By Jimmy Kontomanolis | January 4, 2019 | People
As Standard International ushers in a milestone anniversary this year, the company’s Chief Creative Officer has his sights set on elevating the brand to new heights.
When I met with Landis Smithers, who has been at the creative helm of Standard International for one year now, he walked into narcbar at The Standard East Village on a cold and rainy Thursday afternoon with an air of poise and sophistication. A glance at Smithers' LinkedIn profile reveals a very impressive résumé, with stints at a diverse range of brands like Old Navy, Pepsi, Playboy, and Grindr. The LinkedIn profile was a bit intimidating, but the man himself was not. After spending about 40 minutes with Smithers, there’s one more adjective you can add, along with poise and sophistication: confidence. He’s confident, but not cocky. Well spoken, but not pretentious. So what can he bring to the table at Standard hotels, you might ask? An innovative way of thinking, if you ask me. But don’t take my word for it, read for yourself what he has to say about the brand’s evolution.
Smithers broke down for us what makes The Standard special, how he taps into the brand’s DNA to further innovate and come up with fresh ideas, and making Standard International a global brand.
You have a very diverse background, ranging from advertising agencies at the start of your career, to Old Navy, PepsiCo, and most recently, Grindr. Tell us a bit about those experiences and how they ultimately led to your current role as CCO of Standard International.
LANDIS SMITHERS: What I traditionally do is look at the brand and look at the culture, and if I’m given free reign, what would I do with it? I walked in the door for my interview literally knowing nothing about the hospitality industry. But that’s not that unusual for me. Rather than brand to brand, I always look at it as industry to industry. In this case, it’s kind of like a perfect storm of a lot of things I love doing. Being able to work with fashion, and art, and with content, and, essentially, the creative class. Normally it’s an uphill battle, it’s something you’ve got to tell people: “Ok, here’s how we do this.” Or at Grindr, to literally have to tell tech people who have never shopped at a department store, because everything is online, that there’s a reason you go for J.W. Anderson. To come here and actually have them have the shorthand and the language, that’s been amazing.
So far, I think the best and the trickiest part about this particular role is being given literally not just free reign to do those ideas, but being put into virtually every aspect, so having to look at food and beverage, and having to look at service models, and having to think about how you take something global. I think the most interesting thing here is it is a heritage brand in some ways, 20-year anniversary next year, and I grew up with it. Yet if I look back, the core parts of this particular brand are still pretty much what drives it. It’s almost more culture than it is the rooms. It’s the sum of parts. You don’t stay in our hotels for the rooms, you stay in our hotels for the experience. But the thing that’s changed is what this younger generation will want from that, what they look for is very different. It’s not the old-school velvet rope world anymore, if you will, so it’s about how you take a brand that is perhaps known for being a little bit like that and opening it up. Being a bit more open-armed, and less exclusive.
How would you have described The Standard prior to your taking on this role, and then in the past year working on the brand, how would you describe it now?
LS: It was boutique before, it was five properties, and each one was very distinct, so it had the luxury of being very quirky in one area. So Hollywood for instance is very neighborhood-centric, a very party hotel in some ways, versus Miami which is much more hypnotic and romantic and removed from reality in a way, versus the High Line, which was the first new build, and was full on glamour and modernism. Now we’re in a place where as we look at going global, it’s not perhaps sustainable from a brand level. You can’t be that disparate when you’ve got 20 properties versus when you have five. That’s going to be the biggest shift—finding the things that are universal and going from property to property.
Looking at your past experiences, the common theme is “innovation.” What does innovation look like to you?
LS: That’s a hard one! I actually look at success as something that starts as a gut reaction. So, my past has been about things that seem obvious, but people aren’t prepared for, and that’s what flips the script. It gives you entrée into everything else you want to do. Here, it’s going to be about reimagining experiential things—I think that’s the overused buzz word these days, but to me it’s that. Innovation these days is about mixing a comfort level—so that you’re not looking desperate and trying too hard—with something that’s disruptive so people feel like it’s refreshing. These days, innovation needs to make sense, it still catches you off guard, but it does have the DNA of your brand tied to it.
Let’s discuss some of the initiatives you’ve spearheaded… from The Lobby App to the Standard Phone Booth. Why do you feel that these were important and necessary additions to the Standard brand?
