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What has the pandemic taught hotels about luxury. Is ‘less’ more?

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PHOTO: The Naka Island - The Luxury Travel Expert

by Anthony Lark

“Let’s say goodbye to all that stale pretence and manufactured pomp”

Until the collective nightmare that was 2020, many of the so-called high-end hotels had a reputation for trying to convince guests to pay for often dingy guestrooms lacking any real views inside an otherwise ornate structure with a storied, celebrated past, where the first impression was a check in often akin to applying for a bank loan. Defined as “luxury”, in the good old days they got away with it.

Over the thirty years I spent running Amanpuri and Trisara on Phuket, I heard hundreds of people complain of feeling ripped off at “legendary” and “iconic” hotels by staff that rudely treated them as anything but guests.

How many of us did not tip the head waiter after dinner on the first night, to return the next evening and find ourselves stashed at a table by the kitchen door, or getting ushered past the prime and utterly empty deck chairs (with a book on them) by an indifferent pool boy rushing to count his bounty at the pool bar.

As we in the hotel business look towards vaccine jabs while collectively praying for people to start travelling again, let’s say goodbye to all that stale pretence and manufactured pomp. Emerging from the darkness that was 2020, we hoteliers need to consider that life will not bounce back to all that, nor should it. Good riddance to the seller’s market when hotels could charge like the light brigade for sub-par accommodations and indifferent service while expecting our guests will automatically keep coming back for more.

Merriam-Webster ‘luxury’ definition #1: a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort.

“There will always be people willing to pay,” said the late, great Natale Rusconi of the Cipriani in Venice and Splendido in Portofino. The size of the room didn’t matter, he observed, nor did the price of a cup of coffee, as long as they felt cocooned in an ‘exclusive’ world with an established reputation of being the “best.”

A classic negroni or a plate of risotto on the terrace at Cipriani is luxurious, not so much because of the ingredients of the food and beverage (although it is the best), but because it’s a rare experience.

Sonu Shivdasani, owner of Soneva resorts, hits it on the head when describing luxury.

He points out “Our external communication focuses much more on our brand proposition of “Inspiring a Lifetime of Rare Experiences”.

For example, we touch upon the point of our guests being able to walk barefoot for a week. This is rare and hence a luxury.

Change is in the luxe-wind

There is definitely change in the post-covid wind. In virtual conversations with many wealthy, well-travelled former guests of mine living in the northern hemisphere, they are explicit about what they yearn for on the other side of their drawn-out lockdowns.

These people are the ones who every year asked me for the largest villa with the bluest views and the most kitted out yacht for a day on the Andaman Sea and now I sense they seek something distinctly less material. While I am not surprised to hear them in their Bel Air mansions and apartments overlooking the River Seine asking for deals, what they say next piques my interest. “Anthony, I don’t need the presidential suite when we come back,” they say without a whiff of disappointment to downgrade. They are increasingly asking not for the specs on yachts but for news of wellness offerings and rare, secret local experiences.

One company already excelling in this beyond luxury space is Six Senses, purchased in 2019 by the behemoth InterContinental Hotels brand but left to run relatively independently under CEO Neil Jacobs. In interviews and on panels throughout the pandemic, Jacobs has spoken often of his personal aversion to the very word ‘luxury’ as well as to ‘exclusivity,’ which he sees in direct opposition to Six Senses’ holistic ethos.

Community engagement, he argues, is not only an aspect of the brand’s sustainability guidelines but also critical to “the intrinsic value of the content around what is being offered” at each individual property.

Like Jacobs, I noticed even before Covid that bragging rights back home no longer focus solely on price-tagged acquisitions. Those same guests who regaled me during lockdown with tales from their past travels, talked about meaningful encounters with Bhutanese textile weavers, Portuguese sourdough bakers, Colombian coffee farmers or Thai fishermen with whom they shared meaningful encounters on immersive, often unexpectedly transformative journeys. Perhaps we all learned in lockdown that these memories endure far longer than we can linger on even the most decadent bed linens or the hotel’s fluffy-as-a-cloud bathrobes.

Even before any of us had given a thought to wet markets in Wuhan, our industry was abuzz with these ‘experiential’ and ‘transformational’ travel offerings, and we see smaller, more nimble independent hotels and resorts luring guests away from staid grand dames of the past, while commanding higher rates.

I suspect we will now enter a new era, best described by Morris Sim, one of the smartest marketing minds I know. Travellers he predicts, will be embracing the idea that “ luxury is the outcome of an experience, not a product.”

Merriam-Webster luxury definition #2: something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary.

To be clear, this is not a rallying cry to spend amidst an economic crisis. Luxurious experiences may be as humble as a thoughtful gesture or act of kindness by a staff member. It’s surprising our guests on their return to the hotel room to find their laundry cleaned, folded and tied with a beautiful bow, or that feeling of being cared for to discover one’s toothpaste, sunscreen and deodorant arranged like tiny soldiers on the bathroom vanity.

Going forward, those hotels that also help guests to make meaningful, immersive connections with the surrounding culture and environment while also delivering unpretentious, anticipatory service with thoughtful human touches will redefine luxury.

Merriam-Webster luxury definition #2b: an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease

Throughout the heady 1990s, we opened a new Amanresort every year or so. While now considered places of beauty that were undeniably desirable, they were initially revolutionary upstarts compared with the most famous resorts of the 70’s and 80’s where gold sink taps stood out against bathrooms laden with Carrera marble.

