Colin Nagy, head of strategy at FFNY, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. "On Experience" dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
It’s the summer travel season again, and as this column has long implored, it is best to reward the best, most innovative brands with your money and leave the charlatans in the dust. In this roundup from the past six months of travel, I’ve deliberately avoided the new, flashy and unproven in favor of the stuff that works well. There’s a slew of airline products to try, as well as observations on hotels, how luxury is evolving and some (semi) dignified American rail travel.
Best International First Class
While the front of the plane is often the source of an industry arms race, there’s something to be said for consistent execution. Japan Air Lines long-haul first on the 777 is a blend of incredibly comfortable bed, super polished Japanese service, well thought out food and beverage options including a multi-course Kaiseki meal. Best of all the cabin seems small
Best Transcon First
American’s Flagship Service is the best way to get from Kennedy to SFO or LAX. They’ve recently upgraded the bedding with a Casper partnership, and the seats are private and in the perfect configuration, similar to their long-haul 777 seats in business. But here, each position is an aisle and tilted inward for privacy.
Best International Business
Many airlines are trying to cram as many business seats into a configuration but use advertising to convince you it is luxurious (United Polaris). Singapore’s older business class seat (recently seen on its older a380 from Frankfurt to Kennedy) is nothing new or flashy. But it is an incredible amount of space, sparing you the tin can syndrome, as well as a comfortable sleeping surface. It feels decadent when combined with the signature Singapore service. It will soon be phased out by their new business product but remains a classic among regulars of the airline.
The most jaw-dropping location for a hotel I’ve seen in the past six months is undoubtedly the Anantara in Oman’s Green Mountains. The hotel has a backdrop of incredible views of a vast canyon about a two-hour drive from Muscat. A 4 x4 is required. For a city hotel, it is hard to beat the Langham in London, a stone’s throw from Regents Park and imbued with British history.
Best U.S. train journey
While the actual quarters could stand for improvement, the Coast Starlight Express scenic route from Seattle to Los Angeles is the antidote to hurried and rushed domestic travel. There’s time to get off and stretch your legs, mingle with other passengers, and drink in some of the best scenery in the country.
The Hotel St. Cecilia in Austin has specially commissioned Rivolta Bedding, atop the perfect Hastens beds. Its the type of configuration that would break the bank to have at home, but after all, that is why you want to splash out a bit for this elegant, discrete 14-room hotel on a shady lane in Austin.
Best hotels to put on your bucket list
After an astounding amount of word-of-mouth from friends I trust, I’m excited to try the Amanpulo in Palawan, as well as the remote Amangiri in Utah. And for the essential addition to the bucket list: James McBride’s Nihi in Sumba is a must-hit. The noted Japanese hospitality brand Hoshino just opened an incredible Hoshinoya property in Bali and for those wanting to venture to Africa, it is worth browsing through the entire Singita portfolio. In South America, the new Palacio Tangara in Sao Paolo is a garden refuge in the center of a frenzied city.
Best classic luxury
The definition of luxury is undoubtedly changing. Even billionaires aren’t wearing suits and opting for the cashmere hoody nonchalance espoused by Bobby Axelrod on the popular HBO show, Billions. But there will always be room for the grand hotel. A recent stay at the Le Bristol in Paris saw everything pitch perfect; elegant gardens, a bright, beautifully appointed room (with a solid, analog key no less) and arguably the unique and architecturally stunning pool and terrace in Paris.
For a simple, sincere meal, it is hard to beat the fresh fish coming directly out of the nets at the Hotel San Cristobal in Baja California. The hotel is down a dirt road right before you hit the town of Todos Santos, and you benefit from being right where all of the boats come in with their daily catch. Utterly sublime and defining hyper-local eating.
The newly redone Gleneagles in Scotland has a beautiful new American Bar, designed by David Collins Studio. Farther South in London, Scarfes Bar at the Rosewood is timeless and elegant. If you find yourself in Paris this summer, visit the recently re-opened Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris, and if in Tokyo, stop by the favorite Bar Benfiddich in Tokyo.
Best hotel arrival
General Managers Marcel Thoma of the Upper House Hong Kong and Herve Mazella of Park Hyatt Tokyo get equal accolades for the best hotel arrival.
For the Upper House, there’s no confusion on landing here or having to wait behind a desk. Instead, there’s a seamless pickup at Hong Kong Airport and a military grade greeting at the hotel. At the Park Hyatt, a beautifully suited team remembers your name, ushers you up to a room and if you’re lucky, has a snack waiting in the room for your early morning arrival.
The trend in the business right now is “cut cut cut.” Etihad has been slicing its soft product, from ground service to everything else. It is refreshing to see that even in a tough business environment, Cathy continues to double down on its lounges, with the opening of the Deck in Hong Kong, as well as the ongoing refurbishment of other lounges in critical markets, including a beautiful edition in Heathrow.
Honorable mention goes to Qantas’s First lounge at LAX, as well as Qatar’s eerily quiet but beautiful First lounge in Doha.
Best onboard cuisine
This is a subjective opinion, but I was very impressed with the Turkish Airlines onboard cuisine on a recent flight from Istanbul to Kennedy. I was quick to dismiss the onboard chef as a gimmick and thought their print marketing (with Doctor Oz, no less) might outweigh the end result, but everything was absolutely standout and represented the culinary hospitality of the country very well.
Best new opening
The Middle House in Shanghai has opened with the hotel, residences and a private members club, under the management of Kristina Snaith-Lense. The design is beautiful, the entire place is wired to be WeChat accessible (important for Chinese luxury travelers), and the location in Shanghai is perfect. I’d like to see the House Collective continue their thoughtful scaling of the brand. They are onto a new definition of luxury, tech-savvy, and conviviality that many others are missing in the market.
Best subscription for long-haul fliers
One of the greatest pleasure is getting on a long haul flight with a huge stack of magazines. The subscription service, appropriately named The Stack, sends you a new independent magazine every month. Everything is a bit of a surprise regarding subject matter, but the curation is excellent, and it is an incredible way to find some things you might not know otherwise.
And, with all of these lists, some trends, and features that need to go away, or at least be improved.
The dismal pre-flight “Business dinner”
In theory, having dinner in the lounge is a good idea to maximize flight time. But many of these offerings leave a ton to be desired. I won’t name names, but many national carriers are flying over the Atlantic are guilty as charged. What is missing is some inspiration, presentation, and also thought given to the right type of meal before getting into a pressurized cabin for 7 hours and having to arrive fresh and focused.
The rewards chart devaluation with zero notice
Qatar recently cut the value of its points program with zero heads up for travelers. A surefire way to lose loyalty to an otherwise excellent airline experience.
The cattle car effect
Many airlines are not passing the “what if this was my money test.” This means would a traveler, not on the corporate dime, feel like the experience was sufficiently good that they wouldn’t cringe at spending their own money on the background. Again, a lot of the transatlantic business class experiences on national carriers miss the mark by a mile. Whereas their competitors like the New York to Paris flight on La Compagnie and, to an extent, Norwegians premium economy product, pass the value to service test.
Too much data, too little payoff
For all of the big data advertising and lip service, can we forever banish the question “Is this your first stay with us” from ever being uttered again?