In Conversation with W Hotels: How the W Sound Suite strengthens the hotel group’s connection to the music world

For years W Hotel & Resorts have enjoyed a healthy connection to culture around the world. In a market where groups of hotels, resorts, and properties yearn for a significant point of difference, W has maintained credible and exciting ties with their guests’ interests, blending with the worlds of music, fashion, design, and most recently well-being (something they conceptualise as “Fuel” with, for example, daily yoga classes and healthier menu options) to create that perfectly balanced offering of culture served up alongside high standards of hospitality and accommodation; let’s call those – music, fashion, design, and fuel – the four pillars of W, if you will. One of those pillars – music – has recently strengthened with a fascinating concept that is set to roll out across several W Hotels around the world – the W Sound Suite.

The W Sound Suite seems like a natural progression for W’s involvement in the music world, developed by working closely with the group’s North American Music Director Paul Blair – better known as DJ White Shadow – who saw an opportunity for W Hotels to transform unused spaces into professional music studios, open to both traveling and local musicians, and even general guests. I say natural progression because W have been heavily involved in all types of festivals around the world, regularly hosting or sponsoring music nights, frequently welcoming traveling musicians, and even seeing their Hollywood property host an impromptu Prince gig once upon a time. When Prince crashes your regular Jazz night, you know you’re doing something right.

To further explore the philosophies behind the W Sound Suite, and also W in general, I recently found myself in W Retreat & Spa Bali – Seminyak, where the first ever Sound Suite launched. On the day of the public reveal I got a chance to sit down with two of the several minds behind this concept, Arnaud Champenois, Asia Pacific Senior Brand Director, and Anthony Ingham, Global Brand Leader for W Hotels Worldwide to chat all things W.

“The most frequent negative comment you see on TripAdvisor for [as an example] W Barcelona is ‘we went to Barcelona to see Barcelona and we never left the hotel for the whole weekend'”, said Ingham, speaking to how well fleshed out the overall experience is at a W property. “That’s a very common statement, so it is kind of like you arrive, then it’s like…an onslaught of fun stuff you can choose from”.

That certainly rings true for W Bali. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed – in a good way – when you arrive to a property so expansive and full of things to do, letting that feeling of wanting to be in several places at once rush over you. Being somewhere with so many options is a good “problem” to have, but as I mentioned to Anthony, it’s also a smart move to offer these focused, curated experiences to quell some of that overload.

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“The thing which I think enables W to do what W does so well is that it is actually very clearly defined. We know exactly what we want to do with W in terms of creating design-led spaces, highly social spaces that are designed for people to interact with each other, meet, mingle, and be friendly,” Ingham explained. “Cocktail culture is like an underlying principle of how we design space. Cocktail Culture doesn’t necessarily mean drinking cocktails at a bar, but the principle of cocktail culture defines how we design spaces and how we think about the guest experience for that energetic mixing and mingling type of environment. So Fashion, Design, Music, and now Fuel are the four pillars we use to define that experience, and we create guest experiences around each of those four things.”

“So when it comes to a music studio we were really quite clear of what we were trying to achieve; what has come out is pretty much what we envisioned”.

DJ, musician, and producer Damian Saint, who stands as W Bali’s music curator, helped design this very first W Sound Suite, and has obviously added his own special touch to the space, fitting it out with professional equipment from the likes of Native Instruments, Pioneer, and Moog. “It’s fantastic having someone like Damian who is so knowledgeable and passionate about it, it’s like his baby here in Bali,” says Ingham.

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“[Saint] started here as a DJ. Originally he was playing here as a DJ on a regular basis then he become one of the resident DJs here at the hotel. And then the previous music curator left….it’s one of those things that all of the best relationships that we have, in fact all of our relationships in areas like music and fashion seem to happen organically,” continue Ingham, branching off into the general function of W and the group’s cultural ties. “That’s a great thing because we end up getting this momentum..this organic thing that attracts…I’d say 90% of the talent that we work with, people like Damian, it happens organically.”

That type of organic growth in key relationships naturally lends to the credibility W properties maintain across their 46 locations (in the coming years that figure will significantly grow), with higher-ups like Ingham and Champenois exuding the type of self-awareness many brand managers don’t have.

