Skift Take

Crisis showed once again how it can breed creativity and excellence. Here are the people, the properties, and the trends that have stood out as bright beacons in a very bad year.

Series: On Experience

On Experience

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.

I don’t need to rehash the implications of the past year for travel. This has been endlessly documented. But I saw a lot of reasons to be incredibly optimistic about the future. Every year, I select the best things I see on the road and also outline the friction points and things that need to be improved. I’ve curtailed my normal nit-pickings this year, focusing instead on the bright rays of creativity under duress. Many brands, properties, and teams used the pandemic as a forcing factor to get better, to try out new things, and to iterate. So, here’s a rundown of the great things I witnessed. Onwards!  

BEST DOMESTIC AIRLINE

I moved my longstanding, million-mile allegiance to American Airlines over to Delta. The reason? The brand stood above the pack in terms of its approach to Covid. Planes on every flight were spotless, cleaning protocols were well communicated and their middle seat open social spacing strategy put the consumer first. It is no wonder their net promoter score surged to levels never seen for a U.S. domestic airline. As they roll out new lounges, new partnerships, and new tech, it is a brand with clear, strong leadership that has also read the sea change of culture: consumers are much more in charge now, and Delta knows that they need us, the traveling public. Other carriers will learn this one way or the other. 

BEST INTERNATIONAL AIRLINE

I flew on Emirates both pre and post-pandemic this year. But since this column will focus on the latter, the carrier stood out to me as being an outward manifestation of just how well Dubai handled the crisis. Emirates was operationally sound, did a great job with cleaning and safety, and managed to still pull off high touch service despite constraints. The end to end experience on the ground, in the lounges, and onboard reflected what I imagine to be a ton of logistical work and having to rewrite procedures. As Dubai stands to be an important logistical hub for the distribution of the vaccine, it is comforting to see excellence in a very important part of the world. 

BEST LUXURY CHAIN

The Four Seasons, with their health and wellness program, Lead with Care, has been the standout luxury hotel chain. Throughout my stays at properties in Surfside, Miami, Mexico City, Denver, Las Vegas, Austin, and others, the brand was remarkably consistent, which is not an easy thing to do. Even better, everything felt natural: there was a level of finesse in messaging and approach that was exactly the right tone. This came as a welcome contrast to some luxury properties sending me a pre-arrival note that read as if I was about to storm the beaches at Normandy. Plus, when I had a family medical issue in Mexico City (unrelated to Covid), the team treated us as one of their own family, showing the empathy and professionalism that comes from a strong service culture. While many luxury brands have lost their luster and lost their way this year, Four Seasons has shown to have a strong core brand and is weathering the crisis thanks to great people. This is not an easy feat. 

BEST BOUTIQUE LUXURY BRAND 

I’ve long noted that there is a gap in the market between the price point of an Aman and say, the Ritz Carlton in terms of ADR. Auberge Resorts Collection is quickly executing in this gap. The brand makes smaller, beautiful properties unique to their location with super high touch hospitality that feels more like you’re staying in an elegant friend’s home. Under the leadership of CEO Craig Reid, their US properties saw a surge in interest as many people curbed their long-haul travel, and it served as a great introduction to the portfolio. The brand is set to open a slate of new properties next year: Bishops Lodge in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos, California, Stanly Ranch in Napa, California, among others. In my opinion, they are nicely positioned to win over a new luxury traveler that wants sensibility, personality but also super creative flourishes when it comes to service. 

BEST HOTEL GM AND BEST CULTURE 

Ed Mady, the regional director of West Coast USA for Dorchester Collection, who oversees the Beverly Hills hotel and the Bel Air, stood out to me as the hotelier with the best grasp on building a strong culture. He’s weathered a tone-deaf boycott of the properties as well as a global pandemic, still managing to deliver incredible warmth and service from teams serving a well-heeled clientele. Mady is an elegant diplomat, a connector, and an astute observer of how luxury is changing. Staff, many of whom have been with the hotels for over two decades, told me that they felt the brand “had their backs” and did a great job communicating throughout crises. Mady has also been making use of what he calls the “Self Determination” theory that gives employees autonomy and a well-defined path forward through the industry. This means cross-training, and having the ability to have nonlinear progressions. Finally, as I wrote earlier this year, Mady and the team made the employee entrance to the Beverly Hills hotel as glamorous as the guest entrance. This is a perfect example of treating employees well, and in turn, having satisfied guests as the result. 

