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Customize and Capitalize

At last week's BITAC®, attendees learned how to use amenities to increase service.

Monday, March 30, 2009
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Luxury hotel guest are looking for the "gingerbread stuff" -- nannies, Nintendo Wii, aromatherapy in the bathroom, -- and anyone aiming for the mythical six-star status had better deliver.

A panel of experts pulled back the curtain on top-shelf amenities and luxury trends during a discussion at the sold out Buyer Interactive Trade Alliance and Conference International Luxury event (BITAC®) at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach.

The idea was to contemplate the next great things in luxury travel. Peter Schor, president of Dynamic Results consultancy, said guests want "gingerbread" bells and whistles. He threw out the idea of a "mind spa." The concept is converting a guest room into a sort of luxury computer lab. It would feature neurowave chairs to stimulate the brain and special exercises for the brain. He said Fairmont and InterContinental are considering the idea.

"We need to look at it and evaluate," he said. "I would stay at the hotel for that little perk."
Several technology areas seem ripe for inclusion in luxury hotels, but the panelists debated how far they should go in providing high-tech amenities to guests.

Peter Wirth, president of TWT Hospitality, argued that computers in rooms and other tech upgrades can become so complicated -- especially for older travelers -- that they amount to overkill.

A hotel's service can resolve that issue, according to Anthony DiGuiseppe, principal of DiGuiseppe International Hotel & Resort Design.

"If it’s a high-tech situation like that, it has to be a seamless experience," he said. "Someone brings you into room and explains it to you. That’s when it becomes personalized."

He cautioned that the technology should fit with the design of the room. Adding TVs to every space, including the bathroom, may amount to more clutter. But a bathroom TV that disappears into a mirror when turned off – a technology offered by Electric Mirror -- is subtle and sophisticated.

Mark van Hartesvelt, principal with Gemstone, said his properties hire "technology butlers" to help with any high-tech gear.

"Their whole job is to make you comfortable with it," he said. "We spend a lot of time hiring non-geeks that can talk. Geeks are fine, but they can intimidate people. If it’s not easy, it’s intimidating. If it’s intimidating, it’s uncomfortable."

Technology butlers are just a new facet of the one hallmark of a top hotel that never changes: service.

"There is so much competition out there today that everyone is fighting for the luxury market," said Jay Schwartz, vice president of procurement for LXR Luxury Resorts. "The standards have been raised for service. Everything comes down to a customized guest experience."

Luxury resorts may soon be offering everything from nannies for children, doctors for an aging population and a personal concierge for the extremely service minded guest.

Beyond those bells and whistles, hotels also should maintain their standards one service provider who often is overlooked -- the bellman.

Schwartz said he always requests a bellman when he checks in, and not because he necessarily needs help with a bag.

"Usually they do a good job customizing the service, bringing you ice, explaining everything," he said. "Most people make the mistake of going to your room alone. The bellman is right there. That’s your first contact."

A proper welcome sets the tone for creating the entire guest experience, which is what sets apart true luxury hotels, according to van Hartsevelt.

"The first question should be, have you been there before?" he said. "Actually, at a luxury hotel they should know if you’ve been there before. If you haven’t, they should show you the hotel. You can miss the experiences that they’ve designed this whole hotel around."

Hoteliers worried about the labor cost of escorting each guest could come up with new solutions. As more guest rooms have computers, hotels could program them with welcome videos that explain amenities and orient guests to the property, DiGuiseppe said.

Another back-to-basics concept that hotels should keep in mind is consistency. Panelists wondered why a luxury hotel would skimp and buy cheap toilet paper. A beautifully designed guest room with a plush bed can be ruined with a cheap polyester throw blanket. And guests will notice, they said.

A real-time interactive poll asked the audience which area of the hotel best connotes a sense of luxury. At 68 percent, the guestroom was at the top of the list. In a follow-up question, 70 percent of the audience said hotel guests are looking for plusher accommodations.

"The bedding part and linens are key to any luxury property," DiGuiseppe said. "It’s what people are expecting: soft sheets and good pillows. It’s the first thing I look for when I come into a room. If the pillows are no good, forget it. I can’t sleep."

He cited a new service that offers a pillow concierge program as an innovative idea. "I’m surprised there aren’t more hotels that are doing it."

Schor agreed it was the guest room. Upgrades he said hotels should consider are steam baths in the shower, and ambiance or night lights, as long as they come with on-off switches.
"With the exception of Vegas, more people are cocooning in their room," he said. "They’re looking for something to get away from the home."

Hoteliers must sweat the small stuff, which actually may not be so small in the eyes of a guest.
"Bathroom products are very emotional," Schwartz said discussing how he selected the bathroom amenities for the El Conquistador in Puerto Rico. "There was a lot of effort involved [in selecting amenities]. It was a six-month due diligence process. It was not a two-minute decision."
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