faux fur accompanied by relatively high prices without the luxury service you might expect to go with the rates, welcome — you're in a W hotel in the U.S.
Some travelers (many travelers, in fact) loved joining the W's nonstop party during the brand's first 20 years. These travelers helped the W brand quickly grow and expand into a global lifestyle chain for Starwood, before it became part of the Marriott portfolio during the merger in 2018.
Related: How to find the best Marriott card for you
Many of those same travelers, however — including The Points Guy himself — eventually found they'd outgrown W hotels and their once cool, it's-always-5-o-clock somewhere vibe. Or, at least, the emphasis on living it up was no longer as important (or sustainable) as sleeping it off.
But this month, Marriott officially purchased the W Union Square in New York, and committed to making the property a shining flagship W that will display the best of the next iteration of the W brand. So, is change on the horizon for the brand is at approaches its own 21st birthday?
When TPG spoke with Anthony Ingham, the global brand leader for W Hotels Worldwide, it was made extremely clear that W Hotels aren't "growing up." Instead, the brand is evolving to meet the needs of today's (and tomorrow's) young luxury consumer.
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W is fine with you outgrowing the brand
Before diving into research for this story, I thought the upcoming shifts from the W brand were motivated by Marriott's interest in recapturing some of its lost travelers. But what's really happening is quite different. When The Points Guy himself, Brian Kelly (and many others like him), realized he had outgrown the W brand in favor of more traditional luxury lodging options, such as The St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton, that's exactly what Marriott wanted.
According to Ingham, the majority of W's customers are between the ages of 28 and 40, or those with a Millennial mindset regardless of age. But we all get older eventually, so while the W will be happy to continue hosting you as long as you'd like, don't expect the brand to grow up and out of its sweet spot. W is happy enough to be the stop you make in the Marriott family of brands as your tastes and budget evolve from, say, a Moxy, AC or Aloft to a W and then perhaps onward and upward to Edition, The St. Regis, or wherever your mood (and wallet) takes you.
Turning the lights on
So they aren't moving on, but what's the way forward for W? For one, the cavernous and omnipresent nightclub lighting is getting a break. There's a time and a place for the cover of darkness, but it doesn't have to be at 11 a.m on a Wednesday. The next version of the W brand is just as social and lifestyle-oriented as the first, but with more natural light, more outdoor space and more lighting modes in the rooms, so you can set the mood instead of having it perma-set on party time.
Having just stayed at the newest W property, the W Aspen, I can fully attest to the increased use of natural light and outdoor space.
In 2018, Brian Kelly called out the dark lighting scheme as one of the specific reasons he felt he'd outgrown the W brand. If you want a little more light to go with your avocado toast, W hears you and says the lights will be coming up, at least during the day.
Adding room to detox
The W isn't canceling the party, but it's evolving to see that as one potential stop on the 24-hour cycle for its guests. According to Ingham, the 20- and 30-somethings of today will remain W's primary demographic. And they're just as interested in wellness as having a good time. As a result, you'll find more healthy menu items, social workout classes, coworking spaces and places to get some Vitamin D from above.
When you get to the "retox" portion of the day or evening, there will be traditional cocktails and bars, but also lower sugar options and a variety of mocktails to meet a variety of demands and desires from today's Millennials and, before too long, tomorrow's emerging Gen Z guests who are already beginning to hit their early 20s.
When talking specifically about the brand's newest property, the W Aspen, I had to ask about the bunk beds in several of the hotel's rooms.
These design choices, I'm told, were unique to the Aspen location. Aspen is known to be very expensive across the board, so W wanted to provide accommodations for friends who wanted to bunk together (literally) and bring down the per-person cost.
The W wanted intentionally to sit at a slightly lower price point than The St. Regis Aspen, just a few blocks away.
Of course, points travelers know both hotels are at Marriott's top- tier award redemption level, though it would be great to see the W cost a bit less at some point.
So, what's next for W?
The W New York on Lexington that started it all in 1998 is no longer a W. And it's not the only W that has left the chain in recent years, or that may be exited from the brand as the standards evolve. While W started in the U.S., the new W's of the last decade had largely been international properties. Some standout examples include W Punta Mita and W Brisbane.
Now, the U.S. properties are playing catch up. A $55 million dollar renovation was just completed at the W in Washington, D.C., and the W outposts in San Francisco and Atlanta have all received makeovers in recent years.
New W properties in Philadelphia, Downtown Los Angeles and Nashville are all slated to open between 2020 and 2021.
In addition to a new look and feel, W hotels will also experience a change in service and staffing levels. Whether or not it was the initial intention, W now often prices as a luxury brand, and with those rates, customers walk in with certain expectations. So, the playbook is being rewritten there, too. Or, at least, that's the plan.
Looking toward the future
W knows some of what's working for them from these recent builds and renovations in places like Aspen, Brisbane and Punta Mita, but the way Ingham put it to TPG, if W has taken three steps forward, they have five more to go. There will be light, communal spaces and wellness-oriented food and activities to complement the nighttime activities, but that doesn't tell the full W story.
That's why 2020 will be the year of really figuring out what the next version of W will hold — and this is where the W Union Square will come into play. Just consider it a playground of sorts for the W brand team.
The team is targeting 2021 for the implementation of what will potentially be pretty big changes for that property. Time will tell if the forthcoming flagship will need to shut it doors during part of the transition, but by 2022, W hopes the W Union Square, from its corner on Park Avenue South, will set the pace for the W of tomorrow.
I'm almost 39 years old. I have two kids, a dog, a marriage, a mortgage and a full time job. I love and appreciate sleep, and very much do not need a DJ in the lobby of my next hotel. I haven't really been a primary W guest in a long time, and that won't change as the W evolves.
As the saying goes, I get older, but it — meaning, at least in this case, W — stays the same age.
And that's not a bad thing. I've grown into The St. Regis brand, when I can afford it, or the Westin and occasionally AC when I need to stretch my dollars and points further. However, the W plays a fun and also important role in Marriott's line-up of brands. It needs to stay young and exciting to service that decade or so when travelers have money to burn but also want to burn the midnight oil ... and then burn off the drinks and midnight munchies the next day before putting in a hard day of work and starting over.
If that can be done in a W that's less dark, moody, loud and broody, that'll be better for those Instagram photos and for a good night's sleep. Heck, I may be a little old for a W, but if they can truly pull off this reinvention, even I may pop in every once in a while to hang with the Millennials when I'm feeling up to an après ski party or fiesta margaritas by the pool.