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Colin Nagy, head of strategy at FFNY, a global advertising agency, 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.
Right now, most of the world isn’t traveling. But when we get back to it, every country is now in a knife fight for share of wallet.
And the typical tourism and slogan-driven campaigns won’t cut it. They need to go deeper in new, creative ways and use the touch points. That is, use the hotels where the guests land, rest, and spend their time, strategically.
Cultural diplomacy for a country is vitally important. It is the “soft power” that stems from art, culture, food, craft, and countless other offerings that stem from the soul of a place and make it different. It is typically manifested within the country through art museums or perfectly framed experiences with a narrative. Think of the newly opened National Museum in Qatar or the storied museums in London.
This energy, coupled with the idea of “nation branding” attempts to package up a tidy narrative for a country, with a tag line, a font, and a unique art direction. But sometimes the experience itself can be stronger.
It is rare to see cultural diplomacy, and the best of a country’s “brand” so to speak, manifested in a hotel. But if you think about it, it is an incredible touchpoint with multiple angles to tell a story about the collective output of a country. There are service elements and hospitality. There are design and experience. There are culinary elements, scent, light, and otherwise. All in all, it is a cohesive way to tell the story of a place or a nation.
All of the above is perfectly manifested in the Royal Mansour in Marrakech. The hotel, opened in 2010 after three years of construction, was intended by the King of Morocco to be a showpiece of the absolute best output from Morocco. There was no budget ascribed, only a royal mandate to build everything to the highest possible artistic standards.
An estimated 1,500 artisans from across the country worked on the project and much is on display; everything from carved cedar wood, intricate stucco work, beaten and cut bronze, and silver furniture to tile work, tapestries, down to the furniture design and water fountains and elements. All meticulously crafted by the individual best craftsman in the country.
General Manager Jean-Claude Messant, formerly of Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and the Hôtel Métropole Monte-Carlo, told me the intention was not a museum where things are off-limits, but rather highly sensory. As he put it, “A hotel where when you walk around, you can touch and feel, you can touch the tiling, you can touch the plasterwork, you can touch the woodwork, you see beautiful uniforms being made by the best Moroccan designers. You can see and smell and taste beautiful cuisine. You have the best of what can we produce in the kingdom.”
The interesting thing here is the hotel is far from a museum. It is a place where a guest or visitor is experiencing Morocco, not from the actual medina (a short walk away) replete with vibrant other areas of culture, art, and commerce, but a space to play out life in private: you smell the orange and jasmine scent of the gardens, you can lightly run your fingers across woodwork that took an artisan thousands of hours to complete, and see how light refracts through Moorish iron walls. These elements combined, down to the acoustics of running water and the interplay of red walls and verdant greenery is perhaps one of the most powerful statements of intent for a country I’ve experienced. It is doing and not telling. And the marketing and word-of-mouth that has come as a result of the hotel has been impressive.
Another element of cultural diplomacy is the building, training, and exportation of Moroccan hospitality talent. “The plan from day one was to be one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. And plan number two, was to be one of the best hotels in the world, said Messant. “But to be one of the best hotels, you need not just a beautiful hotel…What you need is the people: it’s a service element, it’s what’s going to make it work. So we have a very important mission here, not just for the hotel but for the kingdom. To say, let’s educate, let’s train, let’s develop local sources, local people, let’s take them when they are 18 or 19 when just out of college, and let’s make them the best of the best for the kingdom.”
The hotel has a rigorous training program that takes applicants that Messant says has the “hospitality gene,” and the warmth and energy required, and builds them up. So if the trained staff do end up leaving, their training and sophistication having worked at what Architectural Digest called “One of the Most Iconic Hotels of the Last Century” they act as diplomats and ambassadors of Moroccan hospitality, just as much as the crafts and design works similarly. The two together create a powerful statement of intent for Morocco, distinct from how other countries frame and market their offerings.
By making hotels as a proxy for the best parts of national culture, you make things more tangible, more sensory, and create a deeper emotional bond between the guest and the country. And while there are organic examples of this: Claridge’s in London certainly personifies Britain in many ways, it might also be a new, emerging strategy for heads of state to pay attention to where their visitors are laying their heads as travel returns post-pandemic.