LS: Again, talking about the DNA, they each come from a certain element of what the brand is. Culturally, we’ve always been very committed to not just the communities we’re in, but to the people who are behind the counters and behind the front desk, and our CEO says, “You can be on either side of the issue, but ultimately we have to take care of our people.” We have immigrants, we have dreamers, we have people who are queer, and people who are single mothers, so we’re going to fight for those rights, because they are part of our family. But so are our guests, so when it comes to things like The Phone Booth and encouraging people to have a voice, it’s part of the DNA, it makes sense.
The Lobby App was… we used to live in a world where you could walk into a lobby and you could make eye contact with someone and have an experience, a moment. It could be a friend, an acquaintance, it could be a lover for a night, but that was part of the magic of a hotel. That’s evaporated. You walk in, and everybody’s on their phone. There’s not that casual camaraderie that you get between travelers, everything is isolated in some ways. So this was a way of poking fun at it, but also forcing people to engage in real time. In the app, there are no photos or personal information, and it’s based on keeping it short, simple and limited. So I think if you look at things like that, it makes sense for our brand.
And because people are always on their phones, how important is it to keep the social media aspect in the back of your mind. There are so many Instagram-worthy moments that brands are creating these days, so how important is that aspect of it?
LS: The brand has always had a really specific design aesthetic. And it’s been a little bit about drama and creating spaces that feel removed from reality. So when you stand at The Top of The Standard and look at that view, it’s unlike anything else in the city. Same when you’re in Miami and you’re in the pool, and you’re looking out over the bay. So you’re pre-Instagram, creating these things, it’s part of the DNA of what we do. Everything is designed to create an experience.
Now, I’ve also noticed there’s a bit of a social media backlash in the midst right now. I love the fact that one of the most reposted articles on Facebook in the past few weeks was about how to delete Facebook, from the New York Times. So we try to be aware of that as well. I don’t think people are going to give up social media, but I think they’re going to start using it differently. I think there’s definitely going to be a sense of mindfulness or self-care. So we are actually taking a different approach to it. Rather than trying to engage in the actual platforms, we’re doubling down on content. And we’re shifting content from what we used to call “interview the locals” to being more brand specific. Our channel, for instance, used to be the only channel from a hotel brand. [We were] one of the first to do: the five best places to get great coffee around the hotel, talk to the local chef. Well, now everybody does it. Goop does it. By the time Gwyneth gets to it, I’m good. We’re looking more at who we have in our four walls that we can tap into. Our most popular piece of content was none of that stuff. It was Lori Bell, our resident astrologer in Miami, and her horoscopes. So we sat with Lori and brainstormed some ideas in that arena. And we went to some of our gems, our guest experience managers, and we’re going to have one of our favorites write an advice column for people, a modern day version of “Dear Abby” from someone who everyone turns to on-property anyway. In some ways, that’s why you come to us as a hotel, so now we can share that with people out in the world if they want to tap into it. I don’t want to be a media platform—that’s not the idea—but we can have fun.
What has been the response to The Lobby App? Have people been engaging and using the tool?
LS: I was not surprised to see that people loved it and got all over it. And it’s fun to see the people on the property who are monitoring it. The night we launched, there was a couple from Europe looking for a threesome on the app, just talking to everyone about it. This is what happens when you launch a chat app. But then there are also people who are like, “I’m alone. I don’t know the city that well. What’s going on?” and the concierge was able to go on and say, here are six things going on and make a reservation. So there is that balance.
One of the things I said when I joined the hotel was that I didn’t want to deny the fact that people are human and they have sex. So if that’s part of what goes on… consenting adults, consenting adults. But people are also social beings. If you look behind us, there’s a group of people that are probably at their Holiday party, and they’ve made an effort to dress up and they’re out to have fun, and that’s amazing to me.
The Top of The Standard at The Standard High Line in New York City
You’ve also been working on revolutionizing the lobby and elevating the concept of the lobby shop, including launching The Standard Label. What was the impetus of this project?
LS: I like to shop! One day, I walked past the lobby shop of the High Line, and I thought, do we need another pair of $600 sunglasses that may have been sitting there for six months? I’m going to go to Barney’s and find what I want, or to Dita in Soho, which is two blocks away. So realistically, what do you need when you’re captive on property? It was a bit about watching the evolution of consumer tastes and how they want to shop. For us, it’s more about we have space already, let’s flip it and make it a little bit more friendly, a little bit more accessible. We don’t have to worry about seasons or collections because of the drop culture. We already do collaborations, so let’s double down on them. Let’s take what was maybe slightly more open space within our properties and make them fun.