“We always think first about ‘what is the guest experience we are trying to create’ then ‘how do we design for it’ then ‘how do we program for it’ and ‘what people do we need to support it’ and stay true to the guest experience we are trying to create. That’s true of the music studio, true of the wet deck bar experience, the sunset DJ experience, the underground late night club experience,” explains Ingham, who most importantly acknowledges the need to get other creatives (like Damian Saint and Paul Blair) on board and give them creative control over projects like the W Sound Suite.

“We recognise that…we are hoteliers. I’m not an expect in music or fashion. Anything that we do in the worlds of music, fashion or design etc, the foundation is partnering with the right people and finding mutual benefit. So that you can do stuff which is real. That’s where the Sound Suite has come from, it’s based on a real gap that Paul perceived – that people who are traveling want to record.”

Champenois added: “We also want to be extremely genuine in what we do. So one of my main objectives was to make it really professional…so not a gimmicky marketing exercise. We are very proud of it…So I think this is part of what we want to do, always be really credible, we take the music industry seriously so we wanted to offer a way to collaborate with them in a very serious manner.”

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While the entrance of the Sound Suite is a bit branded – Coca-Cola are major sponsors and so that’s what the studio fridge is full of – it’s not hard to tell, once you step inside, that this is the real deal. And as Ingham says: “The Sound Suites that we’re putting in W Hotels will never replace a full recording studio, Lady Gaga is never going to finish her album in a Sound Suite. But for 90% of the kind of artists we have staying with us and traveling, who are getting inspiration and playing with tracks, and trying to record a bit of this – the kind of stuff Paul (DJ White Shadow) [needs] when he’s touring – it’s a creative space to work and record things, and test ideas, and record tracks and maybe put some vocals down. It’s not intended to replace the kind of studio where you’d produce a million dollar selling album.”

White was the main driving force behind the creation of this studio, and again coming back to the organic growth of W’s cultural ties, the successful producer first came on board by chance.

[Paul] was one of the mentors on the DJ Lab about three years ago which happened in Koh Samui”, Ingham told me. “So the DJ Lab was a program, in partnership with Coke, [is] where we looked for DJ’s around the world who were just breaking in their cities…we took them all to a boot camp in Koh Samui, where they were mentored by a series of real industry big-timers, and then they toured and played in W Hotels around the world for a year. Paul was one of the mentors and his album with Lady Gaga has just gone platinum that same week. I remember two DJs who were playing in Hong Kong – I was just chatting to them and they were so beside themselves that Paul was their mentor.”

“That’s how we met Paul. It was very organic. Through that we got to know him and become friends, from a work point of view I guess, and then that led to him becoming the music Director for W North America. That could never have happened any other way. Paul is a very successful producer and musician, and we don’t have particularly large budgets…he does this because he wants to work with us. He sees W genuinely as a platform that can provide emerging artists with a voice, a distribution channel, and now space to record. So it’s a very authentic and genuine relationship that integrates us with the music industry that happened organically.”

White seems to be on the money about W being an effective platform for local musicians, and one which is consistent as well. Both Ingham and Champenois light up when they tell me about W’s new partnership with Billboard over in the U.S, on a program called “Next Up” in which Billboard will utilise their “Emerging Artists” chart – which is basically the new tracks most shared on Twitter from emerging artists – in conjunction with W’s properties. So the top four artists of those charts will periodically be given chances to perform in W Hotels across North America, allowing the artists mass exposure with the hotel group’s consumer and media channels.

“There are no rules around what kind of music that’s going to be,” says Ingham. “So that’s a fun one…it’s literally consumers on Twitter [defining] who the acts are and what the music is, and will become the platform and venues for those acts”.

W also plan to stage a major music festival at W Scottsdale in Arizona, taking over the entire hotel for three days with every space becoming a different stage.

“It’s just the dynamic of that hotel, [the property] has lots of spaces that lend themselves to stages and different music acts. And there’s a really big following of music fans…people moving around west coast USA for destination music events. We need about 1000 people to make that work, that’s a lot more than just the local vicinity”.

In addition to being one of the official partners of Clockenflap in Hong Kong and working closely with EDM focused International Music Conference (IMS) which they helped start in Ibiza around five years ago and then bring to Asia for the first time, W really has become deeply rooted in the culture of contemporary music to strengthen connections with their guests.

