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Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality. You can read all of his writing here.
This column has long argued that hospitality is a creative and noble act. That anticipating needs, perfecting small details and generally acting in a gracious way is a very under-appreciated talent in the world. At the same time, travel and tourism are interesting lenses to observe overall business, consumer behavior, operations and also how these notions of hospitality and service evolves.
Following are some of the best, most sincere and or interesting experiences in aviation, hotels, design and elsewhere I’ve observed on the road this year, with takeaways that the industry can take from to make things better.
Best airport commute
The Singaporeans have not only perfected the actual airport arrival, but also the story that is told from the airport to the city via the landscape. Landing at the consistently excellent Changi airport in Singapore, you drive into the city through perfectly manicured vegetation. It is not an accident that everything is this curated and meticulously thought out, and shows respect for both visitors and returning residents alike.
Best way to slow down
Many business travelers are ticking off global capitals within a week. Belmond (recently acquired by LVMH) invites them to slow down a bit and step into another time. The brands excel with their train offerings (see the Andean Explorer) and boat trips (Burgundy) and make a strong case for the idea of slow travel.
Best personal hospitality experience
Ellerman House in Cape Town felt like staying in a lovingly appointed personal residence. It houses the best collection of South African art outside of a museum, and the staff is gracious and attentive. General Manager Paul Bryce-Brand stands out as one of the sharpest, most authentic GMs I’ve met this year. And he’s not from the hospitality world by training, lending credence to the idea that some of the best bring their experiences from other fields into the hospitality category. It was an example of pitch-perfect, personal modern luxury.
Best First Class Cabin
Business changes notwithstanding, Air France still stands above and beyond with their La Premiere cabins. While there’s an arms race of who can make the most complicated and over-the-top product, these are gently human-centric, and the curtain for privacy instead of a hard sliding door is a nice touch. Add the ground experience and perfect cuisine and it nudges everyone else out. Honorable mention goes to JAL, which had the best service in the sky I’ve seen this year.
Best Business Class Cabin
Qatar’s new Q-suites are private and comfortable, a significant step up from their older 777 product. What makes the offering truly standout is the dine-on-demand onboard cuisine as well as the consistent service. It would be first class on most other carriers. Their short haul flights like one I recently took from Doha to Muscat (which they code “first”) are exceptional in that you’re served a hot or cold towel, Arabic coffee and dates, a proper meal of your choice, all within the span of a 45-minute flight.
Best Cabin Staff
The best cabin staff I experienced this year was with Emirates. There was care, proactivity (down to making sure they pronounced my name correctly) coupled with precision. Staff was poised, great conversationalists, multi-cultural and generally wonderful to be around for a relatively short flight from Dubai to Paris. I was wishing the flight was longer.
Most Welcome Trend
It’s common to have to navigate terrible UX or an unnecessary digital panel in order to turn off the lights. The Middle House in Shanghai has a large, unmistakable cord next to the bed to turn off all of the lights as you’re about to retire. We agree with the Monocle team that is a very welcome development in hospitality. Simplification through design.
Another Welcome Trend
Alaska has put barista manned coffee bars back into their lounges, including their new one at JFK. The personal touch of coffee made by someone who knows what they are doing beats robot coffee any day. It is a contrarian and appreciated touch in a space where everyone else seems to want to cut corners.
Best Hotel Bar
Le Sirenuse was the most beautifully designed bar I saw this year, lending Mediterranean flair and a sense of formal occasion to Miami. The hotel itself, the Four Seasons Surf Club, is an incredible addition for the brand, one that stands out from the portfolio and elevates the stakes. It feels discrete, set away from the madness and tribal tattoo peacocking of South Beach. The poolside bar at the Metropole in Hanoi also gets the nod for timelessness and atmosphere.
Best Wellness for the Long Haul
Tie goes to both Singapore Airlines and Qantas for this growing space of innovation. They are both doing the hard yards with research, science, and nutrition as well as thinking about lighting, hydration and jet lag to mitigate the pain of their new ultra long haul flights. Singapore worked with Canyon Ranch for new meal offerings and Qantas launched a new transit lounge in Perth with everything from a wellness clinic offering 15-minute stretching classes to light therapy in the showers to help bleary-eyed passengers readjust.
