West Elm wants you to recline on their sofa, in their hotel

West Elm Hotel Prototype
A West Elm Hotel prototype. Photo credit: West Elm Hotels

Furniture and houseware brands like West Elm and Restoration Hardware are betting that those who buy their products will stay in their hotels, too. Fashion houses have made the leap before, from Bulgari to Versace, extending their brands into the hospitality space. 

Dave Cameron, design director at San Francisco-based creative company Moving Brands, finds these brand expansions a natural fit. “When you have a homewares brand like [a] Muji or [a] West Elm, there's a quality of design that seems quite a straightforward fit,” he said. “The interiors come to life very quickly with their products and you could imagine them being really enjoyable interiors to spend time in.”

For a wellness-focused brand like Equinox, which announced its expansion into hotels in 2015, there is “certainly a market out there, but it might be slightly more specific,” Cameron said.

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As retail brands expand into hospitality, Cameron said, existing hotels are being redesigned for specific contexts, specific uses and a specific clientele. “So I'm sure some of these big businesses like Equinox will understand that, and will know the types of markets that they can get into.”  

Beyond a good fit for hospitality, the strength of established fashion and retail brands can act as a lure for investors seeking a safe bet and a known commodity. “It is a specific benefit for investors to partner with the world and retail companies as it moves into hospitality,” Cameron said. “Enough big businesses have done the groundwork to know that that it's not too much of a risk.”

Muji’s New Move

Minimalist Japanese retail company Muji announced its foray into hotels in 2017, and opened the first property in Shenzhen, China, in January of this year. The second is slated to open in Beijing later in 2018.

With a branded design aesthetic already in place, Muji’s expansion into hospitality may be relatively painless—but a hotel’s brand is more than just its guestrooms and lobby. With millennials demanding experiential travel, a brand must create consistent experiences from the design of the website for the initial booking all the way through to the check-out process. “There are some challenges in store for Muji and other homewares stores in terms of how they can begin to design some of those experiences,” Cameron said.

For brands like Muji and West Elm, the challenge will be in designing the hotel space in its own right so that it reflects the brand—while not looking like a showroom. To that end, he suggests partnerships with other businesses that might have more experience in the sector. “This is a new world for Muji in some sense,” he said. “What does that booking system look like? What does the front desk look like? What's the behavior of the staff in the Muji hotel? Is there elevator music? What's the food like? What are the partnerships there? How is that delivered?”

Ultimately, the venture will give the company an opportunity to redesign some of those experiences through a distinctly Muji lens, whether that's through bookings, the check-in experience or the dining experience. “It will be interesting to see them begin to tackle this problem,” Cameron said. “And being the design presence that they are, they're going to craft these things with a lot of thought.”

West Elm’s Expansion

West Elm Hotels was first announced in September 2016, with properties scheduled to open in Detroit; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; Oakland, Calif.; Savannah, Ga.; and Portland, Maine beginning in early 2019. As West Elm Hotels’ exclusive operator, DDK will lead property development with local partners.

The move into hospitality was a logical progression of the brand’s growth, DDK co-founder David Bowd said. “In 2015, we entered the $25-billion commercial furnishings market with West Elm Workspace,” he said. “Our entry into the hotel industry is a natural next step, as we are evolving from home furnishings to a purpose-driven brand. We knew that we had to expand beyond physical retail locations. Entering into hospitality... isn’t a marketing aspect for us; it’s about creating a new platform and creating a sustainable model for a unique boutique hotel.”

The company’s hotel division is “focused on achieving consistency of the West Elm aesthetic,” Peter Fowler, VP of hospitality and workspace at West Elm, said. “We want the experience of walking into a West Elm hotel to evoke a similar feeling of walking into a West Elm store—but have the opportunity to extend this.” From a manufacturing perspective, Fowler said, West Elm will be able to leverage its experience in design and global sourcing to deliver value to property developers—“and, ultimately, to customers,” he said.