Luxe Redux: New Luxuries for Today's 5-Star Experience
By David Ashen Principal and Founder, dash design
This article was published originally on Hotel Executive June 9, 2019
Log enough frequent flyer miles – and rack up enough loyalty points based upon checking in and out of some of the world's most sophisticated hotels and premier boutique properties – and it becomes increasingly rare to leave raving about the experience. In a day and age when more people have access to luxury and convenience than ever before, and are certainly more well-traveled, it can become harder for hotel brands to create a "wow moment" for guests.
That being said, while harder, it's not impossible. I had a hotel experience that made me feel so valued I took to the Hotel Business Review to talk about it last year. In pondering how to create a five-star experience today, I still can't help but to reference the story.
That's because my stay at Swire Hospitality's Upper House luxury hotel in Hong Kong is still among my most memorable. As a group, Swire, which has roots in the real estate and commercial property world, knows how to court its guests and it starts with the ultimate luxury: service.
At Your Service
The Upper House, like many hotels in Hong Kong and a few in the United States, was built with expatriates in mind. Swire had taken over the J.W. Marriott property and converted it into a five-star hotel, with serviced apartments (fully furnished short-term residences with housekeeping services and amenities) on its top 20 floors. This configuration meant there was no typical lobby for guests to be greeted upon arrival, nor checked into their rooms.
So, how was a five-star experience created and how did the Upper House turn what could have been a negative into a praise-worthy positive? Through the ultimate new luxury – a clever, bespoke greeting upon arrival. I was escorted at car-side by a friendly hotel associate who made me feel welcomed, greeted me by name, took my bags, brought me straight to my room and processed my check-in and payment as we made our way up the elevator, all from the tablet in her hand.
Not only was it efficient, it was also intimate, proving that luxury isn't all about fancy finishes and pomp and circumstance, but also about personalization and stellar service. At the time, my Upper House experience seemed above and beyond, but today more hotel brands are embracing this curbside courtesy, extra escorting and customized customer service.
A personalized check-in can make all the difference. Quite recently I stayed at two different properties within a major hotel brand's portfolio just two days apart, one in Los Angeles and another in downtown Dallas. One was the traditional definition of a luxury property and the other was a more limited service lifestyle offering. Which do you think made me feel more taken care of?
The property most people would assume would be extraordinary had a broken air conditioner in the room. Following check-in, and upon discovery of the issue, I had to head down the elevator, wait at a desk again, go back to the room to have the mechanic take a look and then eventually head back down to have the room changed. The limited service hotel, in contrast, offered a high-touch premium check-in, which meant my arrival was seamless and I was assured everything was in working order before I attempted to settle in. That extra attention to detail is at the heart of luxury and turned an average experience into one I'd come back for, again and again.
Expect the Unexpected
When most people think of luxury, a few things come to mind: plush bathrobes, indulgent soaps and shampoos, high thread-count sheets and the fluffiest, fanciest towels. Sure, these details separate the four- and five-star properties and no brand can afford to skimp on these fronts, but how can a hotel owner and operator put the cleanest, freshest design to work and then create something even better?
Some brands use concierge level butler service to raise the bar. There's something about daily laundry service and someone who recalls, because they keep a detailed record on your preferences, that you love the scent of lemongrass in your room, enjoy having orange juice and Diet Coke stocked in your fridge and prefer two all-feather pillows, that makes you feel like a treasured guest.
Customization can continue on when properties allow guests to choose the type of sheets, duvet, pillow size and blend, organic linens or not and more. There's enormous return on investment to be realized when the guest controls the environment, feels heard and knows that the hotel stay will be consistently amazing, particularly when they are spending $500 to $800 a night to rest their head there.
Luxury can extend beyond what a guest sees, hears, smells and feels inside the hotel room. Smart hoteliers realize that giving people access to something a bit more special, or to making them feel in the know about the city they're visiting, can leave a lasting mark. As such, some of the hotels we're designing for have become more open-minded about utilizing backstage passes to nearby venues or special tours or passes to create a premium guest experience.
