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Inside the W

Boston opening months in the making as hotel chain showed employees how to bring its special brand of whimsy to guests

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

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The smell of spiced tea wafted through the air at W Boston’s Talent Center on a sunny summer day. Techno beats thumped and candles flickered. Fresh orchids lined the tables in the dimly lit Whisper Room, where a job interview was taking place.

“Tell me the last time you wowed a guest,’’ hotel general manager William Bunce asked a veteran doorman. “Tell me the last time you had a whoops with a guest.’’

Officials at the W Boston, a 28-story hotel that opens Thursday with 235 rooms and 123 residences, sifted through 7,000 applications over the summer to find 300 candidates to carry out its unique brand of corporate culture. W employees are encouraged to act like the cast of a theatrical production, with hotel guests in the starring role: Housekeepers are called “stylists’’ and elevators are called “lifts.’’ Hotel staff is also encouraged to use some words that begin with “W.’’

“We’re not really a cult, but by using these words, we give [guests] something that is a little cult-like,’’ Roger Paull, senior director of brand management, told employees on the first day of training.

The 11-year-old Starwood hotel brand cultivates its stylish image carefully, stacking fashion books in the lobby, turning the lights down and the music up as the day goes on to create a more loungey atmosphere in the evening, and changing the welcome mats three times a day to say “Good Morning,’’ “Good Afternoon,’’ and “Good Evening.’’ W executives refer to the hotel as an international pop culture icon.

“W’s overall intention is still to be the coolest place in town,’’ said Eva Ziegler, global brand leader for W Hotels. “The target audience are the trendsetters - people who are interested in the latest, newest, hippest, coolest. “

The new Boston employees learned how to cater to those trendsetters during a 10-day training session earlier this month with the spotlight on them. After arriving at the W on Stuart Street early one recent morning in trolleys blaring disco music, the employees, many dressed in the hotel’s signature purple, stepped out onto a purple carpet, where a throng of fake paparazzi called out, “Over here, over here’’ as their flashbulbs popped and a Joan Rivers impersonator thrust her microphone toward them. Inside, a tattooed DJ with a braided beard was spinning “Let the Sunshine In.’’

All this whimsy and “wonderlust’’ act as a beacon for motivated employees in search of a different kind of workplace. “They gave us the celebrity treatment, and that’s what we’re expected to provide to the guests,’’ said Kate Capecelatro, 30, a server at Market, the hotel restaurant run by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant group.

Restaurant hostess Natalie Watkins, 25, who previously worked at chef Barbara Lynch’s Butcher Shop and B&G Oysters, said: “I’ve been dreaming W’s for a while now.’’

Around the corner at the Charles Playhouse, the employees were treated to a paint-splattering drumming session by the Blue Man Group. When the W Boston management team walked out onstage, several of the employees in the audience jumped to their feet. Before long, it was a standing ovation.

“Over 7,000 applicants, and you were selected to step behind the velvet rope,’’ Bunce told them. That afternoon, at what the hotel chain calls Woo Training, a trainer told them about a study done by a Washington, D.C., TV station that showed it was harder to get a job at the new W hotel than it was to get into Harvard.

Employees also learned the W’s Secret Seven ways to create a positive guest experience. The Secret Seven are basic tenets of customer service, including smiling and using people’s names, but some, like “active listening,’’ to pick up on complaints overheard in the lobby, were described in signature W style.

“We want you to eavesdrop as much as you want,’’ said Hector Camacho, a training “wizard’’ from the W Hoboken in New Jersey.

All this top-secret behind-the-velvet-rope talk builds on the hotel’s “inclusively exclusive’’ cachet, as Ziegler calls it. This was more apparent when the first W opened in New York in 1998 and created a new model - a boutique-like brand that’s part of a major corporation, said Bjorn Hanson, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at New York University.

But the insider factor has slipped as more Ws open - there will be 34 worldwide when the W Boston opens and 50 by the end of 2011, more than double the number at the beginning of last year. It’s an aggressive forward march at a time when hotels’ revenue per available room is off sharply - down 20 percent for Boston-area hotel rooms that run more than $200 a night, according to PKF Consulting - although hotel revenues are supposed to pick up slightly next year.

The W Boston is part of the company’s plan to spread out to “vibrant cities around the world,’’ Ziegler said. When the economy comes back, she added, the W will be “equipped to conquer.’’

During training, employees got a taste of how they would fit into this conquering W army, wearing sleek Michael Kors uniforms and delivering “whatever/whenever’’ service (which has included drawing a hot chocolate bath for a guest at the W Seattle). They will also be armed with the brand’s three core values - flirty, insider, escape, which they recited in unison (as in: employees are supposed to provide, in a flirty manner, an insider experience that allows guests to escape) - and a whole lot of lingo: the warmth of cool, the Extreme Wow suite.

The W employees undergo more informal, high-energy training than employees do at other Starwood properties such as Westin and Sheraton. The terminology is also unique to W, reinforcing the playful character of the brand and connecting the employees to the hotel in a memorable way, W executives say. It’s also reminiscent of another successful pop culture entity: Disney, which refers to its workers as cast members.

“We want you to be a little flirty with our guests. Have a little fun,’’ Paull told the employees. “They wouldn’t tell you to be flirty at the Four Seasons.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com

Photos

W BOSTON LINGO
Wedding: Wow Vows
Hello: Welcome
Pets program: P.A.W. for “Pets are Welcome’’
Whatever/Whenever: A concept that means whatever you want, whenever you want it. There’s a person on staff to provide that service to guests.
Cocktail party: Sip
Elevator: Lift
Housekeepers: Stylists
Valet parking guys: Wheels
Lobby: Living room