Into this arena where remote controlled toilets that blew air on your arse were regarded as luxurious, Adrian Zecha’s vision for each Aman was unashamedly simple in design and utterly lacking in superfluous finishing’s. The late architect Ed Tuttle, who mastered this design of understatement used to tell his team (including his lead designer Pin Tan, who now holds that title at Six Senses) and clients that “it’s not about embellishment, it’s about owning the space.” By this he meant that humans are most at ease in spaces that function well when for them rather than for shelter magazines and marketing brochures.

As we look towards leaving hibernation behind, I strongly believe our guests will gravitate to uncluttered places where simplicity reigns, where they can look better and feel better about their emergent selves and where they can enjoy consequential encounters with fascinating strangers, after feeling cut off for so long.

At Trisara Phuket, the team here serves local residents and Bangkokians down for the weekend gourmet Thai-inspired lunches prepared by chefs under a Thai carved sala roof overlooking a charming lake at the resort’s nearby working farm, engaging with locals tending the farm while keeping comfortably cool and exquisitely sated.

My personal view is that successful hotels must throw off any remaining shackles of our industry’s past definitions of ‘luxury’ and pivot towards delivering authentically local guest experiences and anticipative service that surprises and delights.

Are we headed towards a new paradigm where our job is to nurture the “outcome of the experience” rather than the showmanship of counting threads of Egyptian cotton and embroidering initials on pillowslips?

What has the pandemic taught hotels about luxury. Is 'less' more? | News by Thaiger

Anthony Lark is the founding and current president of The Phuket Hotels Association. He also runs his own luxury hospitality company focused on resort and residential villa design & master plan concepts, plus management auditing of existing properties as hotels prepare for a post-covid world.

 

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jason

    Friday, December 4, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    What is valued by tourists above all, is feeling welcomed and valued by the Hotel. I stay at a small boutique Hotel in Phuket. I am treated like a friend and I trust the advice of the Thais who run the Hotel. I am known by name (first name). No pretence, no mention of being “farang”. Just good friends who look after me as they would do for a close friend. That is worth more than anything else. You don’t need to pay top dollar to get top service.

    • Avatar

      Ray

      Friday, December 4, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      Agreed, I also prefer to stay at a homey place above sterile luxury. It is the same as with designer clothes, some people just pay a premium for the reputation. It is often those snubby guests in higher-end resorts who spoil it. When they treat staff as servants these hardworking people will become indifferent in turn. I am also under the impression that they are instructed not to become to familiar with guests. To some extend this is understandable due to their workload. I never been at an Aman resort where they seem to do it differently. Of course this comes with a hefty price tag.

  2. Avatar

    Sam

    Friday, December 4, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    Wholeheartedly agree with Jason’s comment, and would add that you do not travel to “stay” at a hotel, you spend most of your time visiting the sights!

    Therefore, a clean and comfortable hotel room will suffice, and what will make you return is the “welcome” feeling provided by staff and management.

  3. Avatar

    Toby Andrews

    Friday, December 4, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    I do not want to treated as a friend.
    I want as much value as I can get for my buck.
    I watch keenly to catch them scamming petty cash from me.
    The hotel wants to give me as little as possible for as much as they can get, and if they can swindle a bit more, they love it.
    It’s WAR!
    .
    .
    .
    lol

    • Avatar

      Issan John

      Friday, December 4, 2020 at 4:50 pm

      I’ll bet you scam the mini-bar too …

      … but I have to agree with you. All this being “treated like a friend” by people who AREN’T friends just makes me feel a bit uncomfortable – I want service, not friendship.

  4. Avatar

    Ted

    Friday, December 4, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    I understand what Anthony is saying, although have never looked at it, as he does, pre-or post covid. Although, I hope he and all other leaders in the hospitality sector doesn’t forget this time and continue to let it be; the buyer’s market. And not turn it back to “seller’s market” as fast as it is possible to do so.

    I just love the hotel deals one can get now in Thailand, I for sure, do my part in helping the hospitality sector.

  5. Avatar

    Issan John

    Friday, December 4, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    An excellent and thought provoking article from someone in the hotel and hospitality industry, at long last.

    It doesn’t affect me as unless it’s for something special, like a honeymoon, a hotel for me is just a place to stay, not to “experience” while I get my “experiences” away from the hotel. When I go to Hong Kong now (not recently, but a few times post 1997) I’ll stay at the YMCA next to the Peninsula as it offers all I want and need from the Peninsula (a comfortable bed, a quiet room, and a good location) but at a fraction of the price.

    When I was based in Hong Kong and there was some re-building going on nearby I was put up in the Mandarin for a few days so they could work past normal hours without disturbing me, but it was totally wasted – rather like an ASQ paradise. I’d have drawn the line at Chungking mansions, but I just didn’t want the “luxury”.

    Horses for courses, I suppose.

  6. Avatar

    Patrick Kelly

    Saturday, December 5, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    Here’s hoping the shackles are removed for the hotel industry sooner than later. Not sure how many more months some of these hotels can last. Seems by the surveys reported if you are outside the tourism sector you want to remain on lockdown . That’s a bad omen for the future of a vibrant industry. We’ve only begun to see the carnage.

  7. Avatar

    Philippe Brown

    Saturday, December 5, 2020 at 10:58 pm

    The real change will come when travel advisors, agents and companies commit to selling less not more.

    And instead of selling they start teaching people who to travel better – whether transformationally, experientially or otherwise.

  8. Avatar

    James Pate

    Wednesday, December 9, 2020 at 6:24 am

    A very insightful article. I enjoyed it. I hope the writer can teach many in the hotel industry the lessons he has learned. Would like to read more stories like this here; not just about hotels, but from other kinds of businesses, too.

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