by L. Aruna Dhir, Featured Contributor
HOW do you define luxury in hospitality? Is it the history or reputation, location or view, brand value or affiliation, star employees or infrastructure and furnishings, the period furniture you sleep and rest on, the crystal ware, silverware, precious metal flatware you eat and drink from, the finest fittings and fixtures that assist you as you relax or conduct your usual business. In reality, the luxury world of hoteliering is all this and more.
While all of the above attributes make the luxury brand stand apart from competition also within their genre, the bottom line for top-of-the-line luxury rests on the time-tested virtues that truly are very basic in the business of hospitality – cleanliness, efficiency, very well-trained and knowledgeable staff such as the battery of personal Jeeves who delight the guest with their immaculate butler service, latest technology, 24-hour services – yes, all those things that we thought were common but are hard to come by if the hotels do not have their brand operating standards and value cum service systems worked out right.
Whether it is the Forbes Travel Guide or the Preferred Group or The Leading Hotels of the World, each of these Hotel affiliation/recognition companies send out inspectors (many a times even mystery shoppers) to rate the star properties on these deliverables. The expectation from a luxury product is that it will score a perfect ten on each of these parameters quarter over quarter.
When I used to work for The Imperial in Delhi, I wrote the marketing tagline for the historically significant Brand – Elegant, Exclusive, Exceptional – and these three terms pretty much sum up the essential traits of an ultra-luxury hotel.
I decided to ask some of the stalwarts and experienced professionals from the hospitality and travel industry; people who advise Hotel Groups, consult on Boards, strategize for the Companies they represent, define and develop the concept of luxury and in the process experience it firsthand 24X7. To get a well-rounded picture, the cross section of people I have spoken to fall on both sides of the horizon – those who devise and deliver and those who are delighted by the enchanting dispensation of luxury. And this is what they all seemed to opine, almost unanimously.
So what are the truly bench-marking facets of a consummately luxurious hotel? In no particular order, the Top Ten would be
More than a decade back I was travelling to New York and was going to be staying at The Pierre, then managed by Four Seasons, in New York’s Manhattan district. I was flying into Newark Airport and since I was on a shoe-string budget I decided to bypass the 80 USD cab and instead go for public transport. I am sure The Pierre was not quite used to it but here I was alighting at the porch of the super deluxe hotel from a ramshackle bus struggling with my unbranded luggage. I was met grandly by the impressive Doorman who gently ushered me in and effortlessly whisked away my luggage to the almost invisible valet. Once in, I was given a lovely reception by the Front Office staff, greeted by whoever I encountered by my name and escorted to one of their Premier suites. I was booked as a VIP guest and the staff at the luxury hotel made sure that I was treated like royalty – from name recognition at all times and by all staff that I had an interface with to notes by the General Manager to a tray of different petit fours each night at turndown to special consideration of my eating habits to the Concierge tailor-making my city and walking tours. The experience has been so memorable and delightful that I have often given its example as an industry benchmark every time I have written or spoken on the subject of luxury hoteliering.
An ex-boss and a veteran hotelier, who has spent his life working for the finest hospitality brands worldwide, recounted a Four Seasons’ template of Recognition during one of the training sessions. It is said that both guest and employee recognition are really big ticket items at the premium hotel chain where all Excom members are supposed to know the names of not only all the hotel employees but also their spouses and the family dog. Just imagine, to what lengths they would be going to offer recognition to their guests!
“Recognition from staff” rates very high for Varun Sharma, the host of Inside Luxury Travel – a television show that focuses on high-end travel, airs in over 160 countries, in 18 languages and is beamed into 390 million homes worldwide. In fact Sharma goes a step further to suggest that what could also be really special would be the “recognition of hotel brand partners;” something I can assure you will definitely sweep the guest off his feet. Julia Gajcak, PR and Marketing consultant formerly with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, says that it is quite non-negotiable that the “Staff must recognize guests and use guest names while on property.”
Likewise, Nigel Bolding, Publisher of The World’s Best Hotels, opines that “Attentive service / recognition / welcome back” are great clinchers for extending a luxurious service to the guests and ensuring repeat patronage.
