Industry Insiders: Brad Wilson, King James

Back in September, the James New York opened in Soho. It’s hard to make a serious racket in New York’s over-saturated hospitality market, but with their rooftop bar Jimmy attracting a young, professional crowd, and the recently-opened David Burke Kitchen fast become a hub for foodies, the James is staking its claim as one of the city’s premiere hotels.

Brad Wilson is the man largely responsible for the James’ emergence, having spearheaded their first major opening in Chicago. As VP of Operations for W Hotels Worldwide, Wilson was a member of the founding team of what’s now one of the world’s largest and most popular hotel chains. He jumped ship in 2005 to join The James Hotel Group as its CEO, and is now the COO of parent company Denihan Hospitality Group. Here’s Wilson on his start in the hotel business, why he left W, and the future of the James.

What was the first job you had in hotels? I was an elevator operator in Chicago at the Drake Hotel.

Was working in the hotel industry aspirational? It was, actually. That was the year before I went to college. My mother owned a catering firm and bakery, so I kind of grew up in the kitchen, working catering jobs, leaving school and chopping carrots, then eventually serving. So I always wanted to progress, originally thinking I would go into the restaurant business. The whole events process kind of defined my life, and so my mom taught me to throw really good parties, and that’s kind of been the direction of my life since then. When I was young, I was first thinking about going into restaurants.

Where did you develop the business acumen that you obviously need in your position? I went to Cornell hotel school, so I have a Bachelors in hotel management, but I have a MBA from my mother. After I left Cornell, I actually did work at the Plaza in NYC, and was the manager of the Oak Room. After being there for a while, my mother had started a commissary bakery, baking desserts for a lot of the big restaurants in Chicago, so she asked me if I would come back and take the wholesale bakery she was working on and develop a retail line of bakeries for that. So after a couple years at the Plaza, I left and went to Chicago to open this new business, which was a chain of retail bakeries. We did everything from really great brownies to cookies, and the world’s most amazing cinnamon rolls and coffee cake. It was my job to go out and find a location, hire an architect to design and build it, staff it, open it, develop the delivery systems, the accounting systems, and all this stuff to just build the business. So I jokingly say I got my MBA from my mom, because she gave me this truly entrepreneurial opportunity. It’s a very small microbe of what I do today. Today we find locations, we build hotels, we design them, create them, and open them. A lot of what I do is not that far off from what I did before, but just on a much larger scale.

What mark did you leave on the W that we can still see today? I’m the guy that actually coined the phrase, “Whatever, whenever.” So I guess that’s a big one, because they overuse that today. Back then, I was proud of it.

During what stage of W’s evolution did you get on board? I was one of the first people hired for W. I think there was one woman, Diane Briskin, that did the marketing, that was hired before me. I came in right after her to develop the operations side of the branch for our first opening, which was the W New York on Lexington. I was there before it was called W, when it was called Urban Eclectic Group. image The lobby at the James.

Were you involved in the birth of the James or did you come in when it already existed? I guess I was pre-birth. I came in shortly after the first James opened in Scottsdale. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the James Scottsdale, but it was kind of this fun-in-the-sun little resort, not so much the James you think of today. The guys that had partnered to do that hotel — which was Danny Errico, the founder of Equinox gym, and Steve Hansen, the owner of Be Our Guest restaurant — opened that hotel, and then turned to me. I had worked with Steve when he had done some restaurants for us at W, so we were all friends, and they really wanted to get into the hotel business and create a company, so I came in to build a hotel company out of this initial hotel project.

The staff at your New York location is stunningly nice. We believe that nice starts at the top, and in turn we try and really build a nice culture. We use a term around our office, “Classic hospitality,” which at a boutique hotel seems kind of odd to say. We really try and come back to the ideas of a guest-centric focus. It’s nice to be well-designed and all that, but in the end it’s nice to be well-designed for the guest. We really try and focus on that and we really feel that if you’re in the hospitality business and you start with nice, hire nice, be nice, nice will come out to the customer. Every comment I get is like, “Your people are so nice!” We get it all the time from Chicago, and everyone was saying it’s because you’re in Chicago and it’s the Midwest, and that you won’t be able to do it in New York, but we do.

