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2016 might be the year that frequent travelers re-think their hotel loyalty allegiances.
Sure, that Platinum status with Hyatt gets you free vacation nights and that unbridled Starwood loyalty gives the ability to have the occasional upgrade or late checkout, but is the love (and money) shown by very frequent travelers to big hotel brands reciprocal? My vote is no. When it comes to hotels, 2016 should be the year of the free agent for many.
First, the merger between Marriott and Starwood will have big implications for business travelers. Starwood points are obviously the shadow currency of the consulting class, but it is yet unclear as to what will happen in this mega merger. If big airline tie-ups are any indication, it will be messy and chaotic for a few years before there’s any semblance of harmony or a unified loyalty program. Beware, particularly if you are a longstanding SPG member.
In addition, a broader issue is the management by spreadsheet of the larger chains, even at the top-end, where operations and the neverending search for cost efficiency seems to overshadow warmth and hospitality e.g. “How much is that fruit basket or complementary bottled water in the room and what if we cut it?” No matter how much lip service is given to local nuances and design, many end up feeling the same over and over, city after city. There’s a lack of charm, of nuance, and too many robot coffees/lackluster omelette bars/breakfast that somehow always cost 40 dollars.
Finally, a lot of the biggest names command an ever growing premium in global financial capitals. The Peninsula, the Mandarin, the Four Seasons, etc. Global one percenters, Chinese mainland cash, plus recovering budgets for high-end business travel means a lot of these can command serious prices when there is often a more interesting option to be had for the independently minded traveller.
And even though I do love certain near-perfect hotels that fall within the portfolios of the big guns, in response to the monotony of the others, I’ve been exploring off piste a bit in 2015 and have found a few promising hotel brands — across the price spectrums — that might be worth having an affair with in 2016. Also, I’ve picked a few amazing boutique brands that an enterprising hotelier could (and should) take global.
Rosewood: Under the leadership of Sonia Cheng, Rosewood has embarked on an aggressive expansion strategy. There’s currently 40 hotels in development and Cheng’s platform is intuition in service, rather than the opulence of old. A recent stay at the new Abu Dhabi property saw them executing well on the promise, and the word-of-mouth from the London property has been fantastic. Also, the brand owns the iconic Carlyle in New York, adding to its luxury credentials.
Swire Hotels: The House Collective: The Upper House in Hong Kong is one of the best hotels in the world. Full stop. What they are doing blending data, guest experience, and highly trained humans will be the standard for the best hotels in the world in 2017. But they are doing it now. Sure, it comes at a price, but every single element of a recent stay was seamless, from a perfect arrival, to an attentive concierge, to staff that seemed to know just enough — and with nuance — to make you feel they were paying attention. Instead of “have a nice day,” it’s “have a good trip tomorrow.” Sure, there’s a fine balance with these things, but they do it well. It’s also worth keeping tabs on what they are calling “The House Collective” which is a series of new properties opened by holding company Swire (which also owns Cathay Pacific). These include Opposite House in Beijing and Temple House in Chengdu. It’s a hospitality brand that I hope can extend beyond Asia, and soon.
The Langham Hotels: The original Langham in London is a classic with quite a heritage. The BBC broadcast out of some of its wings during World War 2 and it was damaged on a few occasions from the Luftwaffe bombings. The British and Hong Kong heritage has seen elegant updates with the Sydney and New York properties and service is notable and classic. Don’t miss their signature lobby and room scent, custom formulated for the brand. It is a very elegant touch and one that ties the brand together in a memorable way. Langham is a chain for those who like classic service, but don’t want to pay the price for the biggest names in hospitality. An elegant solve.
Many travelers like smaller boutique offerings for both business and leisure travel but they’re all too often one-offs in certain cities. And while it’s fun to sample the gems and sample local spots, here are a few that are so good they deserve a broader stage in the world.
The Cortiina in Munich: I’ve been staying at the Cortiina in Munich for the past six years or so, and it is a perfect small city hotel with stylish, minimal decor, a wonderful lobby and lounge with fireplace and a pitch perfect cocktail bar. Service is polished and warm.
The Gault in Montreal: The Gault in old Montreal is a perfectly sized boutique hotel. Rooms have heated floors to warm up harsh Canadian winters, beds by Flou and lighting by Artemede. Every element is well thought out, down to the lobby library for a cozy reading session with some wine from the bar. It may not have all of the flourishes of a five-star — room service is a bit limited — but the personality and vibe makes up for it.
The San Jose and St Cecilia in Austin: When I tell friends from around the world about my love for Austin, I frequently receive a cocked eyebrow and the question, “Texas?” Both the San Jose and the St. Cecilia represent the best of Austin hospitality and their approach could easily be ported to other cities. Design, warmth, personality and music culture come together to make properties you don’t want to check out of.
So, when we think of the new guard that are striving to do things better, it would appear that blind loyalty to the big chains comes at a cost. And when you take the blinders off, there are several hotels fighting a good fight against the entrenched players. It is worth giving them your business and seeing what life looks like on the other side of being shackled to a points statement.