Guest Recognition through guest mapping by different layers of the hotel staff – from concierge and guest relations, Sales, PR and F&B to the GM and in some cases the Owner is a wonderful strategy that creates a pronounced guest-oriented environment, makes sure that the Hotel staff is familiar with its guest list and keeps the guests happy. “Luxury hospitality, globally, has set standards for experiential excellence – where guests are made to feel pampered in ways that are designed not only to ease the discomfort of being away from home, but to actively encourage the desire for newer experiences. Being the recipient of hospitality is an immersive experience and demands that facilities and services are rendered in discreet and seamless ways, while making each guest feel special. On a large scale, offering such a standardized experience, infused with the most critical component of hospitality – warmth and personal attention, then becomes a matter of rigour and discipline,” says Gautam Anand, Vice President – Operations Planning & Pre-opening Services, Hotels Division, ITC Limited.
“At a five-star hotel, each guest is expected and is dealt with warmth and dignity with usage of accurate name and credentials. This is enabled for the staff either by Guest History or Face recognition technology. At luxury hotels a concierge is king and is empowered to ensure you get what you want when you want it, “asserts Anand.
The Ritz Carlton Hotel Company believes in ‘Creating Memories’ and rendering ‘Wow Experiences,’ shares Sandeep Walia, Vice President for Ritz Carlton, Bvlgari and Edition Hotels for Europe. According to Walia it is much more than “personalized service, greeting guests by name in every interaction, ensuring that the greeting is warm and sincere and knowing what they like to eat and drink. It boils down to providing the Wow factor during the guest’s stay.”
For Sheila Donnelly Theroux, CEO, Sheila Donnelly & Associates, a premium Public Relations Consultancy, a luxury hotel stay must translate into “happiness” which she says is “a balance of perfection, discretion and recognition.” For Donnelly-Theroux “handwritten welcome from the General Manager and a personal hello to guests” goes a long way in ensuring Guest Recognition.
But the concept of Guest Recognition is described the best by Timur Senturk, a highly seasoned luxury hotel expert and currently the Managing Director for The Shanghai Tower J Hotel part of the new National Chinese Luxury Hotel Group. Senturk feels that to provide the finest level of Recognition, the hotel needs “To deliver on the mantra – Remember me, Recognize me, Give me what I want, When I want it. The brand must evoke in the guests the emotions of: ‘I am proud to be a customer here,’ and ‘It is perfect for me.”
Senturk seals the guest-hotel relationship with his fantastic analogy with Apple products and their brand following. He says that even in the context of hospitality the guests must feel “I cannot imagine a world without this brand/hotel.”
“Exclusive invites to hotel brand events is a great way of recognizing special guests,” states Sharma.
2. PERFECT BRAND AMBASSADORS DELIVERING THAT PERFECT SERVICE
A hotel is much, much more than the richly constructed shell, the branded hardware and the awe-evoking infrastructure. It is actually the people who work towards presenting the brand service standards in the best way possible. And this is truly the most important discerning factor when sifting chaff from the real grain. “The hotel brand must engage guests through unique, memorable and personal experiences that transcend luxury hospitality and create indelible marks in their lives,” offers Senturk.
It is a fact that an old, time-warped little inn in a village in Italy can be as luxurious a stay as the sparkling, gilded monstrosities in razzmatazzy Dubai. “Luxury is many things to many people. There can be no one size fits all and that’s why I think most hotels tend to go with the conventional. The true innovators are those who question the conventional and create a sense of awe for the guest. It’s easy to pamper by throwing money on physical things like pillows, towels and rugs. But to create that human connection is a luxury very few can perfect,” asserts Rajeev Kohli, Joint Managing Director of Creative Travel Pvt. Ltd. – one of India’s best known luxury travel companies.
A hotel that aspires to be top-of-the-line luxury endeavours to train its staff to a level of benchmarked excellence on a pre-defined template of superior standards that embody its brand value. Paolo Sagina, the Hotel Director at Kalidria Thalassa Spa Resort & Alborea Luxury Lodge in Italy, says that the luxury hotel staff must be trained to offer “exclusivity of the whole experience” and work towards making the guests “feel at home.”
