Few cultural phenomena have captured the zeitgeist as definitely as Studio 54, the New York nightclub that Ian Schrager and his business partner Steve Rubell opened in 1977, transforming a former theatre in a rundown Midtown neighbourhood into the most famous club of all time.
It was the club that changed nightlife forever – where the crowds outside were so big, they reportedly had to call in the fire brigade; where the velvet rope was invented and the biggest stars danced past dawn; where Michael Jackson went “to escape”. Studio 54 only existed for three frenzied years, but its mythology has endured for the subsequent four decades.
Schrager knew from the very beginning that they were on to something, he tells me over the phone from New York. “It was one of those natural phenomena. It happened from the moment the doors opened. Even before, to be honest. Everyone knew this was something special. We were holding on to a lightning bolt.”
When Studio 54 shut
In his gravelly Brooklyn drawl, he talks of alchemy, wizardry and magic, and it is these elements that, after Studio 54 came crashing down, Schrager and Rubell went on to apply to the hotel business. They opened the Morgans hotel in New York in 1984, as a reaction to the generic, institutionalised state of the hospitality industry, and then The Royalton in the same city, the Delano hotel in Miami and the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. In the process, the pair effectively invented the boutique hotel. "Steve coined the term 'boutique hotel'. It was his way of explaining to people what we were trying to do; we weren't trying to be all things to all people," Schrager says. "We were taking a stand. Now, the term boutique hotel has really become synonymous with design – and I don't really think it has anything to do with design. The word has been adopted by the world and people use it as they see fit, but it is not being used in the way we intended."
Schrager's vision of a boutique hotel hinges on its relevance and attitude. "It should have a very clear point of view," he explains. "It should have something very specific to say, it should manifest the place and the time it's in. It should be unique to its location. The hotel should be very, very site-specific. It's not one size fits all. That's the very essence of what a boutique should be."
It requires a light hand, Schrager says, something that a lot of hotels currently lack. "They think more is better," he says. "And I think less is better and simple is better, and it should be refined and elegant and not overzealous – not design on steroids. It takes a long time and it's very difficult to pull that off. It's like writing a story or an article; it's a lot harder to write a very powerful short story than it is to write a long one."
Edition Abu Dhabi
Schrager has distilled this approach, albeit on a larger scale, with Edition Hotels, a collaboration with Marriott International that was envisioned as the anti-hotel chain: "Hotels that don't act like hotels." The aim is to create luxury spaces that act as microcosms of the world's top cities: New York, Miami, London, Barcelona, Shanghai, Bodrum and, as of late last year, Abu Dhabi.
"There was an opportunity in Abu Dhabi – a great location – and we went all around the city and saw what was going there," Schrager says. "I saw the effort that was being made to do a lot of great things; you know, you can feel that energy and I just felt that we were lucky to be getting in at the very beginning of what's happening."
He reveals that he is currently eyeing a number of other opportunities in the Middle East. "We are looking in Dubai and a bunch of other places," he says. "The Middle East is an incredibly exciting area now. They want to have the best of everything and they want to offer a microcosm of the best of what's being offered all around the world."
Set on the waterfront at Al Bateen Marina, Edition Abu Dhabi is a clear testament to Schrager's "less is more" approach. The property is masterfully pared back, with a calming, neutral palette, grey oak timber flooring, bronze accents, a restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens and a dramatic, kinetic art sculpture, In 20 Steps, dropping from the ceiling in the sinuously shaped atrium. When I visit for the first time, I see Will Smith in the lobby.
In Edition hotels, the aim, Schrager says, is to make you feel like you are a guest in someone's home. "We want you to feel really comfortable while you are there, not by the trimmings of ostentatious things and brass buttons and white gloves, not by those traditional telltale things of luxury, but because people are really attentive and respectful and care about making you enjoy your stay there," he says.
This is a mark of how definitions of luxury are changing, across industries, but particularly in the world of hospitality. "Everything changes in culture – cars, kitchen appliances, architecture, dress, everything," Schrager says. "So why shouldn't the notion of luxury change? Luxury to me has turned into a business classification, a price point, and lost all of its meaning. Luxury is really a state of mind. Whether it makes you feel really good; whether you think you are being attended to and treated with courtesy and respect; whether you feel very comfortable. That, to me, is luxury. How it makes you feel – not necessarily how much it costs. I think this idea that luxury is only acceptable to very wealthy people is an old-fashioned notion."
That might sound rich coming from the man responsible for creating one of the most exclusive clubs ever known, but Studio 54 was built on the principles of inclusion and acceptance (once you got past the velvet rope, of course). As Andy Warhol famously put it: "It's a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the floor." To get in, you did not have to be famous or rich, but you did have to be interesting. Take "Disco Sally", a 77-year-old lawyer and Studio 54 regular, who was famously photographed on the dancefloor with a young Dustin Hoffman.
For his latest hospitality venture, Public Hotel, Schrager hopes to democratise the luxury hotel experience. He has reimagined the boutique hotel once more, this time with the intention of offering "luxury for all". At Public New York, the first in a string of properties due to be rolled out under the Public banner, the focus is on style, sharp service and fun facilities, but at a much lower price point.
Technology in hospitality
There are exciting bars and restaurants, huge communal spaces and a touch of the old Schrager magic, all aimed at people who are looking to pay less but still expect value. Schrager has created a tech-reliant business model that reduces labour costs, and those savings are passed on to guests. There is no official front desk. Instead, guests check in using iPads; room service involves messaging the hotel with your order and picking up your food from a designated area in the hotel; and guests can communicate with the hotel using a chatbot messaging platform.
Schrager predicts that technology will revolutionise the industry, if harnessed properly. Like many of us, he eschews the idea of technology for technology's sake, recounting a recent experience when he stayed at a luxury hotel. "The lights were controlled via Wi-Fi, so there was always a second or two delay between you hitting the switch and the lights going on or off. I just thought the lights were broken and I couldn't work out how to do anything," he recalls.
"I think if technology could elevate the experience and make things less expensive and more accessible, it's great. But the kind of technology I'm talking about has a kind of wizardry about it. When the first iPhone came out, it did the same thing every other phone did, but it was actually fun using it. It was dazzling. If technology can achieve that, it can really enhance the hotel experience. It's not being done yet. We are merely paying lip service to it." Tech may take over but one thing will always remain true, Schrager says. It's a lesson the hotelier learnt more than 40 years ago in a club that disrupted both an industry and a city. "No matter how successful you are, you are never more important than the customer. That's an important lesson to learn."