Surveying the Luxury Landscape: Top GMs Talk Travel Trends

Luxury Travel Advisor recently gathered a group of general managers from Preferred Hotels and Resorts to talk travel trends. We were kindly hosted by The Dominick in lower Manhattan, one of the newest members of Preferred. The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/Editorial Director, Luxury Travel Advisor. Participants included: Michael Davern, CEO and general manager, The K Club, Ireland; Peter Hechler, area general manager, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts (Mexico); Dant Hirsch, general manager, The Dominick, New York City; Ralph Mahana, general manager, Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans and Silvio Vettorello, general manager, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como, Italy Following is a condensed and edited version of the discussion.

Ruthanne Terrero: Let’s review what’s happening in your markets? How’s business?

Silvio Vettorello, Grand Hotel Tremezzo: Our market is, of course, U.S. and Canada, which represent 40 percent of our business. Our second market, with 25 percent, is the U.K. and Ireland. The hotel was built as part of the Grand Tour of Europe; it was built as a lodge on Lake Como. Australia and New Zealand represent 10 percent. For the past two years, we’ve had good business from Ukraine and Russia, but unfortunately, the Ukraine has disappeared. We do a little with the Asian market and we would like to grow that a little bit. We’ve worked a lot with Thailand. We’ve just started out with China, and we are trying, now, to have someone who speaks Chinese at the hotel. We also have someone using WeChat, because now it seems that you must have WeChat to work with the Chinese market. We also have a Chinese blogger who is a fashion influencer. We’ve received some reservations from all this; it’s just starting. It’s like your back garden; you plant it, put a little water in there and it starts growing. So we are happy.

Ralph Mahana, Windsor Court Hotel: New Orleans is fantastic. Like my friend Silvio, our hotel is about 80 percent leisure travel. Group business is always there, and sports is a big part of New Orleans and what drives the market. Most of our business comes from the U.S. and within the region, quite frankly. But it is flourishing. It’s the 300th anniversary of New Orleans, so it’s a big year and we’re proud of that.

But increasingly, every year since Hurricane Katrina, which was obviously devastating, it has gotten just better and better and better. And the city continues to thrive and grow. The hotel supply is growing as well. The demand is growing with the supply, which is a very positive thing. 

We do separate ourselves in the regard that we’re not branded; we’re an independent property and we get to connect with the city a little bit more, so that’s a privilege.

Michael Davern, The K Club: Ireland is very strong and there are quite a lot of reasons for it, I think. It’s seen as a very safe, secure destination, and we get a huge airlift from North America. So, North America is driving it, really. It’s both business and leisure, which is why Ireland is so busy. There are many foreign direct investment companies in Ireland like Airbnb and Google; we’re literally the Silicon Valley of Europe. That relates very, very well, especially towards the North American market.

Then, we’ve got an incredible airlift on the back of the uplifted tourism. We now have West Coast flights directly from San Francisco and Los Angeles; even Ethiopian Airlines flies L.A. to Dublin. And then you have Emirates and Etihad coming into Dublin airport, and Aer Lingus, Delta and American. We have Boston, Chicago and Miami now as well, so there’s just huge airlift out of the states. The European market is a little softer. And Brexit has caused the U.K. market to soften, but you don’t really notice it too much because of the strength of the North American market coming in.

In our market, on the luxury end, we’re fed by the travel agencies. Ireland had 10 very difficult years; it wasn’t until about 2014 before we even began to recover. So we had a massive oversupply in the hotel business…and so there’s been a massive amount of transactions in some of the iconic hotels. Ashford Castle was bought by the Tollman family’s Red Carnation Hotels. That created a huge story in the market, which was really important, because it’s a very iconic hotel and they’ve done a fantastic job there.

Adare Manor was purchased for the same reason — it was distressed. It was bought by one of the wealthiest families in Ireland, and they’re investing huge amounts of money there. 

And then we invested more than $20 million two years ago; we added more rooms, so that’s really driving things, as well. 

So there are a lot of people [from Ireland] on the ground in America. You’ll find if you come over to the United States in January, you literally could bump into hoteliers and sales and marketing directors from Ireland. That all creates an enormous impact.

The tourist boards are also investing, doing things like rebranding Ireland, the Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way. We used to have 32 counties competing for tourism, all wanting money invested. Finally, after many, many years, it dawned on somebody that you have to sell the island of Ireland, end of story. And that’s made a massive difference. 

On the Front Lines: Dant Hirsch of The Dominick, New York City; Peter Hechler of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts (Mexico) and Michael Davern of The K Club in Ireland all reported that luxury is alive and well.