More important than the owner or the General Manager, it is the direct interface employees such as the Airport representatives, chauffeurs, doorman, valet, bellhop, concierge, housekeeping, butlers and servers who are the real brand ambassadors of the hotel and who, at all times, must live and breathe the same code of work ethics and tenets as set in the brand operational philosophy. “Another thing luxury guests pay for is intuitive service: staff that reads the guests and offers the type of service they want. For business travelers that may mean quick, efficient “no frills” service, whereas for first-time leisure travellers that may involve going the extra mile to enhance their experience,” says Daniel Edward Craig, the hotshot global Hotel and Travel Industry Consultant.
Nigel Bolding believes that the coup de grace lies in the “sense of arrival. Everyone arrives at a hotel slightly stressed and in doubt as to whether the reservation is still in place. Any hotel has 30 seconds to impress and if it goes well the rest of the stay does.” Bolding believes that The Dorchester, having spent $ 500,000 in this area, has got the perfect formula down pat to create the finest first impression.
Mary Gostelow of Gostelow Report and girlahead.com fame is one of the world’s most prolific luxury travelers spending over 300 nights a year in top hotels. She demands that for a luxury hotel guest there has to be “absolutely no waiting” and a flawless delivery of spotlessly remarkable service.
The Doormen at Raffles and The Oberoi, the Bell girls at Peninsula and The Imperial, the valet at Island Shangri-La, the Les Clefs d’Or decorated concierge at some of the finest hotels around the world, the awarded chefs lording over their Michelin-starred restaurants, are all icons that have made an example out of providing legendary service to their hotel guests.
For a whole lot of luxury travellers, this front line direct-in-contact staff is the most important element of the hotel software and perhaps its biggest ambassador.
Anoothi Vishal, an established and prominent Indian Food & Travel writer, seeks out “an efficient and quick room service.” Gostelow puts a premium on “unobtrusive housekeeping.” For Sagina “travel concierge services” is a nice touch. Susan Kurosawa, the irrepressible and hugely experienced travel editor of The Australian with two decades of luxury industry exposure under her belt, tilts the balance just that tad bit in favour of “discreet butler service.”
But the employee number one who really seals the deal is a “top notch, smart concierge” as Julia puts it. Nigel Bolding too is charmed by “good concierge who can take care of anything.” And for Andreas Augustin, President, The Most Famous Hotels in the World, “a great and competent concierge desk” is a big step towards making the hotel really famous and coveted. Amit Oberoi, who manages the Shangri-La’s Boracay luxury Resort & Spa, reiterates that “the concierge must always be confident and efficient.”
Also, Donnelly-Theroux states that “the charmer concierge should be equipped to get you what you want, including the insider scoop on local attractions and culture.” Oberoi believes in showcasing “comprehensive / One-stop shop concierge services” at luxury properties.
Julia Gajcak reasserts the importance of “knowledgeable drivers who are safety conscious.” And for hotels that cater to an increasingly growing international clientele Julia says that “staff with strong language skills is an absolute must so that they can converse with not only the British and the Americans but also the Russians, Japanese, Chinese and German.”
In order to create a cohesive exercise towards guest orientation, it is imperative that the training is immaculate, briefings are vividly elaborate and there is an open system of sharing and reiterating information pertinent to the guests. “Staff should be briefed well about the guests to guarantee smooth service,” says Andreas Augustin.
Defining the concept of Brand Ambassadors, Sandeep Walia affirms, “It is about People – ladies and gentlemen actually delivering the service need to be the very best in the industry as they are the heart and soul of the hotel. They represent the hotel and the brand.”
Timur Senturk strongly feels that the hallmark of a luxury hotel spearheaded by the scintillating service of its brand ambassadors should be such that the guests feel, “The brand is a name I can trust, it delivers on its promises and treats me fairly.”
Senturk says that “the foundation of the guest-hotel relationship should always be defect-free, anticipatory service. And if ever there is a problem, the FIRST person has to fix it!” This is what is called service of the highest standard that can only be given by perfectly trained and attuned staff through a world-class stencil that programs them to be always ready and willing to go beyond the brief.
