What has the pandemic taught hotels about luxury? Is “less” more?

by Anthony Lark

“Let’s say goodbye to all those pretenses and fabricated pumps”

Until the collective nightmare of 2020, many so-called upscale hotels had a reputation for trying to convince guests to pay for often drab rooms with no real view inside an otherwise ornate structure with a rich and famous past, where the first impression was a recording that often akin to applying for a bank loan. Defined as “luxury”, in the good old days they got away with it.

In the thirty years I have spent running Amanpuri and Trisara in Phuket, I have heard hundreds of people complain about feeling ripped off at “legendary” and “iconic” hotels by staff who treat them rudely like anything other than guests.

How many of us didn’t tip the maitre d ‘after dinner the first night, only to come back the next night and find ourselves stashed at a table near the kitchen door, or being driven past the Quality and completely empty sunbeds (with a book on them) by an indifferent pool boy rushing to count his bounty at the pool bar.

As we in the hospitality industry turn to vaccines while collectively praying that people will start traveling again, say goodbye to all those pretenses and fabricated pumps. Coming out of the shadows of 2020, we hoteliers must consider that life will not bounce off all of this, and neither should it. Good riddance of the vendor market when hotels could charge like the light brigade for below average accommodation and indifferent service while expecting our customers to automatically come back for more.

Merriam-Webster “luxury” definition n ° 1: a condition of abundance or of great ease and comfort.

“There will always be people willing to pay,” said the late Natale Rusconi of Cipriani in Venice and Splendido in Portofino. The size of the room didn’t matter, he observed, nor 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 Cipriani’s terrace is luxurious, not so much because of the ingredients of the food and drink (although it is the best), but because it is a rare experience.

Sonu Shivdasani, owner of Soneva Beach Resorts, hits him on the head when describing luxury.

He specifies: “Our external communication focuses much more on our brand proposition“ Inspiring a life of rare experiences ”.

For example, we address the fact that our guests can walk barefoot for a week. It is rare and therefore a luxury.

Change is in the luxury wind

There is definitely change in the post-covid wind. In virtual conversations with many wealthy and well-traveled former guests living in the Northern Hemisphere, they are explicit about what they yearn for on the other side of their prolonged lockdowns.

These are the people who asked me every year for the biggest villa with the bluest views and the most equipped yacht for a day in the Andaman Sea and now I feel they are looking for something significantly less material. While I’m not surprised to hear them in their mansions and Bel Air apartments overlooking the Seine asking for offers, what they say next piques my interest. “Anthony, I don’t need the presidential suite when we come back,” they say without a huff of disappointment to downgrade. They increasingly ask not for yacht specs, but for news about wellness offerings and rare and secretive local experiences.

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

Community engagement, he says, is not only an aspect of the brand’s sustainability guidelines, but also essential to “the intrinsic value of content around what’s on offer” in every property. individual.

Like Jacobs, I noticed even before Covid that home bragging rights no longer focus solely on price-tagged acquisitions. These same guests who regaled me during the lockdown with tales of their past travels, spoke of meaningful encounters with Bhutanese weavers, Portuguese sourdough bakers, Colombian coffee farmers or Thai fishermen with whom they shared meaningful encounters on immersive journeys, often transformative in unexpected ways. Perhaps we’ve all learned during lockdown that these memories last much longer than we can dwell on the most decadent linens or the cloudy fluffy bathrobes of the hotel.

Before any of us even thought of Wuhan’s wet markets, our industry was buzzing with these ‘experiential’ and ‘transformational’ travel offerings, and we are seeing smaller and more nimble independent hotels and resorts. luring customers away from the big, staid ladies 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. According to him, travelers will embrace the idea that “luxury is the result of an experience, not a product”.

Merriam-Webster Definition of Luxury # 2: Something that adds pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary.

To be clear, this is not a rallying cry to spend in the midst of an economic crisis. Luxurious experiences can be as humble as a thoughtful gesture or act of kindness from a staff member. We surprise our guests on their return to the hotel room to find their linen cleaned, folded and tied with a pretty bow, or the feeling of being groomed to discover its toothpaste, sunscreen and deodorant arranged like little soldiers on the bathroom vanity.

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

Merriam-Webster Definition of Luxury # 2b: an indulgence for something that gives pleasure, satisfaction or ease

Throughout the 90s, we opened a new Amanresort every year or so. While they are now considered undeniably desirable places of beauty, they were initially revolutionary upstarts compared to the most famous seaside resorts of the 70s and 80s where gold sink faucets stood out from crowded bathrooms. of Carrera marble.

In this arena where remote controlled toilets that blew air over your ass were considered luxurious, Adrian Zecha’s vision for every Aman was unabashedly simple in design and utterly lacking in superfluous finishing touches. The late architect Ed Tuttle, who mastered this understatement, told his team (including his lead designer Pin Tan, who now holds that title at Six Senses) and his clients that “Iit’s not about beautifying, it’s about owning the space. By this he meant that humans are more comfortable in spaces that work well when they are for them rather than for shelter magazines and marketing brochures.

As we consider exiting hibernation, I firmly believe that our guests will gravitate to uncluttered places where simplicity reigns, where they can look and feel better about their emerging skin, and where they can enjoy meaningful encounters with strangers. fascinating, after feeling cut off for so long.

At Trisara Phuket, the team here serves local residents and Bangkokians for weekend Thai-inspired gourmet lunches prepared by chefs under sculpted Thai decor. sala rooftop overlooking a lovely working farm lake near the complex, engaging with the locals who run the farm while staying comfortably cool and deliciously sated.

My personal view is that successful hotels need to shake off any remaining shackles of our industry’s past definitions of ‘luxury’ and move towards providing authentically local guest experiences and anticipatory service that surprises. and delights.

Are we moving towards a new paradigm where our job is to nurture the “result of the experience” rather than the staging of counting Egyptian cotton threads and embroidering initials on pillowcases?

Anthony Lark is the founder and current president of the Phuket Hotels Association. He also runs his own luxury hotel business focused on the design and master plan of resorts and residential villas, as well as the management audit of existing properties as hotels prepare for a post-covid world.

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