A luxury hotel’s relationship with a guest is a fragile and many splendored thing.
“Luxury is like love,” suggested luxury branding expert Dr. Daniel André Langer. “When we go for a luxury brand, it’s like falling in love. We are not deciding on rational points like functional value, but on a strong emotional connection.” Because of that, the founder of Équité, a luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand consultancy, said high-end brands have to understand the emotional nature of their appeal, first by defining it, and then by swooping in to woo the consumer.
Any relationship at the luxury level has to start with developing a distinct brand journey. In the hospitality world, said Langer, “most hotels provide us with a category journey, but nothing is brand-distinctive. All are giving me the same journey and brand names are interchangeable. When that happens, then customers have no reason to pay a premium.” In essence, the brand’s rooms become just another commodity.
So what’s a hotel company to do?
Langer said brands should be defining key attributes and then developing distinct brand journeys around them. “Ask what do we sell? What do we inspire? This is the most fundamental task,” said Langer. “Saying you sell ‘dreams and experience’ isn’t enough. All luxury brands do that. A brand needs to be specific about which dream it sells and which experience. It needs to be defined in every marketing detail, it has to be actionable for every staff member, and surely it has to do something different than what any other brand is doing. Then, no one else can replicate the brand.”
Once luxury brands develop a brand-distinct experience strategy, it has to design a customer journey that reflect the brand proposition at every touch point. That’s why proper staff training is essential. “Service must be based on the defined brand experience,” said Langer. “The staff must understand its role in bringing the brand positioning to life. If it doesn’t know its role, and if staff is not empowered, the whole effort will collapse.”
“The difference between an okay experience and a premium one is in the human factor. It’s making the customer feel special. It’s seamless service. It’s a conversation, knowing who the guest is. Absolute personalized service is what creates the luxury experience and this is what hotels don’t get right. They rely too much on design and a brand name and a loyalty brand, and they forget the most important thing–human interaction.”
That human interaction creates an emotional connection, which ideally, should be felt at every brand property. For example, Langer gave a shout out to Andaz Hotels by Hyatt. While locations may vary from city center to resort, Langer said the brand has created a customer journey that’s all about care and relaxation.
In particular, Langer cited that time he walked into the Andaz Tokyo, soaking wet from an unexpected downpour. The staff greeted him warmly by his name, told him not to worry about checking in and served him hot green tea. They even took pains to dry and clean his luggage. “It was that personal touch,” he said, “They knew who I was and they empathized. They took care of me.”
Having experienced similar service at Andaz properties from Scottsdale to London, Langer is a brand loyalist. Call it love.
Keeping the Spark
Just like a real life relationship, though, maintenance is required. “Once a brand has a love relationship with us, it’s up to brands to nurture, strengthen, and maintain that relationship,” said Langer. If it becomes routine, or a consumer feels taken for granted, “the relationship can easily cool off, and the customer will move on to another brand. Even worse, if customers feel they were cheated, they won’t leave silently. Instead, their love will turn to hate.”
What can cause the dramatic break-up? “All it takes is one negative touch point to damage a customer’s relationship with a brand,” said Langer. “That’s why training people is critical. Proper luxury training must include fundamental insights about luxury and make clear the role of each individual in providing the branded luxury proposition.” He compared the situation to an opera performance. “If we are listening to an opera, the people in the orchestra and on stage have to be in sync. If one musician is off-key, everything is ruined.”
A lack of brand-wide consistency can also nullify a relationship. If someone who is devoted to a particular brand while visiting New York City has a bad experience with that brand in another locale, he or she may decide to stay elsewhere during the next stay in the Big Apple. It’s a matter of one bad apple spoiling the whole bunch.
Why can this happen? “A dramatic breakdown in experience within the same brand can be one of the weaknesses when hotel groups in the luxury space try to grow quite fast. My suspicion is they are not training sharp enough…especially compared to first locations.”
Consumers at the luxury level are likely to have stronger emotional reactions to subpar situations than the average due to their high expectations and the amount of money invested. “If someone makes me pay $300,000 for a car or $1,000 a night for a hotel room, and then I feel neglected, I am not just going to have a neutral response. Maybe the customer is willing to forgive one or two things, but after that, they don’t come back.”