Stay at luxury hotels is all about getting as far away from the cookie-cutter culture as possible and to treat every guest as the special one. Again, The Pierre example comes to mind. Once inside the haloed precincts of the ultra-luxe hotel, each guest is treated specially by every staff member, be it the Doorman, the Concierge, Housekeeping attendant, the Food & Beverage Director or the General Manager.
There are hotels that take personalization to a different level – The Oberoi offers personalized stationery to its Belvedere Club members; at Montage Beverly Hills, the US guests get to lay their heads on customized pillows embroidered with their initials; just as they do at the ITC luxury hotels in India. “Personalized service” is a key factor for hoteliers such as Sagina, Walia and Senturk. Julia Gazcak says that “check-in and check-out directly in the guest room,” is a great value-add to personalization. “A personal butler may seem very spoilt but I love the experience of one!” states Anoothi Vishal.
A dynamic, well-kept Guest history is the strongest tool in the Hotel’s armoury for keeping the high profile guests happy and loyal to its brand. From your favourite Earl Grey tea, the movies that need to be stacked up in your suite before your arrival, the choice of fruits that must fill up the fruit basket or the kind of flowers that should deck your temporary abode, your food allergies, your favourite Valet who must be made available specially for you at your every visit to even ensuring that a Yoga teacher is brought in specially for you or a particular brand of sparkling water stocked in the pick-up limo or your mini bar……….the guest history records each and every thing about you that will go a long way in making your stay all that special and privileged. One of the best software strategies up a top notch hotel’s sleeve is a clean, livewire guest history that is shorn off all dead wood and to which all key operational staff pays keen attention. This not only ensures repeat guests but also that the guests do not walk over to competition. Andreas Augustin adds that “a perfect guest history records throughout the group, with the individual differences in mind.” Walia agrees strongly that “same level of service has to be non-negotiably offered in each hotel under the same brand.”
Personalization stems from well-defined Best Practices in service standards such that the service is quick and one that meets the request pointedly, at all times. Sandeep Walia asserts that “the up marketness of the brand is reflected in its eagerness to anticipate the guest needs, which could be as basic to demand yet critical to provide as the room location wherein some guests may prefer the view, some the closeness to the elevator and others the direction in which the room is located. This sort of guest demand may play havoc with the inventory planning but is one hell of an important factor in keeping the guest happy.”
Gautam Anand says that the two most prominent services that deliver great level of personalisation are “Flexible Check-out – with most international flights arriving and departing in contravention of the 12 noon norm, several guests appreciate this courtesy and an Efficient Travel Desk – Guests are appreciative of immediate facilities for their travel needs – locally and in case of emergency/impromptu travel plans.”
In today’s ‘webbed’ world, a luxury hotel’s standard of excellence is gauged by the superior level of technology it offers its constantly-connected guests. That the internet connectivity is smooth, superfast, Wi-Fi, without any glitches and free is expected to be a given at the plushest of luxury-laden retreats. And the jury is “in” on this with Sharma voting for “complimentary internet,” Gostelow, Vishal, Kurosawa and Bolding stating “free and instant connectivity” as one of their top most needs. Augustin is quite unequivocal when he says, “there just has to be free permanently connected super fast internet and NO DISCUSSION ABOUT FEES.”
“Free basic Wi-Fi broadband internet access (with a minimum of 500kb/second download) is needed in the guest rooms and lobby. Although some luxury properties are clinging to internet fees as a profit centre, internet access is increasingly viewed by guests as utility similar to lights and water,” says Anand.
Sagina is clear about offering “high speed WiFi connection and IPod docking station” at his resort. According to Sandeep Walia, technology sets a benchmark for an above par hotel with the property “being ahead of time in terms of electronic communication, Wi-Fi speed, updated and upgraded technology in the room.” Amit Oberoi is proud of the fact that his hotels offer “uninterrupted Wi-Fi access in all areas – no loss of connection from the room to lobby; what’s more even our cars and boats have Wi-Fi.”
“I think that more than anything guests want comfort and convenience. The definition of this varies according to the purpose of travel. For business travellers, and increasingly for leisure travellers too, a big part of convenience is fast, reliable wireless internet access,” avers Daniel Craig. For Donnelly-Theroux “iPod stations and tech toys on the room service menu are a nice touch.”
