'We're very different to other hotels': The W Edinburgh opens after seven years

07 February 2024 by

After more than seven years in development, and no shortage of headlines, the W Edinburgh has opened its doors. The Caterer paid a visit to the 244-room hotel.

Over the past few years, anyone climbing Edinburgh's Calton Hill to capture the famous view of the city will have noticed a new addition to the skyline. Amid the gothic stone spires and steeples has risen a new bronze swirl of a building.

The curling roof is the tip of the UK's second W Hotel, which was green-lit in 2015 as part of a £1b regeneration of an unloved 1970s shopping centre. The project, initially announced by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, was taken over by Marriott after its £8b merger with the company in 2016, but a series of delays pushed its opening back to 2023. The development of the hotel during this time proved controversial.

Its design has been likened to everything from a ribbon to a Walnut Whip chocolate and even the poop emoji, while historical groups warned it could damage Edinburgh's fiercely protected UNESCO World Heritage status. During its construction in 2021, a parody Twitter account was set up and more than 2,000 people signed a petition calling on the council to add googly eyes to the building. But now, after more than seven years and no shortage of publicity, the W Edinburgh hotel has finally opened its doors.

The W Edinburgh is a major hotel for the city

Standing 12 storeys high and with 244 rooms and suites, the hotel is a major operation. Some 68 rooms occupy the main ‘ribbon', while the rest are split across a stone terrace located opposite and the newly built Quarter House. The central site also features a Sushisamba restaurant and 11th-floor bar with jaw-dropping views across the city, as well as a recording studio, spa, meeting rooms and a panoramic roof terrace.

Rooms rates are flexible, but start from around £264 a night for a twin or king-sized room and stretch to £3,999 for the Extreme Wow suite. This 1,603 sq ft room features a separate living room, a rotating bed, sauna, outdoor shower for those bold enough to brave the Scottish weather, and a kitchen which can be hired with a private chef for events. Although the hotel only opened on 29 November, the suite has already been used for a proposal (and she said yes!).

For Ken Millar, general manager at the W Edinburgh, the high profile of the opening proved a draw. Millar, a veteran hotelier with more than 20 years' experience working for Marriott, was overseeing a major renovation of the Renaissance Amsterdam hotel when he was approached to take on the Edinburgh launch.

"When I saw the project, it was hard to say no," he says. "Having the opportunity to open such an iconic hotel in Edinburgh was just too big an allure."

Millar returned to his native Scotland in December 2022 to start the opening process one-year ahead of its final opening date. As with all Marriott properties, he had a "critical path" to follow – a 2,844-point to-do list that needed to be signed off before the hotel could open. "That keeps you alive when you're having a moment," laughs Millar. "You can always refer back to it – it's a fantastic checklist."

The publicity around the hotel also proved helpful in attracting staff. After announcing his new role on LinkedIn, Millar was instantly messaged by an executive chef from a luxury Irish hotel looking for a job.

He admits that having been based outside the UK during "the Brexit saga", he had been unaware of just how tough it had been for some hotels to find staff. But, unusually for hospitality, the hiring process at W Edinburgh proved equally easy for the wider hotel team.

In early 2023, the hotel held recruitment days in Edinburgh designed to find people with the right attitude, rather than running a formal interview process. Over 3,000 people expressed interest in just 90 available meeting slots. "I'll be honest with you, it's not been a challenge to get guys on board," says Millar. "W is just a strong brand. We were absolutely inundated with applications. It was very surprising how successful it was. It was a long process, but it's so important to get the right team on board. It makes a massive difference quite quickly. We've got people who have joined from other hotels and people who have joined from other Ws around the world – it's a really nice balance."

Some 210 people now work at the W Edinburgh across back and front of house, and the team will grow to just under 300 by the high season in the summer. While Millar says there are quite a few native Scots working at the hotel, the staff is made up of around 40 nationalities and 18 different languages are spoken by the front-desk team.

This has proved useful given Edinburgh's international appeal as a destination. While Millar says North America is the top tourist market for the city, there has been a rise in guests arriving from across Asia.

"We've seen a lot of interest from China and Japan in December, and the Middle East is a strong market. When you look at the routes from Edinburgh airport, China is a main market where there is real potential.

"The traffic into Edinburgh is significant. The number one market for Scotland will always be North America, but we are doing a lot of sales activity in growth markets."

All guests arriving at W Edinburgh are offered a glass of Champagne by a doorman who makes a point to ask their name. This means that by the time they reach the staff standing behind stone check-in podiums, they are greeted by name in their own language.

"The luxury side of what we're trying to do is make people feel comfortable," explains Millar. "The Chinese market really does appreciate that there's a Chinese or Japanese speaker on the desk and it seems to be really important to them."

