George Fleck first started with W Hotels more than 20 years ago, and has also led the St Regis, Le Méridien and Westin brands during his career.

How did you get into hospitality?

I started out as a bellman while I was in college and I loved being in hospitality. I found my way to Starwood when it was just launching in 2002. I’d read about this cool new brand that everyone was buzzing about called W Hotels. I’d never seen anything like it: it spoke to all your senses; it had a point of view on music and design; it cared about personality not just skill. It felt like a totally different vibe that I wanted to be part of. I made it my mission to work there, faxed (!) my resume to the new W in Chicago and got hired.

What attracted you to the brand side of hospitality?

Branding is all about how decisions are made around every touchpoint of the experience – whether intangible, like the culture and vibe, or the tangible experiences and initiatives. It’s also future-looking: where will the hotel brand be three years from now? I really wanted to be part of the team that moves and evolves a brand forward.

How has the brand evolved?

When I first joined, we were mostly a North American phenomenon. We had to think about how to take the DNA of a US-born brand and export it globally. English is a fun language; you can be quite playful and quite cheeky. But a lot of the words we were using weren’t translatable, so we had to change our vernacular to be less gimmicky without losing the lightheartedness.

Where is the W brand today?

The landscape today has totally changed. The challenge now is: how do you take a brand that’s technically almost three decades old, but keep it fresh and relevant for the next generation of traveller, while also still catering to our loyal brand fans. Over the years, we’ve really leaned into the social component of the brand, focusing on public space activations with amazing parties and events.

But the focus wasn’t so much on comfort or luxury in guest rooms, so we’ve changed how we think about that. And, secondly, really pushing service. People might have been more forgiving in the past, especially when there’s a cool scene and the room was more just a place to sleep. I want service to be more anticipatory and get back to the heart of what hospitality is about: taking care of people.

What would you say is the brand essence?

I really love this idea of being in the moment. There’s a ‘carpe diem’ mentality about this brand. Once you’re here, we want you to forget about what’s stressing you out because you’ve been seduced into these really unique spaces and experiences, and find yourself in situations you haven’t tried before.

How important is location for the W brand?

What’s important to me is the DNA of the destination. Obviously, we want to be in key gateway cities that our customers want to go to – London, New York, Shanghai. Equally, there are markets where we love to be first in as a lifestyle brand. When we opened W Barcelona, it was the first proper luxury hotel of that calibre and it had a profound impact on the city, both physically from the structure itself to how we changed a whole new neighbourhood.

Speaking of statement architecture, the Ribbon Building in Edinburgh’s St James Quarter raised some eyebrows…

I love that [the Ribbon Building] stands out and has even caused conversation. It shows that as a brand we have a point of view on how we see the future of architecture and changing the landscape of the city. We always want to honour the heritage of a destination but it’s great to take a stance as well.

What makes a brand successful?

When you launch a new brand, you have to really know what your purpose is. The more specific you are, the better. People don’t stay in hotels every day, so when they do, it has to be so clear and memorable. Great beds, great service and a great meal is table stakes. What’s that extra that makes people remember [the hotel]? It is very crowded in the hospitality space, but that’s where I feel like there’s opportunity.

Are there too many brands in the marketplace today?

I actually think it’s wonderful to see so many brands, especially lifestyle brands. Hilton just announced its partnership with Sydell Group and NoMad, and Accor has an amazing set of lifestyle brands. I think it’s great for hospitality because customers have more choices and talent has more opportunities. For W, it’s a really great way to crystallise itself and decide where it wants to be in the future.

What’s next for W?

All very exciting. We’re opening in São Paulo later this year, our first entry into Brazil. We’re also opening our first all-inclusive in Punta Cana, where we’re totally upending what people know about the all-inclusive world – it won’t be karaoke singalongs and themed parties. I’m also really excited about our growth in Italy too. We have an amazing hotel in Rome, we are soon opening in Naples, and we have Milan and Florence on the horizon too.

by Tamsin Cocks