Were you worried about opening another hotel in an already crowded New York Market? How will you distinguish yourself? We’re going to define ourselves by quality. A lot of hotels go through whatever their trick is of the moment, whether it’s the shark in the lobby or whatever. But if you build it on quality design, not just trendy design, but quality design — our top designers are really rooted in classic modernism, and you’ll find we’re going all the way back into mid-century hand-craft that you’ve seen in Frank Lloyd Wright — not on things that are flashy and unique, a true sense of elegance that’s a little more sophisticated will emerge. It’s more subtle than a lot of our boutique competitors. Hanging out in our lobby is not quite so showy.

The lobby in New York is incredibly welcoming and homey. It’s kind of interesting, because when I was at W, we did a lot of the “wows,” and we had this flaming bar and all that kind of stuff. One of the things I saw a lot of earlier in my career, as far as boutique hotels go, is that people don’t actually want to come to their hotel and have people in their face with martinis and that kind of stuff. Sometimes you just want to be a little intimate and have a quite moment. We have those opportunities, where you can retreat.

Can you talk about the future of the James? One of the reasons I left W was because I thought it was becoming too big to be kept into a consistent model. So big is not necessarily our goal. I do think we can be in several cities, and we certainly want to be in LA and Miami, and then after that, San Fran or Seattle, Boston, Washington…

Do you view W as competition? Not really. I can see us competing with Morgans to a certain extent. We do independent luxury and it’s a slightly different niche than the W — the customer is a little bit different, and they might even reject the idea of W being too much of a chain.

Itinerary: Halloween Parties Begin Tonight

Technically, Halloween festivities fired up as early as last week, but New Yorkers really get down to business tonight, extending their weekend via The Bunker Club, or The Gutter, and rolling through the weekend with 1Oak, the Boom Boom Room, and the Hudson Hotel, with some lovely Brooklyn markets and parade options thrown in the mix. Enjoy one of the best weekends in NYC, and remember: next year, Halloween will fall on a Monday.

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Tonight Yelloween Location: The Bunker Club Time: 9pm Veuve Clicquot is hosting their “Yelloween” Halloween party this Thursday night at one of our favorites in the MePa.

Launch Party for the Renaissance Hotel’s RLife LIVE Location: Renaissance Hotel Time: 9pm The Renaissance Hotel is launching a new entertainment/cultural program called RLife LIVE and will feature performances from various RLife LIVE artists including Robin Thicke, Sam Ronson and Solange Knowles. It’s a free national program created for hotel guests and patrons in cities across the country, which allows them to experience the music industry on a more intimate level on site at Renaissance properties.

Scott Sartiano’s Birthday Party Location: 1Oak Time: The usual time parties at clubs start. DJs Jus-Ske and Harley&Cassie help Scott celebrate.

Friday HallowMeme Costume Party Location: The Gutter Time: 8:00pm-2:00am Join Know Your Meme & Urlesque for the 2nd Annual HallowMeme Costume Party. Dress like your favorite meme, viral video subject or other Internet phenomenon. There’ll be free drinks, live performances, giveaways, a photobooth, and awesome prizes for the best costumes.

Saints & Sinners Location: De Santos Time: 10:00pm-2:00am Mandatory costumes with $40 open bar.

Saturday House of Horrors at Santos Location: Santos Party House Time: 9pm Guests include DJ Cobra Starship and Taryn Manning and Eddie the Gun.

Kinda Scary Halloween Party Location: Thompson LES, Shang Time: 9pm Rex Sortgatz hosts a costume party in which guests come as terrifying or spooky media and tech personalities. Prizes awarded for best costume.

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The Bowery Hotel Presents Ghosts of New York Location: The 2nd floor of the Bowery Hotel When: 11pm Celebrating Halloween and the world premiere of Nigh Home, a film by Gary Breslin. Join hosts Johnny Christ, Laura Cooper Brown, Brooke Geahan, Gary Breslin, and Brian DeGraw.

Day & Night present Seven Deadly Sins Time: 12pm-4pm Location: The Oak Room at the Plaza Start celebrating early with brunch at The Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel with the Koch twins.

2nd Annual Haunted Candyland Halloween Location: Le Poisson Rouge Time:10:30pm-3am The Sky Group pairs specialty cocktails with specialty candy and a whole lot of crazy.

