Here are some of the most inspiring innovations in design, service, and guest experience in hospitality and travel so far this year. The more the industry can cross-pollinate, learn from others, and experiment, the better it will be.
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 roundup is becoming a personal tradition. Twice a year I crack open the notebook — and increasingly look through my iPhone camera roll — to highlight who is innovating in the space of airlines, hospitality, and restaurants and serving as beacons for the broader industry to learn from.
Cross-pollination is key for everyone to get better. People in the industry need to experiment, visit, meet, and collide as much as possible and break out of silos.
Of particular note, this year I’ve curated the list with the importance of human capital top of mind. Elevated experiences come down to well-trained, thoughtful frontline staff, and those who set them up to succeed are the ones that garner repeat guests and higher satisfaction metrics. It’s worth noting that this is not a scientific rundown but rather observations from my eye based on global travel so far this year. Also I’ll be judging the Skift Design Awards shortly, and in this inaugural competition we’ll be taking an even more granular look at service design. Stay tuned for more.
Best Example of ‘Hotel as Cultural Diplomacy’
The Royal Mansour in Marrakech was commissioned by the king as a cultural showpiece for Morocco, envisioned as a “living representation of the country’s traditions and craftsmanship.” A walk around the property showed this manifested in every tiny detail: painstaking craftwork from 1,500 artisans, tiling, woodwork, and perfectly manicured gardens. Everything was masterfully executed and no corner was cut, reflecting exquisitely on some of the less-known artisanal traditions of the country. It’s also run by one of the most gifted general managers in the world, Jean-Claude Messant, who not only presides over the property with the elegance of a diplomat but also provides a platform for training the next generation of hoteliers.
GM to Watch
Jannes Soerensen is one of the young guns on the London five-star scene currently running The Beaumont. He has an incredible pedigree from Le Bristol and has also worked in the high-touch role of concierge at The Plaza in New York. He’s one of the most articulate and passionate people I’ve met in recent memory, with sharp ideas about human resources and talent — watch this space for more on that. Soerensen shakes up some of the military-inspired, top-down structures of hospitality and encourages movement of his staff within disciplines. He’s transparent with the financials and passionate about ways to both attract new talent to the industry and make staff feel invested in the business. Empathetic people-first leaders like this will play a huge role in how luxury hospitality evolves in the future.
Welcome Trend: Female GMs on the Rise
Sadly the hospitality industry doesn’t have as many female GMs as it should. But some of my canvassing indicates there’s progress. Two to watch are Dagmar Symes, currently running the Anantara in Oman, and Doris Hecht, who operates Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi. Mandarin Oriental is doing a very good job of making this a priority with the appointment of Jill Goh as general manager at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, as well as Amanda Hyndman at Mandarin Oriental London. The Four Seasons Park Lane has something rare in the industry: the GM (who is also the regional vice president), hotel manager, director of rooms, and director of food and beverage are all women.
Top Airport Innovation
Sure, Singapore’s Changi predictably gets accolades for being a great airport, and I’ve sung its praises numerous times. But the recently opened Jewel blew my mind. The $1.25 billion retail and experience project is a Terminal 1 annex that’s connected to Terminal 2 and 3 by pedestrian bridges. It’s a destination unto itself for people living in Singapore, but for most travelers, it’s an uplifting way to spend some time before a flight. Plus check-in is seamlessly direct from the experience itself. The retail is compelling, notably the branch of Tokyu Hands, and will continue to evolve. Moreover there are varied food options and the best shave I’ve had anywhere. But the rain vortex — the world’s tallest indoor waterfall with seven stories of recycled rainwater amid verdant greenery — is the big draw. If you don’t enjoy this spectacle, you’re far too jaded.
Best In-Flight Media
Emirates takes the cake for the depth and variety of its in-flight entertainment system, as I wrote about in a recent column. It simply licenses more content, has more ideas than anyone else, down to the selection of podcasts, and makes it so you don’t want to get off that DXB-to-LAX flight. And as Monocle points out in its recent issue of the Escapist, Air France’s Madame is the best print edition in the air right now.
Best Property Opening
I was impressed with the execution of the Six Senses in Maxwell when I stopped in on a recent visit. The property balances modernity and clean lines with an elegantly told history of modern Singapore — the walls feature archival maps and historical documents. Jacques Garcia did the design but it’s restrained, not dark and overbearing as some of his properties are, and adds texture to the property. The library, which transitions nicely from midday coffee meetings to cocktails at night is a new standard for these types of common spaces. Plus the health-oriented food and beverage are best in class for any hotel, which is a hallmark of the brand.
