Our most recent podcast centered around the ways extraordinary hotels are trying to meet the demands of discerning travelers: with an emphasis on local food, curated experiences, thoughtful design, and even a touch of quirkiness.

We heard from some of the pros who specialize in connecting travelers with standout hotel experiences. James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy are the founders of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a travel club that started out as a guidebook featuring under-the-radar boutique hotels. We also interviewed Claus Sendlinger, CEO and founder of Design Hotels.

They all spoke at Skift Forum Europe in London earlier this year and sat down with News Editor and podcast host Hannah Sampson behind the scenes in the Skift Take Studio.

Here are five takeaways from the conversation:

If hotels want to deliver a next-level experience, food must be a priority.

Food tourism, along with sub-genres like craft beer tourism, is here to stay and hotels can’t afford to ignore it. A hotel with a unique personality and an amiable vibe has to take the next step and provide the type of memorable, local dining experience that guests inevitably seek.

“Food has become bigger and bigger,” said Lohan. “I think it’s almost overtaking. People are booking the hotels purely on the basis of their restaurants now, which wasn’t something that used to happen when we started the business. We’re also seeing the food cookery schools within hotels.”

“It’s not just what a lot of people used to do, which was just fly and flop and have a spa treatment. They now are looking for experiences,” said Lohan.

Boutique hotels have an edge over large chains when it comes to innovation.

Independent players with only a few properties to manage have speed and flexibility when it comes to trying new things, whether that be in design, tech, food, or overall experience. Legacy brands with properties all over the world can learn from those agile, independent peers.

“The boutique hotel is a perfect place to [innovate], because they’re normally owner-run and they care about their guest experience. They can innovate in this way far quicker than the larger chains,” said Heber-Percy.

“I think there is still that trend of the boutique hotel being very independent, very individual, quirky, interesting, stylish,” said Lohan. “That’s always been the core of what we’ve done.”

Marketing to families can coexist with marketing to young singles.

It’s no longer the case that young, single travel is adventurous and family travel is boring. The millennial who wanted a fantastic trip last year, but now has a child, still wants a fantastic trip. Today we have the design sophistication to provide diverse fulfilling experiences.

“We get a lot of honeymoons and the younger age groups coming in, those first-date weekends. But we’ve got customers who have stayed with us for a very long time and of course they’re all having children,” said Heber-Percy. “I had children and I was going to these hotels and going, ‘Well, because I have children, why do I have to compromise?’”

“If you pigeonhole yourself as a family hotel, you’re not gonna get couples, so really, the most successful family hotels manage to bridge those gaps,” said Lohan.

Striking the right balance is difficult, especially when catering to families. “It’s the most difficult part of our business,” said Heber-Percy. “There’s just a lack of really great family products.”

Lohan added: “What’s very on-trend as well is multi-generational trips because the grandparents are the only ones with any money now, so they’re taking all the family away.”

Innovative hoteliers shape the broader narrative of travel.

A successful contemporary hotel isn’t just a desirable place to sleep, but the first chapter of the longer story of the trip. That narrative might include events, festivals, dining, and other interactive experiences, and smart hoteliers tap into that.

“If you know how to run a good bar and a good nightclub, you know how people would like to be entertained,” said Sendlinger. “What’s on-site, off-site, in front of the curtain, behind the curtain, you know? [Ian] Schrager had the Studio 54.”

“Only when you come from the outside and you have a great vision can you really create moments or destinations or experiences which are completely different,” Sendlinger continued.

Technology can never fully replace human understanding in hospitality.

Technology may be crucial for streamlining processes, and data may be invaluable for marketers, but nuanced human understanding goes a long way for the user experience.

“At the end of the day, I think you need also somebody who you can trust and understands what you want and that maybe goes beyond an algorithm,” said Sendlinger. “As long as I think it’s algorithm-related it’s maybe just reading the history….The human aspect of this, I think, will always be important.”

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