AHL In Conversation with Ian Schrager

"We always go back and pick up the baton where we left it—and start the race again."

Ben Pundole and Ian Schrager
Ben Pundole and Ian Schrager

With travel not in our capabilities at the moment, A Hotel Life founder Ben Pundole has been interviewing travel and hospitality figures from quarantine on Instagram Live. Here is the full interview of a recent Instagram interview with famed hotelier Ian Schrager. Which you can listen to here.

Ian, it’s just you and I and 300 people watching us so far. Welcome, everybody. Thanks so much for taking the time. Ian, it’s such a pleasure and an honor. You need absolutely no introduction whatsoever. It’s nice to see your face.

Likewise Ben.

Are you staying healthy and well? What’s your current personal situation?

I’m with my family, we’re waiting this out. Waiting to come out on the other side. It’s very unfortunate… Never been through anything like this before, but I’m quite certain we will get through it. We will get our lives back. Things will return to normal, not a new normal, a regular normal.

How are things professionally – obviously, I know the hotels are closed, but how are things?

Things are terrible! Having to close the hotel was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made in my life. You know you don’t close… I’ve stayed open through snowstorms and whatever else. That was a very difficult situation, difficult for all the people I work with. It was very heartbreaking. Now we’re waiting. It’s been very difficult, and nothing as I’ve ever gone through before.

It is heartbreaking and very strange to close a hotel – from the minute it’s open, they never close. We are living in very unprecedented times. Travel and hospitality have been hit particularly hard. What do you think businesses need to do to adapt to be successful post-Corona?

Everybody has to continue to do what they did before. When this country opens up, it’s really going to be decided by the people, not by the government or elected officials. When they feel comfortable and safe, they will come out. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen, especially not the intellectual pundits. It’s the people that will tell us. I’ve heard that when we eventually do open – hopefully, it will be sometime in June or July – that maybe the restaurants and the bars will get started more quickly, but the ramp-up with hotels will be a little slower. But nobody knows. It’s guesswork for everybody.

Ian, this is a question I wasn’t going to ask, but I’m going to – what are your thoughts on how the government is handling the situation?

I’d like to plead the fifth amendment on that one [laughs]… I’m not there, I can’t really comment on how they’re doing. I do tune in weekly for the comedy hour at 5 o’clock to see what’s going on with that. I love Dr. Fauci and what he says; he’s quite reasonable. Look, it’s very, very hard and unfair of me without having all the knowledge of what’s going on to comment publicly.

Ben Pundole and Ian Schrager

The hotel industry was pretty stagnant for a long time until the emergence of lifestyle hotels in 1984 when you opened Morgans [Hotel Group]. Do you think moving forward, that there could be a new segment of the industry created from this?

I don’t think so. Perhaps, but I’m not a big believer in paradigm shifts. I’ve been hearing it many, many times over, every time the world and culture takes a shot, everyone thinks everything is going to change and be different. I don’t think it happens that frequently, if at all. We are a species, there is a human condition, and I think those needs need to be satisfied. I think the things that were impacting the industry before will continue going forward. Technology, health and wellness will dominate the industry going forward.

There might be a resurgence of this idea of pod hotels, people who don’t want that human connection. In the luxury hotel market, people naturally want that connection, that’s a big part of hospitality, but maybe there’s space now for people who want to check-in on their phones, go to sleep, get up, and check-out, without coming into contact with anybody.

I think people do want that. It’s a new thing, there’s always resistance to a new idea. But it makes things quicker and easier and cheaper, and those savings can be passed along to the customers. So I think that’s modern. You can’t stand in the way of progress, and we’re going to see more and more of that. I don’t think the loss of human contact – in any of those functions you just talked about – I don’t think anyone will miss it in the same way they don’t miss getting directions over your phone and other things you can do over the phone with technology. As long as it’s easy and quick.