A focus on luxury

The focus on luxury has come amid a wider repositioning of the W Hotels brand. Since launching in New York in 1998, it has expanded to more than 55 hotels worldwide in locations including Sydney, Dubai and Barcelona, and earned a reputation as something of a party destination for people in their twenties. After the UK's first W hotel opened in London's Leicester Square in 2011, it was dubbed a "party pad" by the Telegraph. But now, as its customers have grown up, the brand is changing with them.

Helen Leighton, vice-president of luxury brands and communications EMEA at Marriott International, said the group was looking to capture the next generation of luxury customers. "Key to this evolution is revitalising W culture by embracing the shifting priorities of our luxury guests, including social causes, wellness, art, design, culture, music, and food and drink," she explains. "Edinburgh, as one of Europe's leading cultural destinations, is the perfect city in which to showcase W's evolution."

Millar says much of the change has focused on luxury design and how the hotel is presented. The W Edinburgh's lobby is decorated with a deconstructed tartan on the ceiling, while a wall mounted with metallic unicorn heads (the national animal of Scotland) overlooks guests waiting for the lift. Bedrooms are decorated with rock-like mini bars inspired by the volcanic nature of Edinburgh and rock tables are filled with blue glass in the shape of a lake that once occupied the city's Princes Street area.

"The W brand has changed and moving into the luxury segment was very important for Marriott," adds Millar. "There's lots of storytelling, which customers love, and we encourage front of house to explain. We are in Edinburgh and it's important that [the hotel's] link to Scotland is there as well."

Leighton says the UK remains a focus for the W brand and a third hotel is already in the pipeline. The W Manchester is slated to open in 2027 at Gary Neville's £300m St Michael's development in central Manchester and will include 162 rooms, a lounge, spa and fitness centre, wet deck (a pool bar) and two restaurants.

"W always embraces its destination, and as we create W Manchester we will draw from the city's cultural and social insights," she explains.

As well as attracting international guests, the W Edinburgh has proved popular with the UK market and Edinburgh locals keen to see inside the hotel after its years of construction.

Millar says a major draw has been the 10th floor Sushisamba restaurant, the third UK site for the brand and its first outside of London. Non-hotel guests are asked to arrive through a separate side entrance accessed through the adjacent St James Quarter shopping centre, where they are greeted by staff in a second reception area. The lift doors open onto the upper floor restaurant, where a glowing orange tree occupies the centre of a main circular bar.

Sushisamba's menu is a mix of Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine, and includes dishes such as a Samba Edinburgh sushi roll with lobster, mango-pineapple salsa, oshinko, avocado, yuzu miso and wasabi mayo (£22); shrimp tempura (£17); and black cod with asparagus and miso (£40).

Also proving popular is the 11th floor W Lounge Bar, which allows guests to enjoy panoramic views of the Edinburgh skyline while they sip cocktails, and the more intimate Joao's Place speakeasy-style bar. All three were fully booked in December and the hotel threw a Hogmanay party on its 12th floor deck.

"The demand was incredible," says Millar. "That's the locals supporting us, not the hotel guests, so it was great to see. It's been positive and is continuing into January, and we're still very successful at weekends too."

An unusual addition to Edinburgh

Millar is conscious that the W Edinburgh is different to the more traditional luxury and four-star hotels in the city – notwithstanding its unique design – but is adamant its opening will offer a boost to the market.

"I think there are some wonderful hotels in Edinburgh. We are very different to what's already here in the city as we're a lifestyle luxury concept. It's important that we're… not shaking it up a little bit, but giving people an alternative. Competition is healthy because it makes everyone review what they do and try and be better. All hotels in Edinburgh will benefit from us being here – it doesn't do any harm at all."

He is also not phased by the potential introduction of a Scottish tourist tax, which could see a daily surcharge on hotel and guesthouse beds, similar to other European cities such as Barcelona and Amsterdam. The Visitor Levy (Scotland) Bill cleared its first stage in the Scottish parliament in January and Edinburgh is expected to be one of the first cities to introduce the tax if it becomes law.

"I'm probably slightly different than if you asked that question of anyone else who's based here because of the previous destinations I've worked in," Millar explains. "If it's done properly and the benefits go into the city [a tourist tax] can be a positive thing. Before Amsterdam I was in Barcelona and we had it there. It is quite a normal thing and international travellers probably come to accept it. It's early doors for Edinburgh, but it's a trend that's becoming much more acceptable in major cities around the world."

With bookings picking up for the warmer months, the W Hotel team is planning its official launch party in the spring as well as a series of entertainment, food and fitness events on its panoramic 12th-floor deck. Staff are being encouraged to "think outside the box" and the programme will be a major focus for 2024 to see what works in the hotel. Millar does not specify any details on the line-up, only that the team "don't want it to be boring".

"This is a really beautiful hotel but it's great fun too. That's the important thing. In hotels you have to enjoy what you do. This hotel has so much great potential and its great fun to see it come alive and put it on the map in Edinburgh."

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