“I believe the future of service will be based in informality. It has to be more relaxed, more instantaneous, more of a real-life contact with people,” said Dominic Gorham, guest relation manager at Oslo’s modern luxury hotel The Thief.

Gorham is somewhat of a guru in the hospitality industry, building his portfolio in Paris where for 18 years he opened a number of bars, clubs and restaurants frequented by celebrities and luxury travelers.

In 2013, Gorham made the move to hotels with the opening of The Thief in Oslo.

The Thief is a design luxury hotel, named the best hotel in Northern Europe by Condé Nast Traveler in 2016, and home to almost all celebrities that pass through Oslo.

Gorham takes charge of both the property’s VIP and usual guests, but no matter the client, Gotham believes informality is the future of luxury.

“We meet people on an equal level. We’re very close to our clientele and guests. We interact with them on a regular basis. We discuss, we joke, we story tell. We have a contact with our people instead of building a barrier, which a lot of people do when they do formal…which can be done well,” Gorham said.

Gorham embodies a cultural shift in how we define luxury today. His comments reflect a change in the industry in which hoteliers around the world are redefining luxury and refining their approach to make their service more personable and nuanced for even the most  distinguished of guests.

In speaking with executives at luxury hotels in London, Oslo, Monaco, Cape Town, California and the Caribbean, we learned more about the shifting nature of luxury service.

“Informality is spreading through the hospitality business and classic hospitality has changed. In the past staff used to have to be clean shaven, cover up tattoos and not have any visible piercings. Now it’s cool to be different and show personality. The service still needs to be slick, and attention to detail is a must, but guests in 2018 want personality,”  said Elsa Remoy-Hodt, guest relations manager at the five-star boutique hotel The Ned in London.

Remoy-Hodt has worked in several luxury hotels such as the The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami to the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in London where she’s seen the full spectrum of guests’ desires.

“In luxury hospitality, informal does not mean thoughtless and when used correctly I believe informality actually plays an important role in cultivating a luxury experience. So many of our guests are repeat customers, and with this comes a wonderful familiarity that adds to the sense of belonging within our much-storied walls,” explains Xavier Lablaude, general manager at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, one of the first luxury properties in Cape Town.

“Personalized interactions are the real hallmark of a luxury experience.”

“The atmosphere at a hotel should feel somewhat informal, meaning natural to the place and the people. It seems easy, but in reality, it involves important work on refinement rather than on the sophistication. There is a fine line between being too informal and too sophisticated,” said Danièle Garcelon, general manger at the boutique Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel.

A Nuanced Approach

Not all five-star guests, however, are happy for hotels like an old friend. All of the managers we spoke to highlighted the importance of being able to read every customer as they walk in the door and adapt their approach in that moment.

“To succeed in the hospitality field, you need to be able to ‘read’ a guest. A guest’s reactions and responses will immediately give an indication as to the style of service they seek,” said Lindsy Terry, sales and marketing manager at Ellerman House. This luxury property in Cape Town has just 13 rooms and two villas with an impressive three-to-one staff-to-guest ratio.

“An arrival at Ellerman House starts with an informal walk around the property to show you where all the facilities are. We make the most of this orientation walk and this is where we start taking notes. We pick up on your likes, dislikes, mannerisms and offhand comments. Anything noteworthy is shared with the rest of the management team,” she said.

“This is when we decide on the style of service best suited to the guest. It could range from addressing guests formally to addressing them by their first names. It could mean that we only recommend fine dining restaurants, or it could mean that the dingy dive bar around the corner with the amazing tacos would be the perfect fit and a great experience.”

Similarly, luxury boutique property Cotton House balances its pristine setting within the relaxed community of Mustique.

“This is a skill we have developed at the Cotton House where we balance informal Caribbean hospitality and precise training to pick up on the precision necessary to meet the demands wealthy travelers that come with high expectations have of us. We pride ourselves on personal service, which means knowing as much as we can about our guests and making them feel we really care and spend time on arrival helping them plan their stay,” said Jacques Brouchier, general manager at The Cotton House, Mustique.

“In a boutique hotel of 40 rooms and suites, luxury is systematically tailor-made to a clientele with strong expectations. Our guests – across all nationalities – have been seeking personalized service for as long as we can remember, and the demand has become more and more noticeable over the years,” said Monte-Carlo’s Garcelon.

Technology Finds Its Place

The Thief restricts its high-end technology to the room, where they make life simpler, with the goal of keeping public spaces open for conversation and interaction. And Ellerman House was one of the first luxury hotels in South Africa to introduce technology into the guest experience when it built two new, fully automated villas, with complimentary iPads for guests in 2005.

Meanwhile The Ned uses technology behind the scenes to help improve its guests’ experiences. The concierge team engages with guests prior to their arrival via a customized app. Likewise, technology plays a role behind the scenes where staff use the Knowcross software as a communication tool between departments.

“We use this system to analyze data and see how many times a certain guest is requesting an item which allows us to anticipate these needs on a future stay and, for example, place an iron and ironing board in their room prior to arrival,” Remoy-Hodt said.

“We can also see how long a job takes to complete in real time in order to ensure we are delivering to our guests efficiently.”

Hoteliers across the board were open about the challenges that an increased dependence on technology brought.

“Utilizing technology is not without its challenges,” Terry said.

“It is ever evolving meaning it needs to be constantly upgraded, often expensive to implement and requires constant maintenance. A certain level of technology is expected, what we have become good at, is finding the balance between using technology in an innovative way without alienating guest with complicated tech.”

Brouchier shares the unique perspective that by staying connected in a destination as remote as Mustique, guests are actually able to indulge more than if they were unable to stay connected. High-speed broadband Internet is one of the most important amenities for the island destination.

A Shift in Priority

Luxury today is about getting off the Main Street and into a local’s kitchen. Guests expect luxury hoteliers to provide all the safety and comfort of home but have the street cred to get them into the most intimate of gatherings.

“Luxury used to be defined by refined, extremely polished experiences, but today insider access is one of the greatest luxuries a hotel can provided for a traveler. Rather than providing the same intel that can be found in a guidebook or website, our team works with each guest individually to provide personalized recommendations that include truly local or off-the-beaten-path experiences,” says Lablaude.

“Shareable, firsthand experiences that are unique to hotels and their destinations are more valuable to discerning travelers, and guests want to feel more like an in-the-know local rather than an outside tourist,” echoes Marc Fialip, executive assistant manager at Belmond El Encanto.

To accomplish this balance, the Belmond El Encanto offers what it calls “informal luxury,” assisting guests in bundling up with blankets on the Terrace during Santa Barbara evenings, or providing lawn games in their gardens. Meanwhile, the Belmond Mount Nelson has renovated its public and guests spaces to bring out a lighter, brighter ambiance and feature contemporary artwork more prominently on its walls.

“You have to take a step back and look at what you believe these people are looking for, and it’s not always what you would think,” Gorham said.

“I work with some of the most famous people in the world and there’s nothing I can show them on a helicopter ride or speedboat that they have not seen before. Many times here I’m recommending these people jump on a horse and go into the woods to pick some berries. In Norway, you have access to this.”

Photo Credit: The Thief's guest relations manager Dominic Gorham almost always wears a smile. Jens Bredberg / The Thief