Rick Harvey Lam, Accor; Alain Brière, Oetker Hotel Collection; Lindsey Ueberroth, Preferred Hotel Group; Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor; Xavier Destribats, Kempinski Hotels; Elke Menz, Tsogo Sun Hotel Company; and Peter Shaindlin, Halekulani Corporation.
Earlier this year in Berlin, Luxury Travel Advisor hosted a roundtable prior to the opening of ITB as part of our Affluent Traveler series. We caught up with executives from luxury hotel groups to find out what the luxury consumer is thinking these days. Joining us were: Alain Brière, VP, sales & marketing for the Oetker Hotel Collection; Xavier Destribats, senior VP, operations for Kempinski Hotels; Michael Halsall, director of sales & marketing, Grace Hotels; Rick Harvey Lam, senior VP, global marketing, luxury and upscale brands, Accor; Christian Malcher, global director of sales & marketing, Design Hotels; Kathleen Matthews, EVP & chief global communications & public affairs officer, Marriott International; Elke Menz, director of international sales and marketing for Tsogo Sun Hotel Company (South Africa); Peter Shaindlin, COO, Halekulani Corporation; and Lindsey Ueberroth, president and CEO of Preferred Hotel Group. The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/editorial director of Luxury Travel Advisor.
Following is a condensed version of our discussion.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: What are the newest trends that you’re seeing?
Lindsey Ueberroth, Preferred Hotel Group: For us it’s destination celebrations. Everyone wants to celebrate everything with travel and they are going further away to do them, whether it’s retirement, an anniversary, a wedding or a birthday party. That’s great because that ties in to the suites and villa products, your connecting rooms and your public space. That’s continuing to grow and it plays into multigenerational travel. We are trying to focus on how to deliver the best experience for those celebrations that are happening.
Kathleen Matthews, Marriott International: We’ve re-invented our kids programs at Ritz-Carlton and the J.W. Marriott brand because we are seeing people bringing their kids and their grandkids. They’re making sure it’s a real quality, experiential, discovery program.
The other thing is, time is our most precious commodity, so this whole notion of extending your business trip is big. It’s become “bleisure”—a combination of business and leisure. You can make somebody’s business trip an absolute home run if you’ve convinced them that after their third trip to Beijing, if they still haven’t seen the Great Wall, you’ll make it happen for them and all they have to do is extend the trip a day or two. The notion is, how do we communicate that in advance of the trip? That’s an opportunity for the luxury travel advisor.
Xavier Destribats, Kempinski: We are a small company, so we don’t have our own mileage program. So, we are part of GHA (Global Hotel Alliance) with 14 brands [as of March]. When we ask our guests, “Would you like to redeem some points, or would you like free upgrades or a free bottle of champagne after five nights,” we notice that our customers don’t care about a free bottle, they don’t care about an upgrade. What they really want after spending 20 nights is to have a local experience. They say, “I would like to stay another day and I would like you to take care of me and I would like you to surprise me.” So, if it’s a hotel in Berlin, we take them to the fish market, for example. In another city like Istanbul, we do a total tour around the city, and we have a few other options. We’ve had a lot of success with that.
Rick Harvey Lam, Accor: We see people going to the more exotic destinations like Vietnam and Cambodia; we see more and more going to Asia. The real benefit is connection, and it’s not just within the family, but recomposed families or friends amongst them.
Another trend is personalized service, because time is the new currency. So why would you use an advisor? Because you don’t want to take a risk that one or two times a year when you go on holidays with your family. You don’t want to take any risk on that.
Peter Shaindlin, Halekulani Corporation: We have a variation along the same lines. We’ve been using the word “gatherings.” In addition to multigenerational, you get these groups of four or five women or guys—professional people in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s—and they’re all good friends and they never get time together. Then one of them either has a birthday or something triggers the trip. And it’s just great; they’re upbeat, they have fun, they spend, and they know exactly what they want. They’re potential loyal customers—sometimes the lead guy already is—and they bring these people to you. We are just starting to talk about how you market that [kind of experience].
Pictured: Peter Shaindlin, Halekulani Corporation; Christian Malcher, Design Hotels; and Kathleen Matthews, Marriott International.
Sometimes they book these trips like a week out or less. So now we know that they are coming, so what do we do for them? Who’s going to focus on a group like that, to make sure they really have a great time? We have them write comments when they leave on what was important to them. They’ll tell you things like there was the guy who polished their golf clubs every morning before they went out, things you wouldn’t think of having done. That’s a growing trend for us in Hawaii.
Alain Brière, Oetker Hotel Collection: We talk about multigenerational travel as if it’s a new trend. We have Hotel du Cap in Antibes, and we have clients who are grown fathers who were at the hotel as kids. Which explains why we have 70 percent return business in that hotel, because you have loyal clients, who, year after year after year, go for one to four weeks to the hotel. It’s true that it’s growing, but it’s certainly not a new type of segment.