Simplicity and accessibility will be key. We were on that path anyway for health and wellness… This idea of impact and purpose is going to be prioritized after this pandemic. I think that’s a great thing for us. Hospitality should have a focus on impact on ourselves, each other and the Earth.

I think that’s a great thing. It was in the air before the pandemic. I think it’s what people want. Imagine: come to New York for business, and a cure, and go home actually feeling better than when you came. It’s just a great, great thought, and I think it’s the future. It’s very exciting and no one has done it well yet.

A lot of people want to know about Studio 54. My favorite quote of yours is “Studio 54 was like hanging on to a lightning bolt.” It was open for 33 months – an incredible book came out a few years ago. I hope everyone has seen the documentary, and on March 11, a couple days before the mandatory lockdown, the Brooklyn Museum opened a retrospective of Studio 54. It was the first time any museum has launched a retrospective of a nightclub. Did you ever expect that Studio 54 would take off like that?

Of course not. No way to expect that. You try and do the best nightclub in New York and arguably could be considered the best nightclub in the world. But it just was an absolute phenomenon. From the minute the doors opened, it just was something new and that kind of resonated with everybody. It was just great to be a part of something like that in my life. It was exhilarating.

So do we get to see the retrospective at some point at the Brooklyn Museum?

Of course. They worked on that exhibit for a couple of years, they were very serious about it. They looked at Studio like a cultural and social phenomenon, which I think it was, almost 40 years later, people are still fascinated by it. It’s going to open again as soon as it’s safe for people to go out. It will be there for a while, then it will travel to other museums around the world. I just wish Steve [Rubell] could hear that. Because as gratifying as it is for me to say ‘Holy Toledo! Studio is in a museum exhibit,’ he would enjoy it as much as I do. Kind of like a validation – it’s just great. I loved it.

Speaking of Steve, I hope you don’t mind me asking this. You and Steve Rubell were, let’s say, “invited to isolate” before (if you’ve seen the documentary, you’ll know what I’m talking about). Any advice you want to give on how we should all get through this, being confined to smaller spaces for a while?

You should look at this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a pause in life. Take a look at everything that you’re doing, the road that you’re on. Try to connect the dots, make sure you’re happy, make sure you’re enjoying every minute of your life. Personally reflect on everything that’s going on and come out of this stronger, more focused, and more determined on what you want to accomplish. I’ve had an interlude in my life, it was a forced interlude, but I came out of it and decided to go into the hotel business. We have to look at this like an opportunity of a new beginning, of everything – a new beginning when the hotels will open, with my personal life, and with my family. It isn’t often in life you get the opportunity for a do over, and that’s what this is. If you approach it like that, you have a positive attitude and that should help you get through this period of time. This is something you’ll never have again, and you should savor every second and use every minute to do things you haven’t done before.

Going back to Studio 54 for a minute… How have you managed to maintain such a diverse following over the decades?

When you have a strong product, people flock to it. Studio was different than anything else at the time. What it was achieving, aspiring to, the special effects… The whole thing – the way the place worked and moved. It all worked very well. When these things come together a synthesis happens and the totality is more than the sum of the individual parts. And that’s what I like to call magic. The magic gets created. We always thought, coming from Brooklyn, that what creates energy is by putting a bunch of diverse people together in the room. Sparks get created. Not just a bunch of rich people with other rich people, or white people with only white people, or black people with only black people… No. Gay, straight, everything. To get that dynamic with the feeling you’re really being taken care of, and there isn’t anything you can do that you aren’t going to be able to get up the next morning and walk away from. To help with this kind of mayhem that went on there every night. It was just – people like to think of it like there’s a kind of superhuman innocence that was being practiced there every night. A freedom that you don’t often have, that everyone had there every night.

Ian Schrager and Cara Delevingne at the opening of the Times Square EDITION
Ian Schrager and Cara Delevingne at the opening of the Times Square EDITION

For those who don’t know, I’ve worked for Ian for over 20 years now, and we continue to celebrate diversity in everything we do. I think that’s such an important piece of who we are and what we do, and it makes me very proud. You learn a lot from it too – you’re never around any one type of person.