Of course, looking at the bigger picture for W’s involvement in music isn’t the only focus for the brand. At W Bali for example, the hotel hosts regular free-entry international DJ sets both by the beach and in their stylish underground club. Giving guests access to the W Sound Suite will also be taking that music program to the next level, with Saint available for masterclass packages, or the studio available just to rent out for a few hours and create. Locals not staying st the W will also have access, particularly emerging musicians who will benefit greatly from the Sound Suite.

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“There was been kind of a disruption in the recording studio business model. The traditional recording studio model takes a huge chuck of real estate in a city that’s really expensive. You’re talking about a million or two fit-out for all of that gear, traditionally, for a full recording studio,” said Ingham. “But the shift in technology has opened a window for us…it means you can quite cost effectively get to a studio that is like 80% of what you need for a full album. And so that’s for a relatively cost effective amount of money and we have spaces in our hotels that are otherwise unused that a music studio can use quite effectively. So [what is now the W Sound Suite in W Bali] was a store room…the space we’re looking at in Barcelona is an old retail space that is vacant, in a couple of others it’s store rooms. Some music studios won’t have any windows; in a hotel, a space with no windows is dead space, so we have the opportunity here because we have real estate in the middle of highly expensive cities that is empty. And because of the shift in technology we can fit out a music studio to let’s say 80% of what an artist needs to really do everything that they need to do, and create something which is actually cost effective enough to make it accessible to a broad range of people.

“So it becomes accessible to artists who are staying in-house with us on tour, it becomes accessible to regular guests who maybe want to do like a DJ masterclass or they want to hire the studio with a few friends to listen to music they are putting together. We will also be able to offer this space pro bono to emerging artists in the music scene in each city where we have hotels, where our intention is to genuinely integrate with the music scene of each city so that we can build relationships that enable us to find that kind of talent that we want to be playing in the hotels and that we want to do collaborations with. If we have a space where we can say ‘okay so for 20 hours a week we’re able to give this recording space to emerging artists who would not really be able to afford a recording studio normally’, that gives us a really genuine ‘in’ into the music community in that city, which then in turn helps us find the right kind of talent that we want to do collaborations with. That dynamic is only made possible because of the shift in technology that has made the business model of the existing music studios a bit obsolete.”

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Once these Sound Suites roll out to other W locations, they will each adapt and take shape to the music curator in each hotel, the music scene in each city, and also the people who will record in them. The studios will be essentially the same from one destination to the other save for these tweaks, but it’s also important to them that they don’t just limit to one genre or style. Sure, the W Sound Suite in Bali seems to leaning towards EDM because, well, it’s Bali – often referred to as the Ibiza of Asia – but the multitude of equipment that is laying around the studio, including everything from guitars to gamalans, provides plenty of possibilities.

Localising concepts like the W Sound Suite will no doubt prove to be one of the biggest challenges and focuses for the brand, which is why their willingness to give others creative control is so important, and I would say likely the biggest part into why W have remained successful and credible in these areas. Balancing this control moving forward, along with W’s projected growth, does seem to be a challenge though; as Ingham says:

“I think the balance will be in how effectively we can define the direction of W as a brand and what W stands for and tries to achieve, and then completely localise it in each hotel, and have a team in each hotel that makes sure we are engaging local partners, local music scenes, local fashion scenes, young food and beverage entrepreneurs, coffee roasters, retail outlets, local entrepreneurial retailers who can do pop-up shops… In order to retain the edginess and a creative flair. The corporation can provide the framework but we have to allow the rest of it to all go into the pot and see what happens. It’s a much more hands-off approach than we would take with some of the other brands in system. That relies on the right people, if you’re going to not dictate how all of these things happen you just have to have the right people on the ground.”

“One of the things that absolutely defines W: we are here as part of a big brand as part of a big corporation but there’s still a risk taking, free-thinking pioneering, ‘have an idea, try it, if it fails, you’ll do better next time’ mentality. That’s the whole way we’ve approached the studio, like ‘go for it and see where it leads’.

For more information, books, or to just learn more about W Hotels click HERE.

Chris traveled to and stayed at W Retreat & Spa Bali – Seminyak as a guest of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.