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.

One of the often unseen things about luxury hospitality is how quickly things go from the extraordinary to the expected. Just as hedge fund traders are always looking for some small optimization to find “alpha” and beat the market, hoteliers at the highest end are in the same boat. They’re constantly fighting to find the strategies and tactics to stand out in a world of very high competition and very high expectations.

Simply put: Luxury travelers today see more scenarios. They are more mobile, have seen more at every level of the game, and have ever-rising expectations on what they get for their money.

The idea behind this piece struck me as I was having a drink with Jean Luc Naret, an esteemed hotelier who now runs La Réserve Paris, which won the distinction of Best Hotel in the World in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards. Naret and his team are competing at the Olympian level of the game. 

As we chatted in the hotel’s bar, I couldn’t find anything amiss. Everything down to how I was greeted on arrival, to the hue of the lights, the sound of the music, and the presentation of our drinks was pitch-perfect. Later in the evening when I was catching up with a friend in the hotel’s library bar, I asked a waiter about how high the standards were. He playfully replied: “You’d have to look very hard to find something out of place here.” It’s important to remember that I was but one part of a choreography of things happening at the hotel that day, but each interaction had to uphold the level of distinction. And this happens day in and day out.

Flawless 360-degree Delivery

Naret told me that the expectations at the high end of the industry are always elevating and that he tells his staff they need to look outside the immediate realm of hotels to figure out how to adjust and optimize the customer experience. He revealed that one of the pieces of guidance to his team is to look to the outside world a few times a day and “take note of what inspires you.” Indeed the idea of having an open aperture is what other hoteliers have told me is necessary to stay an inch ahead.

If this doesn’t seem hard enough, the other ironic fact here is that even if you exceed expectations once for a guest, it quickly becomes the norm. The knockout arrival or incredible room amenities or thoughtfully executed special occasion becomes the table stakes for your interactions in the future. It seems like a Sisyphean task, to say the least.

To better understand this dynamic, I spoke to Roland Fasel, chief operating officer of Aman, a brand known for having some of the most devoted guests around — who are also the most demanding in terms of their expectations. The brand was founded in 1988 by Adrian Zecha, a hotelier seeking to blend a hotel’s harmony and sense of place in remote locales with the hospitality of hosting guests in his own home. 

Fasel noted that the constant desire to adapt and adjust is one of the hallmarks that makes Aman what it is, believing that “ultimately the creative innovation is the ultimate competitive advantage you can create.” Lots of people can create incredible real estate plays and the perfect design, and hire great people. But the idea of constantly evolving — and having the ethos and the culture to do so — is actually a differentiator. 

In Service, Creativity Above All Else

Fasel told me he believes that “culture beats strategy.” There’s an ethos deeply embedded in those staff members and general managers who feel empowered to make the calls they need to make and to intuit what is right for a given context. The most important attributes here are empathy, intuition, and skill sets that cannot be supplanted by technology. The original brief to the management of properties at Aman’s inception was to have their customers “enter as a guest and leave as a friend.” How they do that is up to the individual team.

But what does this mean where the rubber hits the road? And after a turnover in ownership and aggressive growth plans, can it be maintained? For Fasel, there are some timeless non-negotiables for the brand: “Creating peaceful environments with a generosity of space and intuitive service.” About the service, Fasel added, “We say yes and then you ask the question,” alluding to Aman’s famous problem-solving for guests, as well as the fact that you don’t sign bills of any kind when you’re on the property.

Fasel said that the brief is open, but regular guests talk about the meticulous attention to detail: A noted hotelier told me how he was swimming at the Aman Tokyo and magically slippers and a robe appeared when he was emerging from the pool — with zero sign of anyone coming in to place them there.

Another well-traveled acquaintance recounted his experience: “Nearly everyone we have interacted with has been aware of our daily schedule of tours and excursions, and we never once have had to state our room number, explain who we are, or even sign a single bill at lunch, dinner, or the spa. Earlier we made an appointment at the spa and asked if she needed our villa number to confirm the reservation. With a smile, she said ‘Of course not, I know.’”

That Je ne sais quoi

It is these surprises, the subtle touches and delightful gestures at turndown service, the feeling of discretion and privacy, as well as the lack of friction with interactions: booking cars, figuring out what to do, that can add up to something that impresses even the most jaded and road-weary traveler. At the highest end, this service can be an important synapse linking experiences to personal fulfillment through transformative travel, something Skift has highlighted as a luxury Megatrend.

The way Aman has operated is open, intuitive, and fluid, relying on very talented people to do their jobs in the way they see fit. As the brand continues to scale around the world, Fasel mentioned he’s had to be more clear about the brand strategy and has managed to pull the “loose pieces of paper” and institutional knowledge from people’s heads down to codify it: articulating elements of brand pillars such as privacy and balance that had previously been understood collectively and passed down from team to team.

But Fasel suggests these formal documents are not a crutch. They are necessary building blocks to keep the brand evolving as it grows. The core idea of “empowering people to be creative is essential to the idea of the brand,” and if you get that right, said Fasel, “You can keep on innovating perpetually and keep creativity in the business.”

Photo Credit: Aman Tokyo. The level of competition at the ultra-premium end of hospitality is unimaginably high. Aman