Key Pillars of Luxury Hospitality: Service and the Emotional Connection
By Suzanne Godfrey, Consultant and lecturer in luxury and luxury hospitality
In a series of pieces on luxury hospitality based on interviews with leading hoteliers in Paris, Suzanne Godfrey examines the key pillars that define the luxury hotel, or more specially, the Palace. Here she explores the need for service that goes over and beyond … to create an emotional connection.
What do we mean by service?
The definition is broad and in luxury goes deep. Franka Holtmann, General Manager of Le Meurice, Paris, which is part of the Dorchester Collection, describes it as "the combination of product and service that gives the first impression. Service should be sincere, bespoke and genuine so that each client feels unique. Tact is also a very important component to make guests feel at ease under any circumstances. A Palace can be very intimidating and it is our role to allow them to be themselves. There should be no dictate."
"Not only should we try to anticipate our clients' needs, but also be flexible to meet any special requests and make sure that if we can't satisfy their expectations we find alternatives. Sometimes we have to push the boundaries to make it happen."
If we look at what contributes to the service offering, it starts with the product. In a material sense, this is less important today than it used to be. Today people have fantastic homes with all the latest designs and gadgets. The latest in technology. The butler, the chauffeur, the chef. It's no longer about going to a hotel and being wowed by all these things because it's novel. This represents everyday life for most of the clientele.
Technology is expected and hotels need to deliver this as a basic functional requirement, but it may not be appreciated by all guests. In some hotels they even ask for iPads and smart screens to be removed, preferring the "old fashioned" way of turning things on and off, or using a more personal approach to access information.
The Peninsula goes one step further by positioning itself as "high tech". In anticipation of the IT revolution and its impact, the hotel brought all of its IT development in-house. That way it can react more quickly and create a better user experience than if it had to rely on outside contractors. It proudly highlights its technology and nothing is manually operated nor, it appears, is there an option to do so for those not technologically competent. The Peninsula Paris, which opened in August 2014, boasts some two kilometers of cabling per room, regardless of room size, to support the technology and fully connect it – that seems an awful lot of cabling. Everything in the hotel room is remotely operated: the temperature, lighting, curtains, TV and music. In addition, external information is available in terms of the weather, activities, hotel messaging and reservations. There's even an electric nail dryer in the bathroom's vanity unit – ideal for hands, if not for toes.
The Ritz Paris took the whole interior apart, including the walls, to replace all the wiring and install cabling for new technology. The Mandarin Oriental, Paris, with the advantage of being a totally new building behind the façade, is also "well connected". It includes sensors in the room, which enable lights to be turned off automatically when no one is there. They also alert housekeeping to make up a room, check facilities, or provide the turndown service.
Service extends to the "standard" facilities that are pretty much expected in large luxury or Palace hotels today. This includes a choice of restaurants and dining options, 24/7 room service and laundry, a spa offering a holistic experience that goes beyond simply a massage with high-quality branded spa and beauty products, plus well-equipped fitness center; garage and/or valet parking and chauffeured pick-up service. At The Peninsula, pick-up is by Rolls-Royce, which is the hotel's signature limousine worldwide. Additionally, they may offer butler or chef service on request if the guests don't bring their own for suites that accommodate a kitchen or appropriate facilities.
Service today is also about speed. Even if you are a leisure traveler, no one wants to wait or say things twice. But that doesn't mean quality doesn't count.
The product is obviously the basis of everything: what you have and how you deliver it, all of which constitutes service. One senior hotel executive, who asked not to be identified, said service is "a balance between what is convenient for the guest and what is convenient for the owner. The latter is often the driver of profitability, which of course is important, but when you cut corners and start to look at ways to cut costs, it generally impacts the guest experience … and comes across as gimmicky."
He goes on: "It's important to hit the basics and then layer up. The basics are standard and form the foundation. You need to deliver and meet these; four- and five-star hotels need to deliver these as they are expected today. Remember what you are in the business for – and deliver it 100 per cent."
Another leading hotelier, Jean-Pierre Trevisan, Director of Operations at the Ritz Paris, spoke about how the hotel redefined its service philosophy. It used the opportunity during the closure to re-evaluate its standards, which are more exacting and individual than the industry standards employed by Leading Quality Assurance(LQA), a UK-based organization that audits luxury hotels and others.