We’re in the culture of the “lifestyle brand.” Some people hate that term and some people love it. What’s your take on that, has it been in the back of your mind?
LS: Every brand I’ve ever worked at has wanted to be a lifestyle brand. And I think it’s primarily because people don’t really know what that is. The first time I heard it was when Calvin Klein started making home. So then suddenly the term lifestyle brand came up, because he wanted to touch more than just your closet, he wanted to touch your home as well. But it’s cheat code these days—lifestyle brand means I created a candle, I have a newsletter. Every influencer on Instagram thinks they have a lifestyle brand. So it becomes so muddy. It’s like “influencer” as a word, what does it mean?
I actually think of it as more of a stage. We’re going to engage with culture, we’re going to do a lot of interesting things with cultural people, but our primary offering for people is that we have an audience, and we have space, and the ability to make the things that you want to make come to life. So if I look at it from that perspective, it takes the pressure off becoming a certain type of brand, and it lets us be more of a vehicle. I have found that when you talk to creative people, they don’t want to muddy their own worlds, they just want a place to play. My most successful pitches are when I’ve gone to people and said, “I don’t need a Grindr collection. I just want to do something cool.” That’s always the way I’ve operated, and now it’s just about dialing it up. And talking about it that way too.
What other plans do you have in mind for the brand for the future?
LS: Next year is our 20th anniversary, and a lot of what we have done from an events perspective has been very specific to the property. In the next year, we’ve decided that rather than doing that, let’s look at our successes, and let’s think about the ways to make them somewhat more à la Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball. That is something that is legendary, and that can be thrown anywhere, and everyone wants to go to. And I thought about the things that made it so desirable. It’s simple things: people love a dress code, people love a chance to dress up, people love pretty people to look at, or characters. So we’re going to look at creating parties like that, that we may do one year at this location, but the next year, we’ll come up with some place completely different. As we go global, that’s going to be important. So we may have a Truman Capote-esque party, and tour it over the course of the year around the world. To me that’s exciting because you get to look at things in a bit more of a timeless way. Experiential events, next year, we’ll really dial up significantly, all leading up to the 20th anniversary celebration.
What still makes The Standard so cool, 20 years later?
LS: There are certain people on certain properties that are the soul of this brand. When I interviewed, they asked for references, and the first reference I could put was anyone at the front desk at the High Line. Because I’ve stayed there for a decade and they know me, and when I walk in, it’s “Hello Landis.” They’re amazing and they took care of me. I didn’t have to keep staying at The Standard. I’d reached a point in my career where I could move around, I could’ve tried new things. I could’ve gone uptown to be near the airport when I visited, but I stayed there because of that literally. The rooms are fine, but I stayed there because of that feeling. This five-hotel chain still has that at just about every property. You’ve got that ability to make it human in a world where things get more and more distant. And it’s still a little weird—I love the weird around here. Recently, I was looking at the uniforms and I thought, “You know, I wouldn’t have put that together.” But it makes perfect sense in here, and it makes me happy. There’s a tie between those things that have nothing to do with the physical space, and nothing to do with our offerings, but it’s what keeps it unique.
Any expansion plans for The Standard? New locations?
LS: [Aside from London], we’ve got deals in place for Chicago, Milan, a bunch of other European cities, Phuket. And there’s always 20 more on the docket, but those are confirmed. Some are new builds and some are renovations. I went to Phuket and stayed at the resort, and nobody told me that that was the resort we were rebuilding. I was walking around thinking, "This is random, but kind of cool. Maybe we could do something here."
Aside from The Standard, what are some of your other favorite places in NYC?
LS: I love Blue Ribbon Sushi, the original. I grew up on the Upper East Side, but the city for me is more vibrant down here, I feel more at home here. I love Barneys on a Sunday afternoon after a cocktail. The original Barneys—there is no other Barneys, as far as I’m concerned. My mother and I both agree that day drinking and shopping is one of the best blood sports in the world. I like going to the Metropolitan with my mother. She works in the conservation department, and she forces me to go to the museum by getting me in before exhibits open to the public. It’s our time, and that’s really special. I don’t go out the way I used to. I went out in New York at a time when Tunnel still existed, and it’s different now. I’m not someone who will go to Brooklyn, I’m a city boy. I love dive bars. To me, for New York, I love that high-low.
Photography courtesy of Landis Smithers