Dant Hirsch, The Dominick: New York is New York, so it’s always doing well. We’re up about 30 percent over last year; it might have something to do with a small name change to the hotel [it is the former Trump SoHo]. There is a lot of new supply in New York as well; the Downtown area is getting more and more luxury properties, which I think is good. Traditionally, Midtown has always been the location for luxury properties in New York City. Now you’re starting to see other brands pop up in the south Downtown area, including ourselves. New York thrives on all different types of business, whether it’s leisure, corporate or group. SoHo has a little bit of all of that, so we get great sport teams, we have great drive-in leisure business. We have leisure business coming from the U.K. and from anywhere across Europe. Midweek, you have lots of great companies Downtown here within walking distance to fill the hotel Monday through Friday. It’s a great location. I think New York will always be New York. 

Peter Hechler, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts (Mexico): In Mexico, business was thriving from October to March and all of a sudden, the travel warning came out. And of course, the luxury sector is actually affected more than anything else. In Mayakoba, we are really a destination in a destination. We are competing literally with Tulum’s eco-chic tourism. You go to Tulum, you pay $800 in the high season and you actually get an inferior product. But, you’re getting this feeling of this ecological lifestyle. We have a lot of guests who come to Mayakoba to stay with us, or our neighbor hotels, and they’re like, “Wow. Finally a hotel room with air conditioning and TV and we have electricity 24 hours.” And they pay the same rate.

Mexico has this conflict: On one hand, you have such great hospitality, and on the other you have such negative press. And when you see permanently the negative press over and over, it’s an underlying thing. There’s nothing wrong with Mexico at the moment, but people say, “Eh, it’s not really my choice.” 

When you are a luxury traveler and you have, for example, a lot of the Caribbean coming up again, you have a choice. St. Barth’s is back, St. Maarten is coming back; all the islands, which were battered last year by the hurricane, are new and the hotels have been renovated. 

So the constant fight is very tiring. But when people arrive at the resort and say, “There’s nothing wrong here, right?” It’s like, “No, there’s nothing wrong here.” Or you get enquiries like, “How do you evacuate your beach when somebody comes and invades the hotel?” I never heard that before. I mean, seriously, these are the questions we get asked all of a sudden.

I’m a specialist now in terms of security measures. It’s amazing how good our security is. 

When you are a hotel operator you want to make sure that the guests are happy, so you are helping them in a different way. 

Assessing the Guest: Silvio Vettorello, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como and Ralph Mahana, the Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans both noted the importance of “reading” the client.

Ruthanne Terrero: Let’s talk about the luxury consumer. How have you seen the customer change over the last year or two? Are they asking you for new things?

Ralph Mahana, Windsor Court Hotel: In my opinion, the lines between the guests and the internal [team] at hotels are now being blurred. Where it was once, “This is what I want, you provide it for me,” now, everyone wants a friend, a go-to person. Everyone wants a connection. And that’s partly because they want to connect to the local market, but it’s also just the world is changing. In our hotel, I really try to get the message across that we should treat each other exactly like we treat the guests, because we are the guests as well. The thoughtful alternatives and anticipating needs, that’s a standard. People want you to anticipate their desires now. That is what it’s all about. Sometimes people aren’t going to tell you what they want; you have to figure it out. You have to go above and beyond to kind of pull it out of them.

Depending on the traveler, whether it’s business, or they’re there with their family, or it’s a special occasion, generally at the end of the day you’re going to figure out what that traveler is trying to accomplish. But it’s about connecting with the everyday traveler who is not necessarily there for a special occasion. It’s extremely important for our guests to feel like they’re part of the family, and it’s extremely important for our staff to feel like they’re part of that entire family. We have guests at the hotel, when someone [from the hotel] retires after a long career, they’ll say, “I would love to throw this person a party. I would love to throw this person a cocktail reception a month after they’re gone.” 

When I travel, I look for a friend whether it is the general manager, the reservation agent who booked my stay, maybe it’s the bartender, or a room attendant, whoever it might be. In hospitality, the product is very important, but what’s more important is finding your friend to connect with the city, and connect to the hotel and to provide an experience. At the end of the day, anybody in the hotel should be able to create that experience. It’s about being approachable.

Silvio Vettorello, Grand Hotel Tremezzo: That’s true for me. The general manager will always have to be on stage; guests will always want to shake your hand. You have to give a face to the hotel. 

I did five years with Four Seasons, I was a Four Seasons lover; I have so many photographs with Isadore Sharp. He was, you know, ‘the one.’ And I know you always have to think out of the box. One of our chambermaids was cleaning the room for a guest and she noticed the woman, who was staying in a suite for a week, was nearly out of her Chanel No. 5 perfume. The chambermaid asked, “Maybe we can buy her a new bottle of fragrance?” 

That’s the goal. That’s why people really come into our hotel now; my cheapest room in the hotel is 880 euros nightly. We have suites, we have a three-story fitness center. That’s something you can build, but it’s the employees who know the details about the guests who can really help.