The re-designed Club Room at the Lowell Hotel in New York has the vibe of a perfect English Country home, on the Upper East Side. The lighting, artwork, and warmth of staff are absolute standouts in a city with high hospitality standards.
Best New Hotel
Copenhagen has needed a standout boutique and the Hotel Sanders fits the bill. Founded by former ballet dancer Alexander Kolpin, the hotel has a warm, beautiful residential design with log fires and the perfect Danish balance of elegance and coziness. Every detail down to the glassware is immaculate.
Best Farm to Table Hotel
Babylonstoren, outside of Cape Town in South Africa’s wine country is a beautiful working farm with a small amount of cottage style rooms. They feel private, like a small house. Visitors can walk around, take gardening classes and bike around to explore the vast property. The staff brings fresh produce, straight out of the ground, as snacks to the room, and everything is put together beautifully at their restaurant.
Inspired New Luxury chain
The Chatwal is a brand to watch. The New York property is being very well run by the former Lowell GM Ashish Verma, with ambitious expansion plans in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.
Best Airline Lounges
Cathay Pacific continues to dominate with their lounges. While most brands have rock solid offerings in their hubs and partnerships or rather lackluster, cookie-cutter versions farther afield, Cathay has done a great job translating their branding and the Ilse Crawford designed spaces to their outstations. Haneda, Vancouver, Bangkok, London and more are all pitch perfect extensions of the brand, down to the noodle bar and warm residential feel.
Best Sustainability/conservation Approach
Singita is a brand that should be a household name, thanks to their luxury camps, but most importantly through their participation in some of the most thoughtful conservation efforts in Africa. Their Pamushana lodge in Zimbabwe is an example of world-class conservationism in a country that is experiencing economic hardship (when poaching often surges).
Best Hotel Brand
Six Senses deserve to be on every luxury traveler’s radar. The brand is in front of wellness and sustainability trends by a mile, and continue to open in interesting locales including Bhutan next year. They bring a spirit of generosity to the industry, regularly dispatching their teams to teach other companies about their approaches and knowledge sharing.
Most Interesting Small Boutique Collection
H8 is a small, thoughtfully presented portfolio of properties in Paris, the Loire Valley, Chamonix, Brittany, and in the South. It is a blend of boutique, small and intimate feel, with classic luxury and quality staff.
Herve Mazella at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, Marcel Thoma at Upper House, and Ashish Verma at The Chatwal in New York are all world-class hoteliers that are elevating their craft year over year. They are all completely different personalities and approaches unique to their properties.
Best Thoughtful, and Accessible Africa Experience
Natural Selection is a safari company that is bringing an Ace Hotel-style sensibility to safari. The brand has a lot of experiences that are not just for the big spenders, and they manage to fight against the game drives only safari cliches, introducing a lot of activities.
Best City Hotel
I was impressed with the Warehouse Hotel Singapore. Set on the water, the lobby is perfect, and the rooms are about as thoughtfully designed as I have found this year, and at a very reasonable price point for a global financial hub.
Most Interesting Treatment
Wellness continues to expand into new realms beyond just expensive creams or massage. The Saxon in Johannesburg has focused on sound therapy, a holistic treatment done with Tibetan gong bowls placed around the energy centers of the body. Its both interesting and rule breaking. Expect to see more of these treatments roll out in other properties.
Best Cult Property
The Hotel Esencia is the one property this year I couldn’t stop hearing about, whispered in reverent tones by some of the most jaded travelers. Situated close enough (but far enough away) from Cancun, it was founded by someone without a hospitality background: Kevin Wendle, formerly of the entertainment world. So, sometimes the best experiences are created by people coming into an industry afresh, with big ideas and no preconceptions of how things can be done.
Hotelier Liz Lambert worked with Saira to train up the staff of the San Cristobal in Todos Santos. Their approach to hospitality was warm, genuine, and thoughtful. It is a different flavor than what you’d experience further down in Cabo San Lucas, which is precisely the idea.