"The standards for LQA or Forbes Travel Guide are good standards but they are not the Ritz Paris standards, which are fastidious," Trevisan says. "We really wanted to have our own standards and the emotional aspects, so we worked with our consultant on this and learnt from studies and exchanges with our clients. We learnt that their real and true expectations are based 80 per cent on emotional exchanges and relationships, and the history as you see in the suites."
"We can teach our managers how to behave, how to read a client when he arrives – so when a client arrives and he's in a hurry, you don't (have an) exchange with him as if he was here to enjoy the location and has an hour to get to the bedroom. It's a completely different way to welcome people. So we have to learn and see how we can do it and understand them, to accommodate them in the best way we can. So people are trained here for such things, but trained also to understand who they are (as people) and the best way to behave, and the best way for them to understand others ..."
The emotional connection
Luxury is about creating emotion. But what is this exactly and how does luxury deliver it in hospitality? Again and again, the phrase "emotional connection" came up in conversations with hoteliers in the context of service.
Katje Henke, General Manager of The Peninsula Paris, says "the real luxury element is actually the service, which is not what you can touch but what you can feel. What is it that creates the emotional connection with our guest? It is not about the building or its beauty, because you can have the most gorgeous building but if you don't feel the connection to the experience and the team, then it's just a pretty building. I strongly believe that it comes down to the service, absolutely, because you could be in a four-star and love it more than any beautiful five-star if the experience is better."
The emotional connection starts even before the guest walks through the door or is picked up at the airport. It begins when the guest first contacts the hotel – how the hotel manages this process and creates an engagement are key. The objective is for guests to really look forward to their stay. That involves listening carefully to their needs so the hotel can prepare in advance for their visit. This creates a sense of anticipation, of excitement and hence emotions, which ultimately builds loyalty. It's about authenticity, engaging, and creating magic.
Aaron Kaupp, General Manager of Le Royal Monceau Raffles, believes that "selling emotion" is what distinguishes you from other hotels. "What defines luxury, what makes it special is by bringing that human touch, that human element into the equation. To make that guest feel that he is in your hotel and, yes, that he is 'at home'."
He adds that you should look to create an emotional or sentimental relationship with the client, which will make all the difference when the guest compares one luxury hotel with another. Citing an example of a family going to the beach on holiday, he believes they are not going to tell their friends about the resort or the white sand beach when they return home. They may, however, mention the staff who made their stay memorable. "Of course it's about the people … You're not going to come back and say the resort was amazing, the room was great, etc., because if you have money, any room is great."
It goes far beyond standard personalization. It's about creating a genuine emotional connection with guests – as well as with their spouses and children – which is thoughtful and customized. It may include embroidered pillow-cases or cushion covers with the guests' initials; putting framed photos of their family or pets in the rooms; providing a wine cabinet, magazines, or books by their favorite authors; or refurbishing rooms – from a personal fitness area to an extended dressing room or wardrobe, even storing their personal furniture between visits.
"(It's) about creating an emotional contact with your client," says Kaupp, "and making them feel at home, providing a 'home-away-from-home' experience. Our clients today are obviously rich and famous, well-traveled. They have beautiful homes all around the world. So when they travel they want to have a replica of where they feel most comfortable, which is at home …. So it's important to give them something to make them feel at home even though they are miles away."
The product, in its entirety, provides constant opportunities to create that emotional connection. For example, you can have a drinks bar with nice glassware, but hoteliers will look at what more can be done to create a connection with guests. Le Royal Monceau Raffles and Plaza Athénée in Paris do just that, with the barmen taking center stage – people not bottles and brands – demonstrating their craft and mixing drinks providing an opportunity for engagement.
"Agreed-upon service standards ensure the basics and expected services happen without hassle or fuss," said Pierre Barthes, previously General Manager at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong in Shanghai but recently appointed General Manger in Hong Kong. "However nowadays guests want more surprising and engaging experiences in all (sorts of) imaginable ways. This is especially true in the luxury segment and, in particular, in sophisticated markets like Paris, New York and Shanghai, with such a broad and compelling offering. Engaging your guests to co-create memorable experiences is critical: surprising and touching the hearts and emotions of the guest can be achieved if you truly customize their experience."
