By  on March 14, 2007

Hotelier Jonathan Tisch likes to wear J. Crew.

The preppy-with-a-twist brand is one of just a handful of apparel labels regularly donned by Tisch, chairman and chief executive of Loews Hotels, and is a favorite because of its clean lines and understated look. Giorgio Armani, Prada, Hermès and "a lot of stuff from Scoop" also own a place in the closet of the admittedly hard to please, 53-year-old hotel executive, whose book, "Chocolates on the Pillow Aren't Enough: Reinventing the Customer Experience" (John Wiley & Sons, $26.95), was published Friday.

"Less is more," Tisch said, describing his taste for "looking classy with not a lot of frills."

Reflecting a similar sensibility, Loews' 16 hotel properties in the U.S. and two in Canada, led by the third generation of Tisch executives, bid for the 1.3 million customers they serve annually with the offer of surroundings that are upscale but not trendy.

"We keep our brand fresh by making sure our properties relate to their locations, through their architecture, interior design, [staff] uniforms and food," Tisch said. The hotels range from Miami Beach to San Diego to Montreal and back to New York, where the Loews Regency Hotel sits across the street from the headquarters of the $371 million group. "We're stylish, but very aware of who our customer is; generally, we aim at high-end business travelers. Andre Balazs' customer is not ours," Tisch offered, speaking of the hotelier whose portfolio of luxury destinations includes Chateau Marmont, the Standard Miami and the Mercer in New York.

While interior design and uniforms may seem fleeting or insignificant, they combine to shape a guest's first impression of a hotel — and can be the swing factor in a person's choice to stay in one place rather than another, Tisch has found. "There are [various] points of entry for a hotel guest and one of them is style," which is reflected in a property's marketing and Web presence, he said in an interview at the headquarters of the Loews Corp., parent of the hotel group, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. (Tisch and his cousin Andrew Tisch are co-chairmen of the $17.8 billion Loews Corp., with holdings that include CNA Financial, Lorillard and Bulova Corp.)Guests begin to perceive a hotel's style on arrival, influenced by the staff's uniforms, the lobby design and its appointments. At the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville, a pair of large stone lions at the entry have been dressed in coats, which Alexandra Champalimaud, designer of the property's interiors, considers great fun.

"This is Nashville; there's a bit of humor," said Champalimaud, president and principal designer of Alexandra Champalimaud & Associates, who also designed Loews hotel interiors in the Madison in Washington and in the Loews New Orleans Hotel, the chain's newest location, opened in fall 2003. "It isn't tacky, it isn't Las Vegas, but it is good humor." The detail is intended to reflect Nashville's friendliness and openness, she noted.

"Hoteliers tell a story," Tisch related. "It starts when people book a reservation. When they arrive, they get a greeting, they check in and there's that moment of anticipation about what the room will be like.

"I think Mickey Drexler is very good at that [storytelling]. Over many cups of coffee, we've talked about the similarities between retailing for millions of people and running hotels," Tisch said of conversations with his friend Drexler, J. Crew's chief executive officer. "He's made the process simple. The way the merchandise flows in the stores is almost like a story. There's a red phone people can use to get [additional] help."

For businesses with walk-in customers, from hotels and stores to banks and hospitals, their settings, Tisch writes, are often their "best form of advertising."

"There's no way Urban Outfitters can match the vast TV budgets of competing clothing chains like the Gap or Old Navy," the author/hotelier observes in his book. "Instead, they invest smaller sums of money in creating a one-of-a-kind style."

At Urban Outfitters, the atmosphere Tisch perceives is one of "deliberate semi-chaos," aimed at restless Gen-Xers with short attention spans. "The result is stores that are like three-dimensional billboards — visually striking and memorable," he recounts. "They generate word of mouth, whose financial value can't even be calculated."

One of the first elements to strike arriving hotel guests, the style of uniforms, is one Champalimaud sees for Loews as being "simple and handsome and well-tailored — evoking a superior quality of service.""The clothes don't need too much lavish gold or top hats, nor do they need to be minimal black," added the designer.

Champalimaud and others who create the Loews interiors work with uniform supplier Cintas Corp. to ensure the staffs' wardrobes mesh with the other design elements of the hotel and its locale. Loews customizes about 20 percent of its uniforms — those for doormen, bellmen and housekeepers. The balance comes from the $70 million worth of apparel Cintas usually has on hand, according to Betsy White, the uniform supplier's director of merchandising.

New uniforms are being created for two of the three Loews properties at the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida — the Royal Pacific, which has a Polynesian flavor, and Portofino Bay, suggestive of an old Italian village. At the latter, a nautical look is being replaced by clothes White called retro Italian: soft, striped and checked, navy and tan linen-polyester blends; "more shirts and vests than jackets and ties."

Custom uniform changes for hotels such as Loews are moving to a two- to three-year cycle, from a four-year period after travel business was hurt by the attacks of 9/11, White said. Some elements are altered more often with stock items — say, a new shirt and tie for front desk staff. The key, White said, is that the color and styling flow smoothly from the front to back of a property.

While a setting always makes an impression, these days people expect more style in their lives than they once did, Tisch said in the interview. (That doesn't keep Loews from continuing to put Hershey's Kisses on guests' pillows.) This has been spurred by the democratization of style from the likes of the Ikeas, Targets and Starbucks of the world, and, in hotels in particular, by the spread of high-concept boutique and luxury hotels, he noted, with a nod to Ian Schrager and Barry Sternlicht.

Even as the styles in favor change, Tisch hews to a handful of basics he learned from his father, Bob Tisch, and his uncle, Larry Tisch, who started Loews Corp.: Keep it simple, don't look back and make decisions from the information at hand. "Larry had a financial acumen like few I've ever seen," Tisch recalled. "He could ask you five questions and know your business better than you ever would. He was called Mr. Inside. My father was called Mr. Outside," he added. "My father knew to always keep your customer in your sights."

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