Christian Malcher, Design Hotels: We have a very vertical portfolio. So you can stay in a room for 130 euros, or you can also stay in a hotel where the cheapest room starts at $2,500 per night. Regardless of how technically advanced everybody is nowadays, it’s still a people business. We all create experiences. It’s very important that you can tell stories—stories about the destination. People nowadays do more trips than they used to do 20 years ago. They are overwhelmed with information and there is nobody filtering it for them. Imagine, on a Thursday night, you just realize, “Oh, I booked a trip with my family tomorrow to Paris. Where should I go? Where do I get the opera tickets? What’s the best art gallery? Where do I go with my kids?” I think therefore that it’s very important that you have a person who you can trust, who can really explain to you and organize certain things for you together with the hotel.
Pictured: Xavier Destribats, Kempinski Hotels; and Elke Menz, Tsogo Sun Hotel Company.
For us it’s very important that our hotels are locally connected. We call it a neighborhood approach. That means every staff in a hotel should be able to tell the guest where the best places are to go, whether it’s for shopping or for food, or whatever it might be. If you leave the destination and the next day you meet a friend or colleague, and they tell you, “Have you been to XYZ restaurant? It’s just around the corner of the hotel you have stayed at,” and you say, “No, I didn’t hear about it,” that’s just bad luck. People don’t want to miss anything. And they want to tell a story and an experience when they are back home. That’s very important. We are focusing a lot on that.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: What type of service are your affluent guests looking for these days?
Alain Brière, Oetker Hotel Collection: There is luxury in simplicity, which may seem a little bit contradictory. You can have great quality food, for instance, but it should be genuine and, if at all possible, relate to the destination as well. There should be simplicity in the service, but there should still be constant attention that’s unobtrusive. But still something very, very close and ready to be delivered.
Rick Harvey Lam, Accor: With 120 hotels, Sofitel has a service culture, meaning that there needs to be consistency; it needs to be genuine and not rehearsed; proactive, flexible, anticipating. You need service standards for consistency and people need to know how to react and how to anticipate, but I think the difficult bit is how to use your emotional intelligence when you are tired—you’ve had an early wake-up and you are coming in and being asked a stupid question.
People are expecting service. If you don’t provide that genuine, proactive service, people are dissatisfied rather than satisfied.
Kathleen Matthews, Marriott International: I think “emotional intelligence” is a brilliant way of describing it. I also think the elevation of the employee or the associate is critical to that. That’s why the “ladies and gentlemen of The Ritz-Carlton” has been such an enduring principle, because there is that sense of equality of the people serving the guest. That does require you to develop that emotional intelligence, which makes you more anticipatory, not going through the motions. It shouldn’t feel like it is rote language that you use, it should feel very authentic and in the moment.
Pictured: Lindsey Ueberroth, Preferred Hotel Group; Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor; and Xavier Destribats, Kempinski Hotels.
At Marriott, we’re trying to pull the Ritz-Carlton culture through all of our brands because people at every tier are looking for that. For example, at our Marriott signature brand, which is our flagship, we’ve elevated the associate to be a host and to guide them with three main principles that you would use if you were hosting someone in your home.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Right. It shouldn’t be a price point.
Kathleen Matthews, Marriott International: Exactly. “Authenticity” feels so overused these days but I think it’s what we’ve seen in our Edition hotels, which have a comfortableness about them. It can be a very cool hotel, but it’s very warm. It feels very approachable, welcoming, and you can find your space anywhere. Is that space your bungalow at the beach or at the pool where you’re all alone in your own world? Or is it more in the mixing bowl of sitting at the bar with a group of people? To give people in a luxury hotel experience an ease, a comfort, and a kind of fun and looseness that they have in their everyday lives.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: There’s the phrase, “Alone together,” where business travelers can be in the hotel lobby, sitting and working on their laptop while having a glass of wine. They’re not alone in their room, they’re with a lot of people, and they can feel like they’re part of the scene, if they want to be.
Kathleen Matthews, Marriott International: Technology can also be a huge help in the personalization piece. People love to be recognized for themselves, to be called by their name, but also, for somebody to remember that you drink pinot noir. It’s why you love your neighborhood haunts, your dry cleaner—because you walk in and they know you. Technology is really the luxury customer’s and luxury hotel’s best friend right now.
Rick Harvey Lam, Accor: I absolutely agree. I think we need technology as a means to get to the goal. However, very often there is too much emphasis being given to technology as the answer. If you don’t have the right people and you don’t have the right training, the soft element, technology will just be a piece of a machine that’s going to sit there giving you information that you’re not going to use.
Peter Shaindlin, Halekulani Corporation: I agree with you about the recognition. The interesting thing is the level of familiarization across the generations with first names. I went into a Starbucks last year and it was empty because it was 6 a.m. But because of the training and the mentality, the guy said to me, “Can I have your name?” He took the Sharpie out to write it on the cup. I looked around and saw I was the only one in there so I said, “No.” He said, “But you have to give me your name because they trained us this way,” and I said, “Well, this is the thing—I’m absolutely convinced that if I pay you and you pour that coffee from that pot into this cup, and we both walk down there, this is going to work out. It’s going to be okay.”
