by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, August 17, 2018
At first, I was shocked. Then, oddly flattered. A man I had never met until this day, standing at the bar in a foreign country, fleetingly and mid-conversation, dropped in a fact about me that he could have only known had he read a blog post I wrote in 2015.
Which, as it transpires, is exactly what he had done. This man was Benjamin, camp manager of the Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa, which, in its own words, has been "pioneering experiential luxury since 1926".
Researching guests in depth before they arrive is just one of the ways this extravagant safari - with rates exceeding £1,000pp a night - takes service to new levels - but is it creepy, or highly effective in creating a personalised experienced?
Benjamin's job was arguably easier in my case given that I'm a writer, with my thoughts and opinions regularly published and easy to find online. Still, he must have invested quite some time in scouring through it all, especially since he managed to locate my largely-abandoned personal blog, which sits in a dusty corner of the internet that no-one ever reads.
Benjamin knew before I even arrived, for example, that I'm obsessed with lists, can't stand overhead lighting, am a night owl rather than a morning person, that African wild dogs are my favourite safari animal, and that I passionately prefer the window seat on a plane.
Every conversation we had at that bar overlooking the African bush was peppered with anecdotes that suggested the depths of his intel. And not just me. My father was travelling with me and Benjamin had clearly done his homework on him too.
“We believe in service as a form of art," Bronwyn Varty-Laburn, of the family that owns the historic reserve, later told me. Upon leaving, we recevied a farewell letter laced with in-jokes that had formed over our dinner with the owner the night prior. My father and I both agreed that Londolozi was up there with the best resorts we'd ever stayed.
We were subject to similar treatment at our next safari, Sir Richard Branson's Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, where we had lunch with the man himself. Here, the staff to guest ratio is 6:1, and the service meticulous. The priority across all Virgin's companies, Branson told me, is "getting every single little detail right." Even if that involves eavesdropping.
Case in point: a member of staff recently overheard a guest, who was at Ulusaba celebrating her 60th birthday, tell her husband that roast beef and Yorkshire pudding was probably her favourite meal of all time. Having never before cooked this quintessential British dish, the chef researched it online and the next day surprised her with a modified version - replacing the beef with Ostrich. The surveillance paid off, and the woman was delighted.
But where to draw the line? Earlier this year, Telegraph Travel's Chris Leadbeater talked to staff and readers about examples in which a hotel's approach to "personalisation" has stepped into overzealous territory.
"Witness the tale of a travel journalist who stumbled into their room after a lengthy journey to find their children’s faces printed out and framed on the wall," he wrote. "The images had been mined from Instagram – in the assumption that, as the writer was travelling alone, they might be missing their offspring.
"After initially being touched by the gesture, the journalist later took down the pictures, quietly unsettled at the thought of how they had been harvested."
He cited other examples: "The reader who wandered into his room to find his face recreated on a cake with unnerving accuracy (partly unnerving because it was not his birthday). Another who was presented with his face in chocolate form."
Writing for the Harvard Business Review last year, Ana Brant, director of “global guest experience” at London-based luxury accommodation group the Dorchester Collection, argued that hotels should know their guests to the point of being able to gauge what type of toiletries they might require.
“Catering to the individual is what defines luxury,” she wrote. “In the luxury segment, it is the critical competitive differentiator. The challenge for any business seeking to deliver a luxury experience is to be knowledgeable enough to go beyond the standard, to have hair spray for the person who needs it whether or not it’s on a checklist.”
Arguably, the keen breed of hotels that are vying to get to know you before you even walk through their door are doing so only in the interests of bettering your stay, and can only harvest as much information on you as you're willing to put on the internet.
Personally, I was amused - not creeped out - when Benjamin's background research project unfolded at Londolozi. But my writing is out there for anyone to see, none of my social media accounts are private, and I'm the sort of person who genuinely wouldn't be bothered to learn that Google and the government was spying on me.
Disagree? Join the conversation in the comments section below.