You know Ben, I often think about that time when we opened up The Times Square EDITION, and the opening night of the Paradise Club. We had Diana Ross, House of Yes, and Nile Rodgers, and the crowd that was there – it was packed – was just going crazy. Everybody was having such a fun time. There was an electricity in the air. You and I happened to spot each other across the room, and we both had this smile like “Look at that, man.” No words were spoken, but I understood that joy you were feeling, because I was feeling the same joy about it. And I got to feel that every night at Studio!

That’s what it’s about! That’s why we do it.

And that’s why I still do it! To experience that joy, that exhilaration of people enjoying it.

I’ve been in New York for 22 years, and that was in the top 3 New York moments ever. I just could not imagine that you could create something like that again. I would imagine that was what it was like that every night at Studio 54, sadly I wasn’t there. I think I was born in the wrong era. I wish I could’ve been there… Now you are originally from Brooklyn, you’ve been through various economic crisis like 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, the Blackout, now the pandemic. What does it mean to you to be a New Yorker?

Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. Every other place feels provincial next to New York. Things have changed, things have become more global. You used to travel around, people dressed differently. That’s not so much the case anymore. There’s an intensity, even a hostility, in New York that you get used to. The pace is so fast that – live and die in New York – there’s no other place like it. It means a lot to me. I’m particularly happy with the way our governor [Andrew Cuomo] has been handling this crisis because he has just been great – that is a great leader. Galvanizing for everybody and helping everyone get through this.

New York tough – I used to say that when New York becomes your reality, it’s really time to check yourself, but then after a while once it becomes your reality, it’s the only reality you want. I’m in!

When I think about the late 70s, the slogan was “I Love New York,” and now 40 years later the slogan that resonates with everybody is “New York Tough.” And that’s damn right!

You’ve historically worked with the best architects, chefs, designers, bar people… How do you make your decisions about who you want to work with all over the world?

Instinctive. When I see somebody’s work I get a response – visceral, emotional. I instinctively feel it’s the right thing, the right person. Thank God I haven’t made a mistake yet. It’s completely instinctive, it’s not an intellectual decision based upon analysis or paralysis that comes with analysis. It’s just an instinctive feeling that this is right for this place at this time. It’s part of the fun I have in doing it, putting the various pieces of the puzzle together to make a new thing. And everybody participates with that. It’s the same thing I saw in you back in London – I knew you were special. Same criteria.

Thank you, Ian, that’s very kind of you.

I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.

I’m very aware of that so thank you, that means a lot. So what’s your proudest moment?

When each one of my kids were born. When you have your kids, you’ll understand what I’m saying. That beats everything. Nothing like it. Everything else pales by comparison. I used to consider every project I did my kids; I didn’t like one more than the other and loved them all. But now that I have five kids, I can’t call my projects my kids. It’s only my kids.

I saw Sophia is watching, so you said the right things.

Sophia is always on top of everything. If there’s something happening, she’s there.

She’s the best – I’ve known her since she was 3 years oldOk so that’s your proudest moment. Any regrets?

Well, I have two regrets. One regret was the debacle that happened around Studio, obviously. That has to be a regret in my life. And the second regret might seem a little frivolous. I had an opportunity to buy the house next door, and I didn’t. Other than that, I’m really so fortunate, I have no regrets. I’ve lived my life – and even those are not really regrets – but I’ve lived my life to the fullest and I will continue to live to the fullest and work hard. I love what I do and where I am in my life now.

One thing I do know about you is that you do work very hard and you do love what you do. You have/had some very exciting things happening with both EDITION and PUBLIC for 2020 that have been put on hold, but anything you want to mention that’s coming up for the end of the year?

