Henri Scars Struck is holed up in the attic of a building in Manhattan's Flatiron District. The bald French composer is cornered by electric guitars, a grand piano, and a blue Moroccan mandolin — only a fraction of the instruments he used to orchestrate his latest opus: a 24-hour track that syncs a mélange of sounds, from galloping horses to an Indian sitar. With a strike to his keyboard, Struck unleashes the music he spent four straight months composing with 20 musicians around the globe. "The goal is to be surprised," he says.
The only thing more surprising than the music is its patron: the $9 billion Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, specifically the Le Meridien brand. Last year, it hired Struck to be part of the LM100, a rotating group of artists heightening the experience at the "upper upscale" hotel chain. "When the business guy who just did 10 meetings in a day arrives at the hotel, all he can dream of is room service and sleep," he says. "We want to reset his mind!"
Channeling the sounds of galloping horses, shopkeepers yelling in a Cairo market, and water pulsating down a drain seems like a counterintuitive approach to courting an exhausted guest. But catching its customers off guard, says Eva Ziegler, senior VP of Le Meridien, is exactly the leap she believes the 36-year-old hotel chain needs to take. Starwood hired her shortly after it acquired Le Meridien, in late 2005, to refashion its 115 disparate properties to appeal to the more creative customer. "The first 10 minutes when you walk into a hotel, what do you typically remember?" she asks. "Nothing. It's a transaction."
To change that, she's in the midst of a five-year, nearly $10 million project to create a hotel where guests can revel in their tuna tartare while feeling as if they've spent a day at MoMA. Her first move: In 2006, Ziegler recruited Jerome Sans, the whimsical blond Parisian who cofounded the edgy art institution Palais de Tokyo, to become the chain's first cultural curator. "My role is to create unique experiences for the guest that stimulate all five senses," Sans says.
His primary mission has been to court LM100's cast of artists — painters, designers, and architects — to transform more than 50 aspects of the hotel. The first group of 12, which includes musician Struck, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and filmmaker Kiki Allgeier, is focusing this year on guest arrival and cuisine. For the 15 Le Meridien properties that have been converted thus far, arriving guests are greeted in the lobby and elevators with Struck's visceral sound track. At check-in, they receive a limited-edition key card designed by artists such as Michael Lin and Sam Samore that doubles as a free pass to a local art institution. Samore's book of adult fairy tales awaits guests in their rooms as a take-home souvenir.
Later this year, on the cuisine front, Vongerichten will debut a series of breakfast "eye-openers" — complementary palate teasers delivered in shot glasses — while Italian coffee entrepreneur Andrea Illy is designing interactive workshops in which guests can learn to paint, cook, and create their own cocktails with coffee. "We're all looking for a filter," says Steven Addis, a branding consultant who recently wrote a white paper deeming companies like Apple and Toyota the new arbiters of taste. "Now brands can do that for their customers."
The artists have embraced their assignments because of the freedom Ziegler and Sans have given them. "Partnerships with companies aren't typically risk-taking adventures," says LM100 member Eddie Roschi, half of the perfume design team Le Labo with Fabrice Penot. Last year, the hotel drafted the duo to create a scent to be diffused through vents and candles in the hotels' lobbies. They conceived a number of options, among them a Coco Chanel — inspired aroma meant to evoke the chic attitude of Air France, the hotel's founding company, as well as a marine scent rooted in its "meridian" name. But it was a more conceptual fragrance — resembling an old weathered book (symbolizing culture and content) — that the Le Meridien team opted for. "Believe me, there are other smells out there that would sell more candles," Roschi says of the olfactory cocktail of patchouli, vanilla, frankincense, iris, and musk. "But this isn't about pleasing the most people. Our main objective is to increase curiosity."
To make these transformations more than cosmetic, employees from front-desk clerks to housekeepers are now required to visit the local art institution they're sending guests to and are educated on each of the LM100 artists. "We're creating these things so we can talk to guests about something other than just, 'How was your journey?' " Ziegler says. Martin Vitry, a 35-year-old real-estate investor from Paris, stayed at Le Meridien's Miami location last December when visiting the city for Art Basel. "I travel two or three times a month and am used to the same old experience," he says. Awed by the 10-foot-by-40-foot blue-tinted Sam Samore photograph dominating the window at the hotel's entrance, Vitry notes, "It almost made me feel like I was entering an art gallery." Five months later, Vitry still carries the Samore-designed room key in his wallet and is wrangling his friends for a return trip.
That's exactly the kind of engagement hoteliers crave. In 2007, that "upper upscale" hotel segment generated $22.7 billion in U.S. room revenue, but occupancy was flat. "The pool of new travelers isn't increasing as quickly as the number of new hotels," says Jan Freitag, an analyst at Smith Travel Research.
But Le Meridien is already seeing results. In February, its online bookings hit a record 2.4 million, 41% higher than at the same time last year. And it will continue to track success by monitoring guest satisfaction and sales of retail spin-offs from its LM100 collaborations. "The old-school version of this would have been to put together a committee, redesign the hotel, and that's it," says brand maven Addis. "Instead, these guys are going to be perpetually curating on behalf of — not marketing at — its audience."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.