In a dynamic city like New York where the skyline is a perpetual work in progress, a hotel—even an elegant hotel—seldom gets to stand for more than a few decades. One of the glorious exceptions is the St. Regis, which has dominated the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street for 109 years. Duke Ellington used to play the roof garden, Maxfield Parrish painted a mural in the restaurant, and the lobby bar invented a certain drink called the Bloody Mary. The St. Regis is a special place—no small reason why Starwood Hotels and Resorts parted with a pretty penny in 1999 to buy the place and then, earlier this year, finished a sweeping renovation.
The St. Regis’ now-assured tenure on its midtown corner is a boon for students of architecture—but also ones of marketing. It’s not often that you find two ads for the same hotel, 80 years apart, with both images showing off major redecoration efforts. And while a first look at these 1935 and 2013 adverts may fail to reveal anything more than two nice hotel rooms, a closer study reveals nothing less than a philosophical shift in hospitality marketing itself.
“What’s striking here is that the news—they are describing a guest room—is exactly the same, but the way they show it is completely different,” observed Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “In the 1935 ad, the focus is on the room itself—very contained, very private. In the 2013 depiction, you really don’t see a lot of the redesigned room. The perspective has totally shifted to focus on the outside.”
Think about that for second. Starwood just dropped $90 million redecorating rooms like the Grand Suite (shown in the 2013 ad), yet viewers scarcely get a peek at the suite at all. Unlike its 1935 counterpart, this ad shifts the focus to the world outside the room. The approach, Calkins said, “is more insightful than it seems,” and there are two reasons for it.
First, with every major city in America now boasting boutique hotels done up by a famous designer, the old-reliable roomscape photo simply doesn’t impress the way it used to. Which is apparently why the St. Regis (which developed this ad in-house) elected to portray its views of the leafy treetops of Central Park—an unassailable differentiator that’s not just beautiful but also an instant reminder of a highly prestigious address.
The second part of the technique lay in how the hotel shows off that view—by placing it within one of the historic building’s French casement windows, whose curving lines frame Central Park the way a gilded frame encloses a Monet. (Those windows were such an integral part of the St. Regis facade, they were part of what spurred the city to landmark the building in 1988.)
“The window here is the centerpiece of the proposition,” Calkins said. “They’re really saying that this is all about this spectacular place with amazing views and that message is powerful. It highlights what makes the property special.”
Whether it’s worth $1,145 a night, well, that’s for guests to decide.