Yes, with PUBLIC we have a lot of exciting opportunities. We are redoing a lot of the aspects at PUBLIC New York with a new nightclub, a new restaurant, a new bar at Diego, but I don’t want to say too much about that now. And EDITION, we are doing hotels all over the world. We’re working on about 40 of them so that’s been fun. I want to start working on a multi-media theater piece about Studio 54 that will rethink and reinvent the theater experience. I’m quite excited about it, and working on a lot of other things. I’m working on another book, I just love what I do! And I’ll keep doing it. I was just telling my wife I’ll probably be working hard for at least another 10 years.

At least 10 years! The immersive theater thing sounds incredible. And yes with regards to EDITION, we are hopefully opening the Tokyo EDITION followed by the Reykjavik EDITION beginning of next year… Is there anything else you could see yourself going into whether it’s airlines, or dare I say, cruise ships?

Cruise ships definitely – it’s another part of the hospitality industry. This immersive theater, reinventing that genre, it’s really interesting and exciting to me. Working with some of the most talented people in the world from this country, Europe and Asia, so that’s exciting. I also love this idea of micro apartments and providing good living spaces at very, very affordable prices. Affordable rent to deal with the living issues we are having in cities like New York and around the world, so that’s also of interest to me. There’s a whole world out there to do stuff, and I’m here to do as much as I can do.

Tania Schrager, Ian Schrager, Sophia Schrager at the opening of the West Hollywood EDITION
Tania Schrager, Ian Schrager, Sophia Schrager at the opening of the West Hollywood EDITION

People are living differently and don’t want to commit to long leases. This idea of co-living could really take off. I wish I was in my 20s again, I wouldn’t take a lease, I would travel around and live in various places. I love what’s happening there.

They’re all, in a funny way, they’re all offshoots of the hotel. The hotel is a place where you go and sleep, then we added large public spaces and entertainment. So you take that socializing and communal living and putting it where you work, and where you live. It’s making its way through the population and all these various things. Because we’re social. No matter where we are or what we do, we crave that kind of contact. I think that’s really a great thing. You’re going to see it permeated throughout everything more and more. I think that’s exciting and something for us to look forward to.

Back to what you said at the beginning, we are going to go back to normal, resembling the normal we had before. We are social creatures by nature who want to be out dancing, at the theater, and eating… but we have to do it better. We have to do it safer, in a more healthy way, but you’re right. We are social creatures. All of this is an extension of the hotels, the lobby as a social space, the nightclubs as theater. Those that survive are the ones that are going to be doing it really well.

Of course, everything has to evolve. Just like the way kitchen appliances, cars, planes, everything has to continue to evolve. But this paradigm shift just doesn’t happen the way all the pundits claim it does after something traumatic happens. I remember after 9/11 everyone said everything about life was going to change, but we get used to it. Yes, we have longer lines at the airport, but I can’t think of a lot of other instances where there’s been a paradigm shift or a profound change in the way we live. They just don’t come about so easily. We’ve been on this continuum, and we will get back to normal – not a new normal – but a regular normal. I think for timing we’re talking in terms of months, not years. We will get back. Human life finds a way, always. We’ll find a way. That’s been my experience. Again, it’s not intellectual, but for every crisis we’ve been through. We always go back and pick up the baton where we left it—and start the race again. That’s been my experience.

Before we start that race again, you’ve probably spent the most amount of time at home than you ever have done. Technology is far more advanced, and this has been my first time using Instagram live just a few weeks ago. Have you been taking life online at all?

No, I’ve been exercising, hanging out with my family, listening to a lot of audiobooks, and I’ve been working. Still working! Getting ready for when everything opens up again, and dealing with all the things that came about with having to close and change life so abruptly from one day to the next. I think things are beginning to calm down now a little. So my focus is getting ready to reopen everything and get going. Which I think will happen soon. When, I can’t say, but unless there’s some surprise that happens, maybe by end of June or sometime in July. But I don’t really know.

We’re certainly looking forward to it. Ian, you’ve been very generous with your time so thank you so much for talking to me today. There’s a lot of people in the industry watching.

It’s a pleasure, Ben. Speak to you soon. Bye Sophia!

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