Luxury Hotel Brand to Watch
The luxury brand Capella continues to ping on my radar from in-the-know hoteliers and insiders, with much anticipated openings in Bali, Bangkok (forthcoming), Singapore, and more. The design is inspired, and it feels like Capella is inventing a new avenue of luxury that is very intriguing. Worth keeping an eye on.
Best Airline Brand/Livery
As I see more and more of the new Air Canada livery designed by Winkreative on tarmacs around the world, I think it’s the best modern redesign around. More on that here. Also there’s something appealingly timeless about Lufthansa. An airline rebranding is always a perilous thing and many carriers lose the plot, but Lufthansa has managed to be consistent over the years. Bonus points if you read up on the history of its visual design in the book A5/05: Lufthansa und Graphic Design, Visual History of an Airline.
Best Members Club
The world is swimming in a sea of new-style members clubs, and many of them are uninspired. As a welcome contradiction to this narrative, Straits Clan in Singapore is both stylishly designed and — most important — has polished and crisp service. Bonus: Its member base is actually interesting and not just the usual suspect finance expats looking for a place to drink beer.
Best U.S. Airline
My experiences with Alaska, especially as it has been making the brand and product consistent across U.S. flights post-Virgin acquisition, have been exceptional so far. Its staff seem to care, the product is solid, and pricing for the transcontinental business is reasonable compared to legacy carriers. Plus you can’t beat the barista-made coffee in the JFK lounge. Say no to robot brews.
Best Long-Haul First-Class Product
There are other, flashier products to be sure, but Japan Air Lines First Class is still a standout in terms of how consistently good the service is. Senior Japanese flight attendants serve with the grace and elegance of a three-star Michelin experience on the ground, and everything, down to the selection of tea, is impeccable. In addition to the anticipatory service, or omotenashi, JAL remains the best sleep experience in the air, thanks to the Airweave mattress.
Best Cohesive Experience
La Réserve Paris, run by Jean-Luc Naret and team, stands as the tightest ship I’ve seen this year in terms of service, aesthetics, and attention to detail. Not much more to be said here. It’s a boutique property with the power of a palace. Superb.
Most Anticipated Openings
I’m looking forward to the Park Hyatt opening in Kyoto. The Japanese city has had a range of openings from heavy hitters like Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons over the years as it surges with tourist interest, but my preview conversation with Mark de Leeuwerk, the GM, formerly working with Hervé Mazella at Park Hyatt Tokyo, showed a property that is going to be smaller, nuanced, and more aligned with both the spiritual and natural sides of the city. I was astounded by de Leeuwerk’s presentation when we met in New York. The team behind the Kyoto project is leaving no detail untouched, and it should be on everyone’s radar.
Elsewhere Islas Secas in Panama is an archipelago off the Pacific Coast of Panama that is launching in December as an ecocentric resort. Typically U.S. travelers would have to get on a plane for a long time — think Nihi in Sumba or Bawah Reserve — to get an experience as dialed-in as this should be. Also its neighbor Costa Rica is incredible in terms of its conservation efforts so rewarding it with hard-earned tourist dollars continues to be a good thing.
Finally I’ve been a longtime fan of Babylonstoren in South Africa, and it will soon have a sister property in the UK. The Newt in Somerset is a historic country estate, near Bruton, encompassing beautifully designed gardens, the hotel and spa, an ancient woodland and deer park, a cider press, restaurants, farm shop, and retail offerings.
Most Fascinating Adventure Brand
It’s worth keeping an eye on Eleven Experience, notably its outpost in Deplar Farms in Northern Iceland. The brand occupies a unique Venn diagram of James Bond-style adventure, high luxury, plus original thinking on its wellness offerings, which are based on the idea of marginal gains.
A Welcome Breath of Fresh Air
Every airline needs to have a lounge with outside space. It breaks up the claustrophobia and bubble of the airport. Delta does this well at JFK, Swissair does it in Zürich with its E gates. Frankfurt T2 has the visitors terrace, and the Star Alliance lounge at LAX has a beautiful rooftop with fire pits.
Sharpest Hospitality Executives
Brian Williams of Swire was a standout speaker when I interviewed him at the Skift Forum Asia. The reason? He has cut out a lot of the nonsense in luxury and been radically customer-first with the properties he’s built within The House Collective. It’s the sign of a lifelong hotelier who has honed the craft to an art. There’s no nonsense and, as came up in our spirited conversation, “no minibar charges.” I was also immensely inspired by my Tokyo coffee conversation with David Udell, who is running the Asia-Pacific region for Hyatt on his vision for hospitality and what the brand can be.