Peter Hechler, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts: It’s a big difference in our space. Of course, people are busy and people want things to be fast. Our chairman has said that he wants “low tech, high touch” in his hotels. Reading the customer is something that’s completely complicated, because maybe he doesn’t want attention, so there is just one person who is taking care of him. Then there are the people who say, “I’m different, I need 15 people around me all the time to do a show and the rain dance and everything else.” To read that is a very complicated thing, and I think this is luxury.

Dant Hirsch, The Dominick: I think each consumer can wear different hats. I used to work in Turks and Caicos and I remember a client who’s become very famous from New York. When she used to come to Turks and Caicos, she would have no shoes. She would literally walk around barefoot, she wouldn’t look at her phone; it was complete detachment. It was her way of getting out of the city and totally relaxing. Coming to a hotel in New York, she would want the fastest Internet, she was tech savvy, she would want things when she wanted it.

When you go to the concierge, you don’t want a map, you want something texted to you so you can follow the app to the restaurant. Maybe Uber picks you up on the way, because you’re tired of walking. It’s about getting things a little bit faster. At a resort or a city hotel, the exact same client may want something totally different.

Ruthanne Terrero: How do you empower your staff to read the guest in terms of what they want? How do you determine, “Oh this person doesn’t want to talk to anyone, they want to just text me.” But then you might have that person who wants the 17 people around them doing everything they possibly can. How do you read that in the beginning, if you don’t know them?

Peter Hechler, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts: For us, it’s a bit easy because our check-in is done very differently. You arrive first in the lobby, you get the cold towel, and the chia juice and then [you take a buggy to your villa]. There are two people in the buggy, the driver who takes care of the luggage, and the resort host. Our resort host during that time figures it out. They actually send out a note, “Mr. Miller in 301, be careful of this and this and this, of these likes and dislikes.” There’s huge communication. And the resort host follows up with them every day. Some, we know, they need to be followed up three times a day. We can read them.

Silvio Vettorello, Grand Hotel Tremezzo: Very true. As we are a little resort, too, we pull all of the information out of the property management system and our notes and we review them in the nightly meetings and during the manager’s meeting in the morning. And we’ll share all of the information. That’s very, very important because the guest notices.

And that’s super important with a complaint, too. The best thing to do is say, “sorry,” even thousand times. It’s much easier facing the guest, drinking martinis together, where you can say, “Please, tell me what is the problem? I want you happy. You are here just for four nights, let’s find a compromise together.” Maybe he just broke up with a girlfriend. The guest needs to know you really, really care. 

Peter Hechler, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts: In regard to staffing, we don’t hire people anymore who’ve worked at other hotels. I hire based on attitude. Training people takes quite a long time. That’s why we also do not lay off people in the low season, because it is more expensive to actually fire and rehire and so we keep them. We do it in very different ways. Usually, I do not want to hear, “At the Hilton we did this and at the Roosevelt, we did this.” You have to say, “Yeah, but we’re not them.”

Michael Davern, The K Club: Guests are very savvy now. We’re very lucky because we work for authentic, individual hotels, we’re not part of a hotel group so it’s much easier for us. If you go back to the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carltons or any of those, you’d be afraid of befriending a guest. If you worked for a Four Seasons, or a brand like that, you would have to call a gentleman “Sir” three times, even though he said to you, “Please call me Michael because I can’t stand to be called Mr. Davern.”

The guest has redefined luxury completely. They’re not looking for you to show them five-star luxury; they’re deciding what that luxury is. They want you to create that experience for them. And if that means they want you to call them Donald Duck, call them Donald Duck, even if the Forbes five-star standards said I have to call you by your name three times. The risk that people worry about is that if you have informality it might break down and you may insult a customer by accident. That won’t happen, because at the end of the day, if you’re helping your friend, you’re not going to do that. People just need to act naturally because that’s part of authenticity and that is what everybody wants now.

What’s New?: Questex Travel Group’s executive director, John Henderson, with Dant Hirsch of The Dominick.

Ruthanne Terrero: That’s such a huge change, though. You would not ever have thought about befriending a guest in the past.

Michael Davern, The K Club: That’s possibly the biggest move toward independent hotels and authentic hotels and why you see some of the big brands trying to become independent. They’re trying to become authentic, trying to deflag and stick up some Mickey Mouse flag, that makes it look like they’re not a flag.

Ralph Mahana, Windsor Court Hotel: Staff empowerment starts with the hiring process. The best thing you can do is trust somebody to be themselves, because when they’re themselves, they’re going to take care of the clients and it needs to be genuine. That means you have to hire the right people, because if you don’t, then being themselves is not necessarily the best thing. It’s about “Passion, potential, progress.” 

Maybe it’s because someone gave me a chance at my property and it’s the only property I’ve ever worked for; I was 19 and had no experience. Experience is fantastic, but passion, potential and progress are best. Hotels are the land of opportunity; that’s what I say when we do orientation, when we’re hiring people who really feel that way. I went from an overnight auditor to a general manager, so it speaks to that. 

