Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Soho Grand – Lifestyle Branding with Music

In 1996, one of my favorite hotels, New York City's Soho Grand, opened its doors billing itself as "the first hotel to arrive in Soho in more than a century".

William Sofield's interior décor presented weary travelers and local executives alike with a suitably hip refuge from urban chaos. But otherwise the new hotel could hardly be described as a harboring a 'scene' –or a 'sound' for that matter.

In fact, a definitive part of the lobby's appeal, apart from its plush sofas and speedy table service, was that no matter what time of day or night one arrived, the space was relatively absent of all sound, save the murmur of conversation. Being that the Soho Grand was located in 'the city that never sleeps', it was therefore not unusual to find executives continuing a long day at the office with a casual meeting afterward at the hotel's lobby (over cocktails of course), before going home at ten or eleven PM.

But then, at the turn of the millennium, an abrupt shift in strategy:

Now, I don't know if management at the Soho Grand suddenly wanted to move more alcohol and at a faster pace, or if they just wanted to fill the lobby up with beautiful people. More than likely they –like many others– decided to experiment with a trend begun by the Hôtel Costes in Europe.

Stéphane Pompougnac, Hôtel Costes' house DJ explained to the New York Times in a 2005 article titled, Never Mind the Concierge, Where's the D.J.?:

"A lot of famous people, like Robert DeNiro, Madonna and French artists came to see me, to tell me they liked my music," Mr. Pompougnac said. "So I asked my boss to make a compilation CD, just like a present, for the clients of the hotel."

They did, and in 1997 a virtual industry was born out it.

In a 2001 New York Observer article, hotelier Ian Schrager explains what happened after that:

"The Hôtel Costes did a CD which was No. 3 in France... So it made everybody interested in doing it.”

Regardless, whether the initiative was made independently of Pompougnac's success, the decision by the Soho Grand to inject music into its own marketing strategy appears to have proved a good one.

Not only did music serve to create a new New York scene, it also fueled the transformation of the Soho Grand from a hotel downtown into a Downtown Hotel –a substantial differentiation point for the brand.

Eight years later the Soho Grand hosts a series of CDs, of which at least two titles appear to have been created in collaboration with 5 POINTS. 5 POINTS itself is an example of a how to do business running parallel to the music industry, and possibly reinventing it as you go.

From the 5 POINTS website:

"Grand Life Soho and Grand Life Tribeca are the first and second installments in 5 POINTS' Grand Life series, soundtracks to New York's cutting edge, trend setting glitteratti! Under the creative direction of Tommy Saleh, the hotel/underground music venues Soho Grand and Tribeca Grand have been key in launching the careers of The Rapture, Peaches and the Kaiser Chiefs. These compilations, created for and distributed exclusively at the Soho and Tribeca Grand hotels in New York, showcase the underground acts that will be hot tomorrow."

On the Soho Grand's own lifestyle blog, GrandLife, one learns that:

"In addition to the Tribeca and Soho Grand Compilations, we also have a selection of the following cd's in our guests' rooms where guests can simply listen to during their stay or if they like they can purchase the cd to take back home."

In fact there are at least eight titles available for purchase at a premium price of $20 per unit. Arguably that price reflects the fact that customers are buying a lifestyle souvenir as much as they are buying a given disc because of a specific track on it. If that's the case, the marketers have done their jobs well, and the artists featured on the discs can enjoy a new stream of income that simply didn't exist until relatively recently.

Unfortunately, you can't please everyone:

If you followed the link for the Ian Schrager quote you would have found that it came from an article by Elisabeth Franck who disparages the trend in an article titled 'Worst French Import Since Brie: Bad Ambient Music in Chic Hotels'.

It maybe that Ms. Franck (or her editor) felt some empathy for the displaced executives who can no longer rely on the lobbies of boutique hotels to provide a quiet respite from the New York noise.

To Ms. Franck's point, the music strategy executed by the Soho Grand was never supposed to turn the lobby into a disco. In that same New York Observer article, Tommy Saleh, director of industry relations at the Soho Grand and Tribeca Grand in 2001, and 5 POINTS lead, explains the vibe was conceived as being more like "...a sound you want to sit down and have a cocktail to: not boring, but not intrusive."

I haven't been to the Hôtel Costes, but I have been a customer of the Soho Grand brand since it opened over a decade ago. Based my own visits to the hotel, it's not the music that's 'intrusive' –if you're seeking an oasis from chaos– as much as it is the few hundred hipsters that have shown up to listen to it.

The funny thing is that if you asked anyone today what exactly brands the space, I don't think they would put music at the very top of the list, even though music arguably initiated a seismic shift in brand perception for the hotel beginning circa 2001.

In fact, I think music wouldn't even appear until after decor , which certainly would have been first when the hotel launched. Today, I think many would suggest the hotel's branding is a reflection of the PEOPLE who inhabit the space –with little realization that MUSIC is what actually brought many of those people in through the front doors in the first place.

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Visit the Soho Grand's GrandLife blog to check out the current crew of resident DJs –among them, one of my favorites: DJ Jaclyn Marinese

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