Unless you’re a Midwesterner, the word “Kohler” probably turns your attention to certain porcelain fixtures in particular rooms in your home.
Those who live in or near the Dairy State, however, also know Kohler as a refined getaway, with two hotels, four golf courses, 12 dining options, a wilderness preserve and an amazing spa, all about an hour north of Milwaukee.
The Kohler Co. brand dates to the late 1800s, when a man named John Michael Kohler applied enamel finish to a cast-iron horse trough, attached four claw feet to it and sold it as a bathtub. The company grew quickly and built a dormitory to house its workers.
Decades ago, the Tudor-style facility was converted into the American Club, which is now a five-diamond, five-star resort. Kohler — a.k.a. “Destination Kohler” — has always been a company town in Wisconsin. Today, one of its most magnetic offerings is hospitality, while swaddling guests in all things Kohler.
“When you go into the rooms or into the bathrooms or spas around the property, you get this immersive experience on what it’s like to have those products in your home, which is really what we want to do,” says Elizabeth Brady, Kohler’s senior vice president of global brand management.
The Numi — an attention-grabbing, motion-activated, music-playing intelligent toilet with ambient lighting, a heated seat, foot warmer and bidet functionality — at $7,500 — awaits guests in a bathroom at Kohler Waters Spa and within the Eau de Vie Suite at the American Club. In the locker rooms at Whistling Straits Golf Course, one of the sinks is an artist-edition model that depicts the course; and each of the showers offers a different water experience.
Throughout the hotel, tiles by Ann Sacks, a Kohler brand, line the walls, showers and floors. Should the power go out, the generators that kick in were made by Kohler Power Group. At the sprawling Kohler Design Center — previously a recreation hall — you could lose hours looking at intelligent toilets (their lids all rise to salute when you pass), sinks and shower displays. There’s even a small museum in the basement showcasing the brand’s history.
Kohler Co. also recently opened a hotel and spa in Green Bay, Wis., about an hour to the north, called Lodge Kohler. The company also has spas in the greater Chicago area and in St. Andrews, Scotland.
In the Green Bay suites, Kohler Real Rain showers can be programmed to a particular temperature and set on a timer, thanks to the DTV Prompt Digital Showering System, and the toilets are, of course, Kohler brand wall-mounted Veil toilets ($590).
“Nobody knows water like Kohler does,” Brady says. “It’s at the heart of who we are to be able to provide that experience.”
Today, it’s becoming commonplace for hotels to offer guests a piece of the travel experience to take home.
Beds, in particular, have become an additional revenue stream for the hospitality industry.
In 1999, Westin introduced its Heavenly Bed, which now has a near-cult following. Guests can buy it, along with a frame, pillows, pillow shams and bedding at a dedicated online store. (The beds start at $995.)
A sampling of other hotel outfits that sell their beds and accessories include Hilton (from $1,121); Ritz-Carlton (from $1,795); Marriott (from $1,395); the Peninsula (from $1,149); Sofitel (from $1,199); Kimpton (from $1,395); and Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace Las Vegas (from $1,449).
Other brands are taking hospitality opportunities a leap further. Restoration Hardware is building a hotel in Manhattan. Shinola, which crafts watches, bikes, bags and other products, is building a hotel in Detroit. West Elm plans to open six hotels starting in late 2019, in Indianapolis; Detroit; Minneapolis; Savannah, Ga.; Oakland, Calif.; and Portland, Maine.
Peter Fowler, vice president of West Elm Hotels, says that each property will be an expression of the community around it and will showcase a selection of furnishings and works from a program that offers a platform for artists, artisans and designers to sell their works at West Elm stores.
“It really it came down to us leveraging what we’re really good at and thinking about brand extension,” Fowler says. “We’re incredible designers. We really know how to localize and at the end of the day we’re creating experiences for people, whether that be in their home or away, as we refer to the hotel landscape.”
In opening the hotel, the goal isn’t just to sell more ottomans — although items will be available for purchase via the West Elm website. It’s to extend a deeper connection to the brand. “It’s less about the transaction and more about the sort of lifelong value of that customer, and that customer as guest,” Fowler says.
Helen Chun, associate professor of services marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y., is curious to follow the hotel-as-retailer concept.
“Browsing really beautifully and artfully curated furnishings inside a store is one thing. Being able to interact with them when you’re staying in a hotel, it’s a completely different story,” Chun says.
She compares the model to the practice of offering product samples, which can be effective. But, she adds, there may also be challenges.
“Creating a holistic hospitality experience is so much more than having the right interior design and furnishings, and these brands need to think through what kinds of intangible experiences can further complement and elevate the brand experience in the hospitality space,” Chun says. “They also need to establish operational standards, deliver on services, and engage with right partners to make this work.”
For now, the up-and-coming lifestyle brand properties can take a page from Kohler Co., which seems to have figured out a magic formula that combines five-star service, buzz-worthy products and a shift to treating visitors as guests rather than customers. Around the Kohler properties, there are no sales spiels, no price tags.
“Really, it’s about letting people get a taste of our brand,” Brady says. “We would like to inspire people and then put it in their hands to be able to choose what’s right for them.”
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
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