‘Liberating luxury’: First look inside Sydney’s unconventional W Hotel


In a landmark position on Darling Harbour, the W Hotel channels a great Australian icon: the larrikin. Targeting millennium and Gen Z guests, design features of the hotel reference tattoos, graffiti, and ocean predators. We talk to the global brand leader of the W about the Sydney establishment being the largest in the world, and capturing the cheeky essence of Australia.
The W Hotel’s maverick design: the brand embraces an unconventional, edgy aesthetic. Courtesy: Marriott International

It is hard to miss the W Hotel that looms over Sydney’s Darling Harbour. It features a wall of blue glass that reflects the sun back into the bay, and is omnipresent from every direction. The exterior roof of the 588-room hotel is sloped like a wave, with just one white letter communicating exactly what the monolith is.

The Ribbon building that houses the W Hotel was designed by Australian architecture firm Hassell. Strategically wedged between Sydney’s Convention Center and the Cockle Bay Wharf district which leads into the CBD, the opening of the W was initially set for 2020. The pandemic derailed those plans, however, as did construction delays at the hands of failed builders Probuild and Grocon.

Completed by Greaton and Multiplex this year, the overall cost of The Ribbon exceeds $1 billion. Marriott International, the parent company of the W brand, is The Ribbon’s anchor tenant. Imax, a cinema beloved by Sydneysiders before it was demolished to make room for The Ribbon, has the second largest footprint in the building.

Level 29 and 30 have spectacular views over the Harbour. Courtesy: Marriott International

Roxanne Markovina is the Director of Sales and Marketing at W Sydney. She says that while it was disappointing that the initial opening of the hotel was delayed, the timing of the opening this month leading into summer and SXSW Sydney, felt right.

“Unfortunately, covid impacted supply chains,” says Markovina. “And the delay that we’ve had over the last 12 months was when Probuild went into administration. Multiplex came on board, and it’s been all systems go since then. It almost feels like — as tough of a time as COVID was — it’s now going to have the opening it deserves instead of being closed to an international market, and Australians not being able to move freely.”

George Fleck, Vice President of Marriott International and the Global Brand leader of W Hotels, spent time in Sydney this month in the lead-up to the opening. Fleck is based in New York, where the W Hotel brand has its roots. Prior to working with W, Fleck was the global brand leader of Marriott’s St Regis, and before that worked with the Ritz Carlton. His new gig means he is tapping into the needs and wants of a younger, more contemporary audience.

Lance “Buddy” Franklin and Jesinta Franklin are the first guests of the W Hotel in Darling Harbour. Source: Marriott International

“W is this idea of liberating luxury,” says Fleck, sitting on a blue velvet couch in a VIP enclosure of the ‘Living Room’ on the first level of the hotel. “We are a luxury hotel, but it doesn’t conform to the traditional expectations of what you might expect in a classic luxury environment. We have determined our target audience to be what we call the connector. It’s still a luxury environment, but it’s more fun, playful, you know, let your hair down a bit.”

The hotel’s location on Sydney Harbor provides easy access for guests to enjoy not just New Years Eve festivities, but also fireworks every Saturday night. A spokesperson for the W Sydney says the hotel is anticipating a busy Christmas and New Year summer period, but declined to provide specific occupancy rates.

A search on the Marriott International website reveals that the cheapest stay for a standard room in the month of November is $419. That is for a non-member ‘city view’ room spanning 36 square meters, on a Sunday night. The night before that is $1099. At that price guests have 35 square meters of space according to the website, and a Harbour view.

Many dates in November are listed as unavailable. The cheapest room on Tuesday November 21 comes in at $1469. At that price, non-members get breakfast, and a 75 square meter, 2 bedroom city view suite that includes a separate living room. What they don’t get is a picture of the room when booking. Many rooms on the website don’t have images, and instead feature text that says ‘Photo Coming Soon.’

The design of the W Hotel Darling Harbour was inspired by the Aussie ‘larrikin.’ Courtesy: Marriott International

Images that are available of the hotel show sleek, colourful, shiny surfaces and a playful aesthetic. In person, the W feels very similar. The upbeat design approach of the W Sydney is certainly a new direction for Fleck. He opened a Ritz Carlton hotel in Melbourne earlier this year, but this is his first visit to — and first venture in — the Emerald City. So enamoured by the buzz and uniqueness of the city, Fleck jokes that he is considering leaving the Big Apple and relocating down under.

“Sydney really is a city that has a global brand. You have to have a presence here,” says Fleck. “To come into this market with such a spectacular, iconic architectural marvel, is really extra special for us, it really sets the tone for the W brand in this market.”

Design choices in the hotel were made to encapsulate a ‘larrikin’ Aussie spirit. A vibe that jives beautifully with the ethos of the W brand, Fleck says. Markovina, who ran sales and marketing for W Brisbane prior to Sydney, agrees.

“For W hotels, we couldn’t ask for a better design narrative. Certainly, the architecture of this building challenges the status quo,” says Markovina. “It does stand out against all the other buildings in Sydney. W certainly does as a brand. And Sydney does as a city. In Australia, we’re not afraid to go our own way to try different things.”

One of the unique things the city of Sydney did this month, is to host the first SXSW tech festival outside of Austin, Texas. SXSW is known for bringing together music, tech and film, and appealing to a digital generation. Just a 3-minute stroll from the SXSW festivities, the W Hotel hosted parties overlooking the Harbour for Dom Perignon and Krug.

A Harbour view guest room. Courtesy: Marriott International

Buddy and Jesinta Franklin were the hotel’s first official guests. David Marriott, Chairman of the Board of Marriot International, and sports reporter and women’s football player Abbey Holmes have stayed at the property this month too.

The rooftop bar, called 29/30, occupies the top two floors of the building on you guessed it – levels 29 and 30. The rooftop pool on 29 is available only to hotel guests, and offers spectacular views from a jellyfish-themed glass mosaic-tiled infinity pool. The motif for the 30th floor is a luxury yacht, elevated from the water of the open-air pool on level 29, and complete with a teak deck and high-end champagne bar.

Fleck notes that there are design similarities with the newly opened W Hotel in Barcelona which sits on the Mediterranean and resembles a sail. It is one of 69 other W Hotels around the globe, with more to come. Budapest, Edinburgh, Naples and Milan are up next.

He adds that none of those hotels will epitomise the larrikin the way Sydney does, however. Instead, they are looking into the ‘social, historical and cultural insights’ of each of the destinations, and will play to those strengths. Fleck is very aware that a maverick spirit is a distinct and beloved characteristic of Australian culture. And he can’t wait to come back on his next trip for more.

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