Heaven or Hell Party Location: RdV Time: 11pm-3am Jamie-Lynn Sigler hosts this good/evil bash.

GrandLife Halloween Party Location: Tribeca Grand Time: 10pm-4am Hosted by Timo Weiland, Carol Han, Steven Rojas and DJ sets by The Misshapes, Harley&Cassie, and matt + maia.

The Hudson Hotel Presents DJs Jus Ske & Jesse Marco Where: Hudson Hotel Time: 10pm Hosted by 4AM in Hudson Hall.

Library Bar Presents the Tequila Avion Lounge Location: Library Bar at Hudson Time: 10pm-2am Our very own Steve Lewis DJs with Paul Sevigny.

La Roux at Hudson Bar Location: Hudson Time: 10pm-12am 2 hour DJ set by La Roux.

Veuve Clicquot’s Nightmare on 13th St. Location: Bagatelle Time: 8pm Veuve Clicquot throws a their Halloween bash to start off the night right.

image Sunday Halloween Market at Kings County General Store Location: Kings County General Store (125 Fifth Ave. in Brooklyn) Time: 12pm-5pm The local market has drink specials and free admission to the afternoon fall festivities.

Angels and Devils party at The Standard Location: Boom Boom Room Andre Balazs, Andre Saraiva, Olivier Zahm host your good and your bad side at the party of the evening.

Not Your Standard Bingo Location: The Standard Grill Costumes, prizes pre-Boom Boom Room.

Village Halloween Parade Location: Spring Street at Sixth Ave running up to 21st on Sixth Time: 6:30pm-8:30pm The classic parade at dusk in the Village.

The Oak Bar Patents First Mel Gibson Cocktail

Leave it to a place as classy and legendary as the Oak Room to be the second party after Oksana Grigorieva to cash in on Mel Gibson’s fury. In a very simple but effective bid for attention, someone at that bar at the Plaza decided to name a cocktail The Mel Gibson. They’re calling it a bi-polar, which is putting it kindly. The irony that alcohol is what got Mel where he is today is not lost on us, but what the hell, these tapes are something to celebrate! The recipe to getting as drunk as Mel Gibson on Mel Gibsons is after the jump.

For a foundation, the bar chose Van Gogh Vodka (he’s bi-polar, too, get it?) and then followed that up with Bols Genever Gin, Vermouth, Club Soda, and Cocktail Onion Juice. It’s an unspectacular cocktail. But the good news is, they’re charging $19 for it, which means you’d have to be a real psychopath to get it. How fitting.

Where Celebs Go Out: Sarah Palin, Andy Samberg, Judd Apatow

Sarah Palin @ the Time100 gala: It would be Double Musky in Girdwood, Alaska! ● Andy Samberg: Momofuku. ● Harvey Weinstein: I like Nobu downtown. ● Suzy Orman: Carmine’s, either on 44th or on Broadway, uptown. My favorite dish is the chicken scarpariello, I love it! ● Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann: Katsuya!

David Chang: I just had amazing cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at Per Se. So if you’re [at the Time Warner Center], there’s no reason to go anywhere else. ● Neil Patrick Harris: Oh,I’m a big Batali fan. His are some of the best Italian restaurants I’ve ever been to, in my life. ● Jack Dorsey: I really like the the Boom Boom Room. Minetta Tavern is my favorite restaurant. It’s in my neighborhood. Everything on the menu is amazing. I love it. They change it so frequently. ● Jamie-Lynn Sigler at the opening party for Prime KO restaurant: I’m not much of a partier anymore. It’s more [about] a place where I can hear the people that I’m with. I live in L.A. I go to friends’ houses for game nights. Dan Tana’s is one of my favorite restaurants. Recommended: chicken parm. Izakaya restaurant–it’s Katsuya, but it’s more low key. My favorite dish there is baked crab hand roll. ● Dann Florek: Ouest–I’m a big fan of Tom Valenti’s. His signature dish is a braised short rib. You can’t have it too often. His salad is the best I’ve had on the Upper West Side. The dressing is the best–I think it’s a red wine parmesan vinaigrette. I also like Bar Bao and Calle Ocho. ● Jason Binn, founder of Niche Media Holdings: We’re a big fan of Joey Allaham. We had a staycation in Manhattan. We stayed at the St. Regis and went to the Oak Room.