Ruthanne Terrero: So you came up the ranks?

Ralph Mahana, Windsor Court Hotel: I did. I started when I was 19 years old, in college, and I was supposed to work on Wall Street but things took a drastic turn when I got a part-time job at the hotel. I fell in love with it.

Peter Hechler, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts: That’s what I was saying about the attitude. You don’t need the knowledge, you learn that, anyway. The hotel industry is not rocket science. I come from a hotel family, but it’s about, “Is this something you want to do or not?” It’s about service, right? Service is, for some people, an inferior thing, for some people, it is not.

Ruthanne Terrero: Did you all intend to go into the hotel business? Or did any of you take a detour from some other career?

Dant Hirsch, The Dominick: I grew up in a hotel. I thought I wanted nothing to do with it. But when you get into the people side of it, the leadership side, it’s more about relationships. And really, the hotel industry is also business; it’s just a specific type of business.

Michael Davern, The K Club: I left the hotel business and came back to it. I was working for a computer software company. My first general manager’s position was because I actually had worked for a software company; the owner of the resort was the founder of SAP software. He was interviewing me for a role as general manager, and I was only 29. Only somebody who heads a software company would put a 29-year-old in charge of his 1,200-acre resort with millions to spend. I always remember, he was, during the course of the interview, ticking off all the boxes and when I said something about computer software, it was like, “Oh, OK, I’m in.” That was it. It wasn’t a bad detour that I made. 

Silvio Vettorello, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como, Italy

Silvio Vettorello, general manager of Grand Hotel Tremezzo on Lake Como, Italy, works for a family hotel that is now in its 108th year of operation. He has risen up the ranks and now oversees the 90-room hotel which comprises gardens, three pools, a spa, a marina with three boats, and a 15th-century villa near the hotel where guests can customize their stay.

For the first time ever, this summer, the hotel is opening its Villa Sola Cabiati to the public for three-night stays, including 24-hour butler service and a housekeeper and a personal chef. Did we mention there’s a private outdoor heated pool?

About the Participants

Michael Davern, The K Club, Ireland

Michael Davern is the CEO and general manager of The K Club in Ireland, which is short for The Kildare Hotel and Golf Club.

When the 25-year-old hotel in Kildare hosted the Ryder Cup in 2006, people around the world began simply referring to it as “The K Club.” The hotel, which has two golf courses designed by Arnold Palmer, is 25 minutes outside of Dublin and is set on 550 acres. “It’s sort of like the garden of the Dublin River. The same river that flows through Dublin City flows through our grounds,” says Davern.

News: The hotel will host the first-ever Taste of Kildare Festival on August 19, 2018, within its Victorian walled garden. The festival will comprise live demonstrations with Kildare’s top chefs and experts from the local food markets and restaurants.

Dant Hirsch, The Dominick, New York City

Dant Hirsch, general manager of The Dominick in New York City, has been at the hotel for just a few months. The Dominick is the former Trump SoHo, which joined Preferred after it went independent. The Dominick is named after one of the side streets where employees enter the hotel for work.

“We are creating a brand, which is always a fun challenge,” says Hirsch. Aside from the rebranding, the hotel is also working on new projects that include a new spa concept and new restaurant positioning. “We want to create concepts that make New Yorkers want to come to us,” he says.

Ralph Mahana, Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans

Ralph Mahana, general manager of the Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans has been leading the hotel for just a few months, but he’s worked his way up to that position over the course of 13 years; he started out as the night auditor. “I also spent a lot of time on the property as a child; our family had a standing reservation in the restaurant,” says Mahana. “The property resides behind a 20-foot wall in New Orleans. It is an oasis in a city that can be chaotic at times, and there’s always a parade. We celebrate the city of New Orleans, but we also provide a sanctuary away from the craziness with some peace behind that wall.”

Earlier this year, the hotel underwent a full renovation of its guestrooms and added a poolside bar. Furniture and bathtubs in guestrooms were all replaced.

Peter Hechler, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, Mexico

Peter Hechler, area general manager, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts (Mayakoba and Acapulco, Mexico) is at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba for the second time; he opened the hotel in 2007 and returned three years ago. The Banyan Tree Mayakoba, though just nine years old, is getting an update that will include a villa refurbishment. The spa and the resort’s technology are also being refreshed. The resort has a new gym with the latest equipment and is rolling out new wellness and culinary programming. A “Healthy Vacation” package launches September 1; it includes daily smoothie bowls certified by a health coach, a 60-minute health coach consulting, a yoga class and a local cultural activity. As for culinary, the resort is introducing TEN, a pop-up restaurant concept with Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. The resort is also introducing a chef-led Italian cooking class where guests can learn to make fresh pasta from scratch.

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