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Summer 2008 | Inclusive Exclusivity

Summer 2008 | Inclusive Exclusivity

Out W Hotels president Ross Klein explains how gay and lesbian -- and all -- guests should be treated in a 21st-century hotel.

Since 2003, Ross Klein, president of W Hotels Worldwide, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts, and the Luxury Collection, has redefined what a hotel experience is all about. His background in corporate marketing for Ralph Lauren and Polo brought an outside-the-box mentality to the W Hotel brand (celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2008), which he calls a ?pop culture brand.? The out executive and trendsetter shares his inventive views on the nature of travel and travelers.

You say you are personally obsessed with road trips?
Our new brand ?aloft? [launching in 2008, with over 500 properties planned worldwide by 2012] came out of my personal passion for road trips. My dad would think nothing about driving 17 or 23 hours straight through to get someplace, so I grew up in the backseat of many, many cars playing many, many automobile games. We could only afford HoJo and Holiday Inn, but it was really magical because it was that sense of discovery?that first time you had an ice machine, first time you had room service. It was stimulating. My dad would go get gas with the other travelers and they?d talk about their cars, and us kids would play together with everyone at the pool. It was very, very social. So we at W said if we were inventing the Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson for the new millennium, what would it be based on? That?s how we came up with aloft.

So what do you think is the ideal for road-trip style lodging?
It?s about creating open spaces, it?s about re-socializing. If you?ve just driven eight hours and you pull into a fluorescent-lit, polyester, Formica place where they hand you a plastic key, they re-isolate you. That?s not really healthful and it?s not what human nature is about. For aloft the bars are very social, and we have a pool table. We understand that after you?ve been in a car for eight hours, you have a lot of garbage and the first thing you want to do is empty the garbage out of your car. We have a place to wash your car, and the gyms at aloft are engineered to help what has hurt you on the trip, with emphasis on stretching and decompressing.

W Hotels have an almost fanatical following among travelers. What makes people connect so deeply to your brand?
We try to bring a lot of soul to the properties. They are not run as hotels, but really run as an entertainment company. We try to be intimate but respectful. We don?t have name tags because we want people to have conversations. It?s not the traditional hotel stay, so that?s sort of led us to also recognize the possibility of appealing to nontraditional travelers or people who are not defined traditionally, whether that is single entrepreneurs or people who are officing in different ways or people traveling with their family but their family happens to be their dog or cat or their family happens to be their girlfriend or boyfriend of the same sex.

Is that what makes W so gay-popular? Is it the way the hotels treat gay and lesbian guests?
It?s not pre-scripted. It?s not like this is how you handle a gay or lesbian guest, this is how you handle a guest with pets?this is simply how we handle all of our guests and that?s it. I have obtained a manual on how to manage to a gay guest from another hotel brand. It was just so?clinical. I wanted to know, where was the one on how to manage your nongay guest? Our guests, be they straight, gay, transgender, bi, whatever, they expect us to be truthful and authentic, and they can smell it a mile away. Internally, we call it ?inclusive exclusivity.? We?re going to have an experience for you by your own self-described definitions of who you are as a traveler. But it?s going to be done in a very exclusive way. It?s really about an emotional appeal. It?s not necessarily about an income level appeal or a professional appeal or any of those things. It?s really more about people who relate to an aesthetic that is comfortable and slightly cool, and a level of service that is respectful but not necessarily servitude.

W has also been at the forefront of innovative gay marketing campaigns.
Our first LGBT campaign [in 2003] was called Weekenders. It included two same-sex couples with W names and followed their adventures in a fun way. At the same time we revamped our Wow Vows wedding campaign to include same-sex couples. We got much more feedback that was positive than we expected, and we got a lot less negative feedback than we expected. We like thanking the guests not only with a good stay but also by supporting their specific community. We offered pride packages for two years, but we felt as if we were being like everyone else, as if we were just being exploitative of that particular moment. So we thought, That?s easy, we?ll just call it Pride 365, because you can be proud 365 days a year.

Some people have called W the gayest mainstream hotel brand ever -- of course, in a good way!
If there is a trophy or reward for that, we are happy to accept it.
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