Hotels these days have been having a lot of fun tearing down old ideas and putting new ones in their place. There are good reasons for this. The global travel business is surging, competition is fierce, and the rise of Airbnb and the travelling millennial has changed the way we think about delivering hotel product. Gone are the days when aspects of the guest experience went unquestioned. No service, amenity or design is safe from the relentless drumbeat of reinvention.
The concept of luxury has been especially vulnerable to scrutiny. White-glove service, fancy linen, and porters that need to be tipped have never seemed closer to extinction. Even upscale hotels are changing the way they do things, opting for a more casual and relaxed style. IHG’s Holiday Inn Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico has a restaurant (La Terraza) that converts into a taco stand between the hours of 12 pm and 5 pm. In New York City, The Hudson Hotel has an upscale food counter where guests can grab craft burgers, grilled cheese made with French toast, and even French fries made in duck fat. Orders can be tracked via text message, and the food can be eaten at various locations throughout the property.
There are many broader examples of the movement toward informal service philosophies in high-end properties, such as The Thief in Oslo, a luxury property that places a special emphasis on character, personality, and genuine human interactions. A good indicator is the fact that the hotel’s leadership are individually featured on its web site, complete with quirky titles and a direct e-mail address and phone number (just in case, for example, you want to call the head bartender and order that craft cocktail in advance).
At the core of all this is a desire for genuine social experiences through the hotel product – and in particular, the desire not to be “treated like a gadget,” as this article on the future of the front desk puts it. There may have been a time when people appreciated a wooden smile and a scripted welcome, but that time has passed. Guests pick up on the nuance (or lack thereof) in every interaction across the guest experience. They’re asking themselves: Does this hotel see me as the real person that I am, or simply as a bundle of desires and preferences to be skilfully placated and mined for all the data I provide?
The impulse toward informality is traceable to that oft-referenced thirst for experiences over things. According to many voices in the industry today, empty gestures of luxury add nothing worthwhile to the guest experience. In many cases, such gestures work against the feeling of ease and authenticity that people want. On the other hand, smartly dressed staff who genuinely remember guests and treat them like a valued customer rather than their best mate, often make a more lasting impression than those who take our custom for granted.
Of course, the degree to which these sentiments are true depends on the brand, the setting, and the individual hotel property. Not every hotel will please its clientele by replacing restaurants with food trucks or addressing guests by their first names. Nor does a more informal baseline mean that every guest who walks through the door will respond to a more informal type of service.
Generally speaking, a standout guest experience is no longer something associated with barriers, silence, and scripted reactions. We can all loosen our collars a little – that much has been settled. But in taking a sledgehammer to the outdated and stuffy aspects of hotel service, let’s take care not to smash the basic tenants of professionalism and personal boundaries that have served the industry so well.
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