For instance, our firm just finished branding The Oaklander Hotel, a Marriott Autograph Collection property in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It has all the design elements and amenities a typical luxury traveler would come to expect, including: locally inspired design touches that blend the area's industrial past with futuristic, cutting-edge technology; 100 percent Turkish cotton bedding; spa-inspired rainfall showerheads; 55-inch smart HDTV's; an in-room Nespresso; a curated minibar with local offerings; valet parking and more.
What's better are passes to cultural institutions, like the iconic, world-class Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, just a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh in Schenley Park, so that guests can ensure they are able to visit its 15 acres, 14-room glasshouse and 23 distinct gardens without waiting on lines. VIP behind-the-scenes experiences at art museums or music venues make guests feel pampered in a way that super-thick towels cannot.
Similarly, a client we are working closely with (not to be named yet) in New York City is near Lincoln Center. A consideration is how they can tie into the programs there, and provide access to sought-after shows. In addition, particularly since the property lacks a restaurant on-site, special food packages with gourmet grocers such as Zabar's, the famous Upper West Side gourmet epicurean emporium, might allow guests to make the most of in-room kitchens and to enjoy cooking experiences, special basket deliveries and food packages and a five-star experience unlike that of the next hotel down the block.
Other options to explore could include the ability to score last-minute tickets to the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker performance during the holiday season due to an established hotel relationship, or other special theater, concert, dinner experiences or backstage passes that make memories.
Attention to Detail
When the design of the hotel's rooms matches the interest of the person staying there, the experience can be immediately elevated. Take Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, a project our firm served as the interior designer for, located near Fenway Park and considered "the official hotel of the Boston Red Sox". A highlight of the design, and what exudes luxury to those who those who stay there, are the themed guest suites: the Rathskeller Suite, which takes its design cue from, and features memorabilia from, the famed rock club that previously stood where the hotel is today; the Terrier Suite, a collegiate-spirited room that is named after Boston University's mascot; and The Loft, a chic two-story space that honors the vibrant arts scene in Boston.
A major standout is the Fenway Executive Suite, a Red Sox-themed room filled with collector's items from the team's history, such as a table signed by each of its players. These rooms are themed in an elevated, sophisticated way and, due to the focus on a unique and customized experience, have become very popular and highly successful for the Commonwealth Hotel.
Putting it into High Gear
Sage Hospitality's property, The Halcyon, in the Cherry Creek region/neighborhood, in Denver, takes luxury to another level, blending hotel with a gracious home-like experience. The guest feels as if they are walking into a friend's home and stopping by the kitchen island counter, which is where check-in occurs on wireless laptops.
Of note is that this is the antithesis of a self-check-in experience, since it involves personal (human) attention and hospitality – and the opportunity to enjoy coffee or a glass of wine, all handy on the other side of that same counter. Guests can then explore the kitchen, living room and shared gear garage, an amenity unlike many you'll find in a typical hotel. Inside are motor bikes, motorcycles and a plethora of outdoor gear hotel guests can borrow, all sending a clear signal that aligns with The Halcyon's message of luxury served on the unassuming side.
Many brands speak of six-star service these days, and the Peninsula Hotel is chief among them. As someone who has enjoyed a stay at The Peninsula's Paris hotel, I can vouch for the thoughtful design and impeccable service. Sure, the rooms are luxurious to the nines, but the design is centered around the guest's every move, from a place to dry nails, to ways to customize the in-room music in the bathroom versus the bedroom, to a special valet closet that allows the guest to place dirty clothes to be picked up by housekeeping without the need to enter the room at all.
If all brands could embrace bespoke service and then design around that, not add it in as an after-thought or simply design for design's sake, hotels would feel as luxurious as they look and the guest would talk about their stay long after returning home.