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Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International &
Ian Schrager, founder and chairman of Ian Schrager Company

Dynamic Duos: Marriott’s Arne Sorenson and Hotelier Ian Schrager On Marrying Business Cultures

A global hospitality giant partners with the originator of boutique-hotel cool, wagering $800 million that opposites attract (guests).

Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International
Ian Schrager, founder and chairman of Ian Schrager Company

Sorenson: Because we come from different places culturally, that will always create sparks now and then in the relationship. But we have really deep respect for Ian and what he brings in this space that we don’t have.

Schrager: They come from a very buttoned-up culture, and I come from a very freewheeling culture. I can’t be as loosey-goosey in the process as I might normally be.

Like a big Hollywood studio courting an edgy director with the goal of making a blockbuster series with independent flair, Marriott recruited Schrager in 2007. But the company’s ambitious plan to swiftly open 100 Edition properties around the world was quickly derailed by the financial crisis.

The partnership was soon back on track, and last month marked the splashy opening of the London Edition, part of Marriott’s $800 million investment—essentially in the Schrager sensibility—that includes upcoming hotels in Miami and New York’s MetLife Clock Tower.

OPPOSITES, ATTRACT

Enter the brand-new London Edition, formerly the Edwardian-era Berners Hotel, and you get a sense that the Schrager-Marriott marriage is one of opposites—and it works. A contemporary glass portal leads from the street into a show-stopping lobby with the original, elaborately carved 26-foot ceilings and a gigantic custom-made reflective egg-shaped Ingo Maurer light fixture suspended overhead. The welcome desk and elevators are tucked discreetly in the back to leave space for a lounge, bar, and adjoining restaurant, which is decorated like an homage to an English country manor, with a hodgepodge of framed art. A pair of chandeliers modeled after light fixtures at Grand Central Terminal glitter above. Downstairs a members-only dance club is tricked out with LED-powered can lights, a knowing nod to Schrager’s past as the co-founder of Studio 54.

Over coffee at a booth in the hotel’s bustling restaurant, Schrager and Sorenson talk about their unlikely alliance. Schrager, in jeans, T-shirt, and sweater, orders an "American." Suit-and-tie Sorenson goes with a cappuccino.

"He’s fundamentally an entrepreneur," Sorenson says of his partner. "Ian has a lot of talent around him in the creative process, but his individual view is an important one." He adds, genuinely committed to celebrating the culture clash, "That’s very different from both who Marriott is and who honestly we strive to be."

OPEN UP YOUR MARKET

Schrager was the first to hint at a possible joint venture when Sorenson and former CEO Bill Marriott went on a scouting trip to see Schrager’s reimagining of New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. As luck would have it, a pair of Ritz-Carlton (which is owned by Marriott) regulars happened to be in the lobby.

"This was a couple that were in their 60s or 70s. What we took away from that is this is not just a space for Gen Y," Sorenson explains. "Customers in all of our brands expect more from design and expect more from the use of space. That’s what caused us ultimately to conclude that this is not just a little niche that we should ignore."

Schrager adds: "People want an elevated experience, not only in hotels but in everything. I always thought it was a big market, like the people who bought Apple products."

SIMPLIFY, ON A GLOBAL SCALE

"We got started in good design as a way of distinguishing ourselves," Schrager says. "And everybody jumped on the bandwagon." He bemoans the scores of boutique hotel imitators who have diluted the concept. "Now it’s become perverse, a parody of itself. It’s over-designed, it’s, like, ridiculous! So we’re trying to get away from that and to simplify and to get back to the purity of it. It’s a kind of rebellion of what I call design on steroids."

He partnered with Marriott to create a brand of full-service, personalized lifestyle hotels on a global scale, something he couldn’t do on his own. "When I got into the business I could have done something that was the best execution and service, which is Marriott, or something innovative. Nobody was doing something innovative. This is a kind of convergence of those three things."

PLAY THE NUMBERS WITH DESIGN

Sorenson says that during the process he trusted Schrager to make design decisions, even when he couldn’t quite visualize the final result. Schrager admits he "got the benefit of the doubt." But that doesn’t mean their partnership doesn’t involve compromise.

Marriott crunched the numbers and determined the London Edition room count to be 173; Schrager was hoping that number would be around 135. "I wanted the rooms to be a little bit larger, and I thought the rates would be much higher," Schrager says.

"That’s really in some respects a cultural tension," says Sorenson. "We’re not only about creating articles of beauty. We have to make sure that it’s financially successful as well."

"Here’s the difference," Schrager poses. "I want to build something that’s viable as well, and we have. But I don’t need a market study saying what the rate would be, which they’re obliged to have."

To outfit the rooms, which are compact but by no means cramped, Schrager took inspiration from cabins on a luxury yacht: wood-paneled walls, floating wall-length desks and spherical suspension lights hanging on either side of the bed. "When we decided on the room count I had to come up with something that enhanced what we were doing," Schrager says. "Design is supposed to come up with solutions to problems."

Read more pairings from Fast Company's 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

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