Ian Schrager & AHL Founder Ben Pundole Open 10th Annual L.E. Miami

The legendary hospitality impresario in conversation with his long time magic maker on the past, present and future of hotels


By Janet Mercel on 6.17.23

L.E. Miami, the annual summit of the best worldwide in high-end hospitality, landed in South Beach this week, where hundreds of brands, lifestyle media, designers, entertainers, hotel and travel pros gathered for four days of industry trailblazing. The hottest ticket was the opening night conversation between Ian Schrager and his longtime creative, A Hotel Life founder Ben Pundole.

Ian and Ben spoke to the filled-to-over-capacity room, (because if anyone knows how to bring a crowd, it’s these two) for an in depth industry discussion: starting an empire with Studio 54, breaking the mold and redefining hospitality as we know it today, and Ben’s nearly twenty-five years of “the wildest ride anyone in our industry could possibly dream of.” AHL was there to report.



On the biggest hospitality industry changes in the last ten years.

Ian: Hotels now are finally realizing that product distinction, lifestyle hotels, and unique experiences are the future of the industry. I’m proud to be a part of that movement. We, the people, benefit from that- not generic, homogenized hotels that are only distinguished by their color, but hotels that are there to lift your spirit and give you a microcosm of the best a city has to offer. I think that’s been a great thing for the people. 

On what’s in store for PUBLIC Hotels.

Ian: PUBLIC is my new baby. It’s an idea for everyone regardless of age or wealth or what you do for a living or where you come from, having nothing to do with demographics. Just a certain kind of sensibility, and providing an uplifting elevated experience at an affordable price and making it available to anybody and everybody who wants it. Usually when you have a product that’s less expensive, people think it’s dumbed down, that the soul and heart is cut out. That’s an old fashioned, antiquated idea, in the same way luxury is an old fashioned idea, based upon wealth and white gloves. Things have to continue to evolve and reflect what modern people want. That’s exactly what PUBLIC is all about and what I’ve always been about. It’s the same experience we offer today that we offered at Studio 54. That absolute freedom to do anything and everything people wanted to do, that cuts across all the socio demographic criteria that everyone else uses. Creating that electric energy can only be done by someone outside the box.



On your quote, “You cannot have an analog definition of luxury in a digital world.”

Ian: You have to be willing to break the rules and do something that hasn’t been done before, test the market and poke the bear. You have to do it in a fast and edgy way, and risk being ineffective and a failure. If you can do that and act lighting quick and be on the edge, on the cusp, then I think you can get rid of the analog and be digitized in modern life. 

On the real definition of a boutique hotel. 

Ian: Steve [Rubell, hospitality partner and Studio 54 co-founder] and I wanted to do a hotel that manifested pop culture and our generation, not a continuation of those first big American hotels in the early 1900s that everyone else copied up until that time. When we did Morgans Hotel in 1982, it was considered “the world’s first boutique hotel.” We wanted something that was edgy and innovative, something that would pick up the baton from Studio and continue with the next leg. 

People don’t realize [now] the number of radical things we did- like there was no concierge because everyone working was meant to be the concierge. It took off like a bat out of hell and was a natural success because it was a new product and everybody knew it. There were different uniforms, from Armani and Calvin Klein, just [all these elements] done by people who had never done a hotel before. It was the first to set the tone, a hotel geared towards the people who lived in the city, not the guests. Because the guests come to New York or any city you’re in, and they want to be and go where the people who know that city go. The other thing we did was not use food and beverage as a loss leader- we did it to make money. The food and beverage turned out to be very profitable for us and now business standard is 50% of the profits come from F&B and 50% comes from the rooms. 

On working with the most celebrated artists and designers in the world- Herzog & de Meuron, John Pawson, Philippe Starck, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring- and the qualities to look for in a collaborator. 

Ian: I look for a collaboration. I’m not interested in hiring a designer and having them just do it. If they could do it themselves, they would do it on their own and they’d be a hotelier. I’m only interested in one thing- doing the best product imaginable. If there’s one thing I can pass on to people, it’s don’t take anything from designers who won’t listen to you just because they’re designers. They have a craft and a talent that you may not have, that I may not have. And I’m not a designer, but I am a team leader, a coach, and I try to get the best out of everyone in collaborating. And the really great designers- they want to be pushed to do the best thing they can possibly do. The most important thing is the collaboration- you’re the hotelier, they’re not. And when I choose a designer it’s something that speaks to me. 



On the big changes in travel and lifestyle media in the last decade, and the blurred lines between traditional media, social media, influencer opinion, etcetera. 

Ian: I’m still trying to figure it out because it’s still so new. One thing I don’t like is when influencers try to get free rooms. I could really go off about that one. We’re all learning how to communicate, but you have time to figure it out as long as the product is great. Steve Jobs said, “Nothing else matters but the product. If the product is great, the rest will take care of itself.” I feel the same way. All these things we have to figure out- technology, the booking engines, and everything else that’s the future of our industry, none of it matters without a great product. 

On the greatest lessons from Studio 54, which was open for just 33 months and gave recognition, contacts and the motivation to catapult a hotel career. 

Ian: Pay your taxes! But- believe it or not a nightclub is a great learning ground. You have the same liquor, the same music, the same thing everybody else has. So all you really have is the magic you’re able to create by how you put it together, and how you create this kind of excitement in the air you could cut with a knife, it’s so thick. It’s all about the product. Nothing else matters but the product, nothing, I learned that then. Studio 54 was like holding onto a lightning bolt, and it became about just feeding the monster. It got to be intoxicating for both Steve and I. The most important thing I learned is to play by the rules- I mean that seriously. We were so taken up by the success of it we thought maybe the rules didn’t apply to us, but boy, we found out pretty quickly how that went. 

On greatest passions outside hotels. 

Ian: My family, far and away. I didn’t get married until later, I had done everything and then some, and now I just couldn’t be happier in this part of my life. I love my wife, I love my family, I have 5 kids, and I do my work. 

Ben: Age is clearly a state of mind, and you’re definitely one of the youngest people I know. You’ve got more motivation, ambition and cultural awareness than anybody. What is your secret? 

Ian: No secret, I love what I do. I don’t do it for money, I do it because I love it and I have to. That’s it. It’s not a job; I think to be good at something you have to love what you do, and if you don’t love it, you should move into something else because life’s too short. The journey is too short. If you can love your life and the people you’re with, and your family and what you do, you are the richest person in the entire world. 

Ben: Ian has certainly influenced my life, and inspired our entire industry. Since 1999, twenty-four years ago, we have done some incredible things together, and opened some beautiful hotels. Any favorite moments?

Ian: There’s one thing that sticks out that perhaps only Ben and I can really understand. We had just opened up the EDITION Hotel in Times Square. Diana Ross was up there entertaining and she called Nile Rogers out on the stage and they were performing together. I was sitting on the side with my family, Ben was right in the thick of it in a booth looking right at the stage. Our eyes caught each other, and boy, only he and I knew. I looked at his face, and the supreme enjoyment that he had by doing something that turned on all these people. When I looked at him I knew, because I felt it right back. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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