Most Elegant Host
Earlier this year I ventured up the river in Bangkok to tour The Siam, one of the most stunning and lovingly crafted properties I’ve ever seen. Nick Downing, the hotel’s GM, was my host and walked me through both his philosophy as well as how they run things at the hotel. He was both a sophisticated conversationalist, describing every design detail down to the molecule, and the epitome of what a modern hotelier should be. Awesome.
Best Rail Experience
On my last Japan trip, I upgraded from the always excellent green car on Japan Rail to something it’s calling Gran Glass. This railcar is straight out of an opening scene in Mission Impossible, with huge reclining seats and more personal touches with service. It makes nearly every other luxury rail product look ho-hum by comparison.
Best Approach to Eco-Friendly Practices
Every executive talking point today seems to be about conservation and sustainability, but when I dug into the Four Seasons Maldives‘ credentials after meeting some of its team at Skift Forum Asia, I learned it’s been doing what is now touted as “new” by others for two decades, given the remoteness of the property. The now-trendy battle against single-use plastics is just the tip of its conservation efforts: It has a team of 10 full-time marine biologists who have been running some of the Indian Ocean’s smartest conservation projects since 2010. More than 300 turtles have been rehabilitated, along with close to 6,000 coral frames transplanted to boost ailing reefs. One gets the sense it’s been putting its money where its mouth is before it was cool.
Best Behind-the-Scenes Hoteliers
Hospitality is a creative act, and it’s a pleasure to observe veteran hoteliers doing their best work day and day out. Adrian Fautt, chief concierge, Hideki Muramatsu, formerly the rooms director and now working on special projects, and Kazuhiro Matsumoto, who looks after food and beverage, have been with Park Hyatt Tokyo for 20-plus years. They are each the personification of Japanese hospitality. A simple Google image search for Muramatsu-san’s name pulls up countless personally written cards he leaves for guests on special occasions, and he always seems to appear magically to say good-bye when I am checking out. These three, along with the rest of the hotel’s staff, do what is a very hard job on a very public stage with grace and passion, never asking for recognition. Truly world class.
Best Overall Service
The most intuitive service I’ve had this year was at both of the Four Seasons properties in Bali. Everything was natural, polished, and warm, and the properties felt like the best versions of themselves. Some classic luxury brands get knocked for not being aligned with the more improvisational and open approach that modern luxury consumers say they want, but everything about this felt dialed in to the highest level. They recently won some high-profile readers choice accolades, and this is why.
Best Town for World-Class Hotels
With the addition of the new Rosewood, Hong Kong is the premier league of top-tier hotels. The competition is incredibly stiff, with the likes of both Mandarin Orientals, The Upper House, Ritz-Carlton, and The Peninsula, but for anyone who is passionate about how service, design, and creative hospitality come together, this is your city to “sleep around” in right now. There’s a lot to be inspired by.
African Destinations to Watch
The destinations in Africa on my radar right now are in Namibia, which seems to be having quite a moment in visual culture due to its desert landscapes and newly opened, aesthetically unique lodges like Hoanib Valley Camp. It’s not the usual safari experience with predictable aesthetics, and this is perhaps why it’s resonating so much. Natural Selection and Wilderness Safaris are the recurring names from those in the know here.
Rwanda is also set to make a bigger push to be both the well-run Singapore of Africa, with a range of new properties opening from the likes of Singita and One&Only Resorts. Malawi is making a strong push for tourism, and its sales pitch is smart. See a lot of different things without the logistical hassle: a wide variety of terrain, beach, and traditional bush experiences, all in one spot. That’s key for people who don’t have a ton of vacation days to burn.
Conservation Project to Watch
I’m a huge fan of Bill Bensley as a hotel designer and cultural figure in Asia, and with his new Shinta Mani camp in Cambodia, he’s prioritizing conservation in a country that desperately needs it. He’s said he’s focused on changing the Cambodian mindset from “extraction” to “conservation” and has partnered with Wildlife Alliance to directly protect the wildlife and forests of the tented camp’s neighboring parks: Bokor, Kirirom, and Cardamon. Not one tree was touched in the creation of the camp itself. This story is still unfolding, and I’ll dedicate more space to it soon.
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Photo credit: The living room of The Lodge at Capella Ubud in Bali. Capella Hotels is a luxury hotel brand to watch in 2019. Capella Hotels