Hotels constantly amp up their experiences and that’s not a bad thing, if they are carefully crafted, meticulously delivered and, hopefully, not starkly delusional. Well-appointed rooms, personalised service, fabulous dining opportunities and, of course, the ambience characterize a luxury hotel stay.
However, the stark realities of COVID and the uncertainties it has given rise to in the hospitality industry, have put a dampener on many travellers’ hopes.
The big questions are: With hygiene and social distancing protocols being so strictly implemented, can hotels deliver on their core experiences? Will we have to hold these properties to different benchmarks from now on? How will they navigate their post-COVID scenario with zero contact and, possibly, zero smiles in a world where service is supreme?
While industry professionals are still adapting to the new face of hospitality, the consensus from operations heads is that it’s still hugely possible to hit the right notes.
The main step towards this reality is to accept that a hotel experience extends beyond spacious lobbies, private access and butlers with silver trays to something more permanent and inherent—inducing feelings of exceptional happiness in guests and ensuring they have epiphanies to cherish.
Happiness, as Japanese actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo explained, can be defined in varied ways:
To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill
To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return
To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands
To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds…”
The romanticism of poetry aside, the permanency of beauty, nature, architecture and space will be the canvas from which hotels will continue to draw. For instance, you may be an avowed modernist, yet fall in love with the classic appeal of the Raffles in Singapore or the stunning contours of Hotel de Paris in Monaco and the Moorish charms of La Mamounia, Marrakech. No amount of masked staff and guests can take away from their drop-dead gorgeous environs.
Architecture and spatial design are important differentiators but infusing them with the right experience is what makes all the difference.
Consider the tropical modernism of Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural masterpieces in Sri Lanka, made all the more stunning by Asian service traditions. Or the tented luxury of the secluded wilderness camp, Aman-i-Khas, on the threshold of the Ranthambore reserve, with individually assigned batmen to make each moment count or the tailored luxury of Singita Sabora Tented Camp reopening this month.
At Londolozi Lodge—part of the Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa—spectacular nature coalesces seamlessly with the vast expanse that Africa is fabled for. Their commitment to preserving wildlife and the sharp focus on conservation adds an element of authenticity and rarity to the experience, the reasons why it features on the top bucket-lists of most discerning luxury travellers.
Brands that are strongly etched in high NPS scores (a management tool used to gauge loyalty in customer relationships) will continue to derive value from their past, provided they present it in the context of today, reflected in the smallest of details.
The artistic director at Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris, albeit masked and socially distanced, will still be there to add panache to your day with exquisite floral arrangements—the way he has been doing for the last few decades—invoking the urge to stop and smell the roses. Suddenly, there is a greater appreciation for the things one took for granted.
“Quality is not an act, it’s a habit,” said Aristotle, so evident in the way a hotel’s staff can’t do enough for you.
It needs no elaboration that most great experiences are built around intangible values. Recently at a workshop, Sonu Shivdasani, CEO of Soneva, better known as the ‘Guardian of the Culture’, took his colleagues through lessons from a book he had read, Setting the Table by Danny Meyer.
As a participant of the workshop, I was struck by his description of the transforming power of hospitality. According to him, hospitality is all about doing whatever it takes to make guests feel and understand that we are in their corner. It’s a space where one size fits one and leaving lasting impressions is all that matters. Every interaction with a guest presents an opportunity to deliver on his individual needs.
It is this attitude that draws guests back to a hotel and it’s a principle that some of the biggest hospitality brands in India live by. Rakhee Lalwani, VP – Corporate Communications at the Taj, points to hospitality being driven by human interaction. IHCL not just deploys exacting standards of safety and hygiene, but their service philosophy, referred to as ‘Tajness’, delivers on the core values of warmth, caring and positioning their guests at the core of their operations.
Personalisation is as common a word as you can get in hotel parlance but when executed well contributes to deep loyalty. Khushnooma Kapadia, Area Director of Marketing, South Asia, Marriott International Inc. emphasises the importance of human interaction as the start to a loyal relationship with guests.
However, she adds that managing valuable customer relationships and seamlessly integrating digital solutions to deliver on what matters most—exacting hygiene protocols and acclaimed Marriott standards—is equally important.
Hotels are not differentiated solely on the basis of the luxury inherent in their lavish interiors and great design, or in their experimental F&B experiences. Their immense reputation is also hinged on their intuitive, caring and exemplary service standards, a service that is laced by heartfelt warmth. That, as an aspect of hospitality, will never change about great hotels, according to Silki Sehgal, VP – Corporate Communications, The Oberoi Hotels. While sincerity and genuine care for guests and staff remain undiminished, new-age technologies that assure a safe and secure experience are likely to be deployed by hoteliers to ensure that their hotels remain a desirable option for their guests.
Then there are actions that are bespoke, curated and tailored for guests, which take a hotel several notches above the ordinary. These are based on customer preferences or segment data and cover the entire spectrum of customer touchpoints.
They will always head out to hotels for little touches such as the Etro merino throws at the Rosewood, London or the well-attended cocktails at the inner courtyard of Taj, London.
Many will revisit hotels that have great fragrances which invoke deep memories and feelings of happiness such as the Eau d’ Italie collection at Le Sirenuse, located at the Amalfi Coast. The association runs deep and lingers for months after a visit.
Other reasons would be very relatable to most of us and include small necessities like free Wi-Fi, 100 MB bandwidth, Amazon Echo or even ESP guitars.
The one thing that will always beat all attributes is established and renowned service and will be the fallback for the tough but necessary protocols in the new norm. It is not hard to imagine The Ritz Carltons, known for their gold standard of hospitality and 100 years of history, to continue inspiring life’s most meaningful journeys, or the Four Seasons to be at the top of their game.
These are artfully built brands that have invested years in understanding their guests’ needs, associations and passion points. And that is precisely why they will survive the present crisis and sail through it, changing their pivot if necessary, but retaining the core.
Deepa Misra Harris is Founder & CEO BrandsWeLove LLP, unique luxury hospitality and brand specialist with proficiency in branding, marketing, sales and public relations. She has a three-decade-long experience in the high-end luxury hospitality segment and was a significant success driver for India’s original luxury brand, The Taj Group of Hotels.