Hoteliers speak of a 60:40 ratio. Sixty per cent is about efficiency, doing the basics right, whether it's freshly-brewed coffee or fresh orange juice. But 40 per cent is about emotion that keeps people coming back again and again. This is not just true in luxury but for all brands – however it's not easy to achieve.
Creating that 'home-from-home' feeling
The feeling of being 'at home' is considered 'luxury' when it comes to hospitality today. Being comfortable and at ease where you are. Staying somewhere that is apartment-like and 'homely', whether the rooms are modern, art deco, or Louis XIV, XV or XVI. It's the small, personal touches that guest service relations or the hotel manager makes sure are in place for regular visitors on their arrival.
And not only are there the personal touches, but the rooms – certainly among the grand dames in Paris – are likely to include antiques and precious works of art that the hotel owner has acquired. The Impressionists – originals, of course – adorn walls above beds and fireplaces, with antique clocks on the mantelpieces. A Steinway piano in evidence here and there, in honor of previous clients or people associated with the location – such as Chopin in the case of the Ritz Paris – adding to the heritage of the place.
Creating a feeling of home doesn't just come from artifacts. It also comes through the staff: familiarity and recognition, employees remembering small personal details; the environment: the design of the room, furnishings, the individuality, and uniqueness; and the service: the little details and how it is delivered.
"Recognition and generosity are two aspects that seem to be essential to get loyalty from our clients. The quality of our relationship with them can make their stay with us a true experience and a general feeling of being part of the culture," says Holtmann of Le Meurice.
Kaupp of Le Royal Monceau Raffles explains that guests should feel as though they're at home. "I'm not going to sit on the couch and keep my jacket and tie on. I'm going to take my tie off and roll up my sleeves because I'm going to sink into my couch and feel comfortable. And that is the same concept you get here. You give it a 'home-away-from-home' feeling as a Parisian living room." And he's right. The atmosphere is more relaxed and casual. The Mandarin Oriental Paris aims for the same: casual, no suit or tie, particularly at the weekend.
For Marie-José Pommereau, who was responsible for the interior design and renovation of the rooms and suites at the Plaza Athénée, Paris, during their recent renovation (and who is quoted in the book, Hôtel Plaza Athénée: The Couture Address in Paris), it was all about creating "a Palace that would fulfil the dreams and expectations of our guests; in other words, rooms and suites that are both intimate and private, that the guest will enjoy returning to each time they come to Paris, as if they were coming home."
The importance of listening
With social media – and as everyone's lives today are more or less 'online' – finding out about people, whether future or current clients, is relatively easy. The difference is what you do with the information. How do you deliver that 'emotional connection' in a genuine and authentic way that surprises and engages? It's not just about giving things; it's also about doing things that are meaningful and personal. And there are cultural differences in how you engage and deliver emotional connections, so these are also important considerations.
It's the importance of listening, looking for signs, hearing what guests say, seeing what they do and keeping a profile of each and every client. It requires collaboration between the teams at the front and back of house. The collecting of small details that the reception, the concierge, guest service relations, the barman, the maid, or housekeeping 'hear' or discover in the course of their work. Then, as part of a team to deliver service – creating an emotional connection – based on that information. This is what makes the difference.
With people's habits changing so fast, new trends and lifestyles are emerging. Consequently, you need to find new, unique and innovative ways to create that connection based on changing needs, circumstances and desires. Employees are key here. Delivering service through the relationship they – and the brand – have with the client.
Kaupp of the Le Royal Monceau Raffles believes that when staff go "the extra mile in finding out who your actual client is" and you come up with innovational ideas in terms of unique experiences for individual clients, that's what "creates a winning atmosphere." The team will be constantly motivated by doing something different, being inspirational and thinking 'out the box'. For hotel guests it means truly personalized services.
The emotional connection – and creating that 'home-from-home' feeling – is linked to the product, the service, and the people. Together they create a guest experience that is unique to the brand and the property. When done right, when genuine, authentic and meaningful – however big or small that emotional connection might be – this is what luxury hospitality is today.
In the next article in this EHL Hospitality Insights series on luxury in hospitality, we examine the final key pillar that contributes to a hotel being luxury or, in particular, a Palace.