“Helping travellers get oriented to the hotel and destination is important too. For leisure luxury travellers there are all sorts of Internet resources and mobile applications available for travellers to plan trips on their own, but with all the review sites, resources and opinions out there it can be a time-consuming and confusing process. Luxury hotels must help travellers cut through the noise and find the perfect local restaurants, activities and services for each guest. The best way of doing so is by offering a variety of do-it-yourself resources (on the website, mobiles apps and in-room) combined with the services of a seasoned and well-connected concierge,” adds Craig.
The erstwhile Chief Executive of the UK’s Barratt Group, David Pretty says: “Tastes evolve and change. People’s idea of luxury still includes elements of space, comfort and quality, but increasingly involves sharp design, and cutting-edge technology.”
“Make logging onto the Wi-Fi network easy. Opening the browser and clicking “OK” is all that it should take. As mobile devices are being used for internet access with greater frequency, hence make the logon screen readable in smaller formats as well,” advises the quintessential Hotelier Gautam Anand.
“Better yet, use autosensing technology and provide a mobile web log-in page optimized for a smaller screen. As multiple devices are being used (I regularly have both my laptop computer and my iPad on simultaneously), the ability to use them under one account regardless of location is needed as well,” Anand further adds.
5. DINING DELIGHT
Food is truly the winning factor for most hotels – smart, simple, sensible selections for certain meal times of a business traveller and elaborate, exquisite and enchanting for those on the languorously leisure downtime. The restaurants (including room service) offering their culinary artworks are certainly the places to showcase award-winning talents of the hotels’ food & beverage team. There are several luxury hotspots that are known exclusively for their food craft and kitchen talent.
Luxury hotels, by virtue of being iconic in image and astral in brand personality, just must offer dining options that delight their varied clientele – those awe-inspiring signature dishes, the mesmerizing wine lists, ingredients specially flown in, fantastic concepts painstakingly created, creative presentations that promise to stay on the guest’s mind and above all culinary talent that is simply the best in the world.
Paolo Sagina says “luxury hotels must provide a gastronomic experience par excellence to its guests.”
Mary Gostelow, having criss-crossed around the globe to stay in some of the world’s finest properties, laments the lack of attention to quality. “A truly luxurious hotel will always get its basics right to the last ‘T,’” asserts Gostelow who expects “freshest of orange juice, strong and flavourful coffee and real bread with masses of nuts in it” from these haloed havens of hospitality.
Nigel Bolding roots for “a good bar and restaurant that makes you feel comfortable even as a single man or woman.” Both Andreas Augustin and Susan Kurosawa emphasize the focus that luxury hotels must give to its in-room dining. Andreas says that “hotels must cater for a super fast room service with finger food as sometimes you have no time for an elaborate dinner, but you are simply hungry.” Kurosawa feels strongly about “In-room dining that ranges beyond the expected club sandwich and soup of the day; and includes vegetarian and gluten-free dishes too.”
“A great hotel is one that ensures the same standard of F&B quality even in its room service, also guaranteeing timeliness and optimal temperature,” maintains Oberoi while speaking on behalf of one of the world’s best kept luxury chain of hotels.
According to Julia Gajcak, “a variety of cuisine options ranging from Indian, Japanese, Italian, French, Thai, Lebanese……….to cater to a jet setting guest list with widely exposed palates, great selection of international wines that are not outrageously priced and good vegetarian food choices make for a winning formula.”
“I was at a luxury resort in the Maldives this summer and in the afternoon one of the attendants just walked into the pool with a tray of chilled fruit sticks. It was so wired and funny yet so simple and effective,” recounts Rajeev Kohli reiterating that often it is the simple thoughts and ideas and the tiny gestures that set a leader apart from the hoi polloi.
“To be a cut above the rest, luxury hotels, besides housing multiple dining establishments, must also have a 24/7, round-the-clock restaurant, an elaborate, well-crafted menu of comfort food, a highly responsive in-room dining that even offers gourmet room service for guests at any time of the day or night, Wine cellars stocked with the most exclusive and sought-after labels and an outstanding outlet through which connoisseurs have access to gourmet chocolates, cheeses and pastries,” adds Anand.
See Part 2 for the next five points…
(Images courtesy of Google Images)