Pictured: Michael Halsall, Grace Hotels; Rick Harvey Lam, Accor; and Alain Brière, Oetker Hotel Collection.
Talking about Millennials, what I find fascinating is I’ve been to conferences where there are workshops on Millennials, but why don’t any of us bring the kids into this discussion and just ask them in front of all of us, “What’s going on?” My younger daughter tore into me two years ago. She said, “Where are the pictures?” I said, “I e-mailed them to you.” She said, “We don’t use e-mail anymore, that’s ridiculous.”
In the hotel industry we’re somewhat myopic. We can’t seem, as a group, to see very far down the road and realize it’s going to leave. If we put iPads in a hotel, if it serves a purpose, great. I’ve been in some hotels where it’s really been helpful to me, but iPads are not going to be around for dozens of years. Apple will come up with the next device. We’re going to look back at it like a Betamax tape.
Facebook, the same thing. We’re trying not to let the tail wag the dog with the social media. We are only on the verge now [in March], believe it or not, of having a Halekulani page on Facebook. I get it, but what I’ve asked myself, and I’ve asked my marketing team, is, “What do you want to accomplish with it? Why is it critical that we go on there?” No one can give me an immediate clear answer. I don’t know how it is with the rest of you, but we’re finding these issues not only challenging but, once you think you’ve got a solution, it all changes the next month.
Xavier Destribats, Kempinski: Technology sometimes really is a challenge. We opened Vienna with only iPads in the room, and some of our customers wanted an old-fashioned menu to order room service. Of course, we immediately reacted, but it’s easy to forget that all travelers might not want an iPad. Also, how many times have you gotten to your hotel room, and you have to call down for a plug adapter because the one in the room isn’t the right one? We should have a plug for every system in the room, and we are implementing that.
I never fill out a laundry list because I never remember my hotel room number. I expect either the hotel to do it or to have my name already filled on the laundry list. This is why we put a lot of emphasis into the history of the guest, so that when we get them back to the hotel, we know his preferred newspaper and we don’t have to ask him each time, “Would you like a newspaper?” Guest history, for us in our collection of individual hotels, is very, very important.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: People are wowed by things like that. It can cost you, literally, nothing to remember something, but you’ve just enchanted the guest.
Kathleen Matthews, Marriott International: It’s a lack of friction, and for the luxury customer, there should be zero friction. That’s the expectation.
Christian Malcher, Design Hotels: It’s very important how you define luxury; it can be different for everyone. We are working closely with the Future Laboratory, which has done an interesting study on the five stages of luxury. It shows you, depending on the geographical market you are looking into, what luxury means for those people. Take an emerging market, which you can still consider as Russia, China and the Middle East to be; they each have a different approach to luxury than if you ask somebody who has lived in London for 40 years. In emerging markets, people are more likely to show what they can afford, it’s a bit more bling bling. For others, it’s more important that something is handcrafted, and it doesn’t need to show any brand.
Pictured: Rick Harvey Lam, Accor; Alain Brière, Oetker Hotel Collection; Lindsey Ueberroth, Preferred Hotel Group; Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor; and Xavier Destribats, Kempinski Hotels.
Then you have people who just want to be disconnected, to be somewhere where nobody can reach them. They need to cook their own food every morning because their 10-day vacation is the only time when they can cook. The guest defines luxury for himself or for herself.
Michael Halsall, Grace Hotels: Escapism is a trend. Some hotels advertise they don’t have WiFi or televisions. It’s about getting away from the day-to-day pressures of immediately responding to your boss or to a deadline. They can say if you come to our hotel, you have a new excuse because you're not contactable, no one can get you and so you have time to yourself. The trends are all about time and experiences and escapism.
Elke Menz, Tsogo Sun Hotel Company: We have different types of clients. It’s important to look at what age range they are coming from and where your source markets are coming from, as you said earlier. Millennials and their requirements are totally different from our older clients. Also extremely important is the staff that we need nowadays who understands all of this. You can’t have somebody who just deals with everyone in the same way. You need to deal with different clients and age groups in an emotionally and culturally correct way.
Kathleen Matthews, Marriott International: Ian Schrager, who was honored by IHIF for his achievements recently, nailed it when he said, “Luxury is about being in-the-know.” That almost ties in everything we’ve been discussing. The luxury travel advisor really has to be in-the-know, knowing things that people haven’t experienced so they can bring you that new discovery. The associates in a hotel have that emotional intelligence, but also real intelligence on the local area, such as where is the food sourced from and is that sustainable hardwood in their suite? Even the housekeepers have to be in-the-know. When they are, it’s a very different experience.
When we first started working with Ian Schrager [on Edition Hotels], I kept on saying, “Tell me what this new hotel will be. I need the words, I’m the communicator. You say it’s a boutique hotel and that there’s certain alchemy in the creation of it, but tell me what it is.” He was like, “Don’t worry. When you see it, you’ll know.” There is that kind of knowing about what is right for that moment, knowing what people are looking for.