Welcome to the Hotel Home Furnishings

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\"WestYou can check-in…but you can also checkout with whatever you want.

Back in the Magic Fingers days, hotel décor was so much simpler. If you stayed in a real hotel, you were no doubt ensconced in some sort of ersatz baroque cocoon of brocade-festooned bedspreads and semi-wood dressers.

And if you went to a motel, there was laminate – lots of laminate — paper bands around the toilet – for maximum sanitary effect – and those Magic Fingers, the mechanical vibrating bed fed with your quarters…and your libido. (If you’re unsure, ask Clark Griswold.)

But no more.

Hotels and motels have become the new playground for the home furnishings industry as retailers open up their own branded lodging facilities designed to showcase their products with the goal of getting you to buy – rather than just take – the furnishings in the room. The recent announcement that West Elm will take this route is just the latest in a lengthening list of stores adapting this strategy. But it’s not exactly something new, as the idea stretches back more than a decade…and perhaps even further. The logic behind these actions is obvious. Shoppers are going to stores less often. They are, however, spending more time traveling and “experiencing.” So if customers won’t come to you, you go to them.

Of course, this is just the logical conclusion of a trend that began more than a decade ago when hotels started to offer the furnishings in their rooms for sale via catalogs and then online. Starwood brands Westin and W are generally acknowledged as the first ones to do it but now virtually every upscale hotel has branded goods for sale. Westin has even taken the whole thing the next step, offering its Heavenly Bed through Nordstrom. But for the idea of an entire hotel under a retail brand, you have to look to Bulgari, the Italian fashion house, which opened its initial hotel in Milan in 2004. That location has been joined by others in London, Bali and Japan, with additional sites planned for Shanghai, Beijing and Dubai next year. Moscow is on the books for 2019. While other style houses, including Lalique and Ferragamo, have also gotten into the hotel game, fellow Italian designer Giorgio Armani may have been the first designer in home furnishings to figure this out. In 2005 he signed a deal with a developer to open as many as 10 hotels and resorts under the Armani name. Four years later the first one opened, in Dubai, in the Burj Khalifa, one of the many Flash Gordon-like structures in this desert oasis. A second Armani hotel opened in his native Milan but that seems to be the extent of the project so far.

On this side of the Atlantic, the action has been slower to start…although it might not have been that way. In the early 2000s, Ralph Lauren had a secret internal project to develop hotels under its Polo brand. It never publicly talked about it and it’s not clear when they pulled the plug but nothing ever came of it. However, Ralph Lauren did furnish a hotel in Montego Bay in Jamaica called Rose Hill, just down the road from his home on the island.

So, West Elm looks like it will be the first home furnishings retailer in the U.S. to get into the business with plans for five hotels to open in the next two years. Working with a lodging operator, the West Elm Hotels will focus on total immersion in the company’s merchandise…with the ability to have it all replicated in your home. But West Elm may not get there first. RH – you may still know them as Restoration Hardware – is generally believed to be working on a hotel that will open around the corner from its new Meatpacking District store in Manhattan next year. No details, but it would be the logical next step for a store that has added bars, restaurants and art galleries to its retail mix.

No doubt, this is a trend that is not going to go away anytime soon. That said, Hilton and Marriott shouldn’t be staying up nights worrying about home stores taking over their business. Retailers have proven time and time again they have enough problems managing their own businesses much less trying to learn new ones. Though in a way these activities bring the retail cycle full circle. Remember that in the first decades of the twentieth century you could buy an entire house from Sears Roebuck, right down to the foundation?

Now we have retailers opening hotels. Kind of takes all the fun out of stealing the towels, doesn’t it?

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director for several Progressive Business Media home furnishings publications. He never takes towels from hotels…only the occasional ashtray.

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