Byline: Lisa Lockwood

NEW YORK — Could hotels be the next frontier for Ralph Lauren?
According to sources, Polo Ralph Lauren executives are scouting locations to open a few luxury hotels around the globe. The hotels would reportedly convey various Polo Ralph Lauren lifestyle themes, such as Colorado western and English country.
“We continue to look at new opportunities, but there’s nothing imminent,” said a Ralph Lauren spokeswoman Monday.
For years, Ralph Lauren has expressed interest in expanding into hotels, and sources said it would be a natural fit for the designer.
“The prospect of having a showroom for all your home furnishings is very tantalizing,” said one observer.
Lauren, who has expanded his luxurious lifestyle concept to categories such as home furnishings, fragrances, jeanswear, children’s wear and activewear, has dabbled in the hospitality arena.
In 1999, Lauren opened RL, an Italian restaurant in Chicago that’s almost an exact replica of Vico, which at the time was his most-frequented restaurant in Manhattan. In opening RL, he partnered with Nino Esposito and Gennaro Vertucci, owners of Sette Mezzo and Sette. The 98-seat RL occupies a gray stone building at 115 East Chicago Avenue, adjacent to Lauren’s largest Polo Ralph Lauren store, the 37,000-square-foot flagship at the corner of Chicago and Michigan Avenues. At the time of the restaurant opening, Lauren envisioned opening more eateries in other cities.
Travel appears to be an important part of Lauren’s lifestyle concept. Currently, the polo.com Web site offers a travel section, highlighting destinations such as the Adirondacks and Florida Keys, with opportunities to make reservations online. For those who want to take their own hotels on the road, polo.com is selling special-edition Ralph Lauren vintage Airstreams for $150,000. The trailers were decorated by Lauren’s design team in western, nautical, Adirondack and utility-surplus themes. Proceeds from the Airstream sales benefit Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Prevention and Care and North General Hospital in Harlem, here.
Luxury hotels could be the next major market for luxury goods and designer brands. As reported last month, Bulgari announced it had formed a joint venture with Marriott International Inc. to open Bulgari Hotels & Resorts in major locations throughout the world. The first two hotels are expected to open in 2003, followed by five more over the next four years.
At a news conference last month, Francesco Trapani, Bulgari’s chief executive officer, said the hotel industry currently generates more than $300 billion a year, with the luxury segment accounting for about 10 percent of that. About 28 million American travelers stayed at luxury hotels last year and the number of wealthy travelers over age 45 is expected to grow by 20 percent by the year 2005.
Bulgari isn’t the only luxury firm targeting the hotel sector. Krizia has operated hotels for a decade and more recently, Versace, Ferragamo, Diesel and Aeffe’s Massimo Ferretti have moved into this business. Even Giorgio Armani is said to be considering opening Armani hotels in Europe.