MOST ANTICIPATED OPENINGS

I’m excited to see what has been an incredible feat of logistics, vision, and mastering complexity: the opening of Airelles in Versailles. I spoke to Jacques Silvant, chief operating officer of Airelles, in the early days of Covid who told me about the sheer ambition of what they are trying to do: open a new property on the grounds of Château de Versailles with views over the Orangerie, the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses and The Palace. And while a lot of the narrative is about simplification and the impending sea change for luxury, there’s something to be said about ambition, and setting impossibly high standards in one of the most difficult and highly regulated places in the world. I’m excited to see the craft and approach materialize when it opens in 2021. 

I’m also curious to see some of the re-work of Claridge’s in London. It is a true London icon that played an important role in housing frontline workers in the pandemic. Co-owner Paddy McKillen has been overseeing a huge makeover to the property adding a super-luxe suite that encompasses the entire roof of the property, as well as “spas, pools, a fitness club, a cinema, a subterranean boutique-shopping mall, and three new floors of rooms.” And doing all of this while preserving the architecture and infrastructure considerations of one of the most important properties in London. 

BEST HOTEL CITY (U.S.)

Austin is booming when it comes to hotel concepts. There’s Auberge’s entry, the Commodore Perry, set on a private stretch of land that feels a million miles removed from its surroundings.

A washroom at the Commodore Perry estate.

There’s the Hotel Magdalena, while has taken the early Bunkhouse approach and aesthetic and scaled it to a larger footprint (and done it beautifully), there’s the Proper Hotel, which is a very well-executed version of the brand’s ambitions: pairing Kelly Wearstler’s design eye with what they see as a new, stylish tech audience downtown.

Then there’s the Carpenter, which was a nicely executed, open-air hotel set around an old Union Hall near Zilker Park. Austin is growing, and the innovation first sparked by Liz Lambert with her South Congress properties continues to grow. It is an amazing city for hospitality at the moment. 

BEST LONG-GAME APPROACH TO HOSPITALITY

Slow, steady, and patient ownership is a welcome feature in a world of capital wanting a quick return. I was impressed by the remodeling of The Breakers. They take a generational approach to the property and as other iconic luxury properties are being bought, sold, or melted into new concepts, the resort has a strong backbone. It is still owned by the Kenan family, direct descendants of Henry Flagler. As patient capital, they do things correctly, over time. Something is comforting about a place I went with my family as a child, being artfully and tastefully evolved, but without losing sight of the core of what it is. The balance of modernity and preservation represents the best of the “long game” when it comes to stewardship of hotels.

NEW HOTEL GM TO WATCH

One of my favorite general managers in the world, Marcel Thoma, recently moved on from the Upper House, taking the helm of the Mandarin Oriental Marrakech. Thoma blends a highly personalized approach to hospitality (there’s no one better at knowing what guests want either explicitly or implicitly) with finding the pulse of culture in a city. I’m excited to watch what he builds in such an interesting place, which is a mix of cultures and references. Mandarin Oriental is lucky to have him. 

BEST F&B

Anthony Marazita at Amangiri stood out to me as being the best in the game with food and beverage this year. Not only is he able to cater to highly discerning guests and their super-specific whims and dietary restrictions (“you should see how long the tickets are we get here,” he playfully told me), but he has done something meaningful in using ingredients from native cultures surrounding the property. Over years, he’s cultivated relationships with local tribes, built trust to learn from these cultures and become a customer of their special grains, seeds, and recipes. 

Amangiri is a luxury resort in Canyon Point, Utah. The resort is located in the middle of a protected valley and a 25-minute drive from the nearest town.

And it isn’t a cynical nod to where they’ve come from. It is clear that Marazita has done the time to build symbiotic relationships. Some tribes even save him some of their most sacred seeds. What he’s doing with the native American elements in his cooking is unique, and I’ve never seen it executed at this level, coupled with a deep level of respect and reverence. 

BEST HOTEL EXPERIENCE OF THE YEAR

Surprisingly, my travel wasn’t curtailed this year. I traveled safely and responsibly, logging over 120 nights in hotels since the beginning of the pandemic. I need to support the industry I care about so much. The hotel that stood out to me the most this year was The Lowell. It is what I was looking for in a very stressful year: a beautiful, elegant, discrete property with warm, high touch service and the best lighting I’ve seen in any hotel in the world. There’s a crackling fire in the lobby, down the hall from my favorite room in any hotel: the Club Room. Plus, the team at Majorelle did outdoor dining which the restaurant was shut down due to city ordinance without missing a beat, presided by Charles Masson. The hotel is always well recognized in the world of hospitality, frequently getting the “best hotel in New York,” but even in a difficult situation, the team rose to the level. A truly memorable stay for me. 

BRIGHTEST HOTELIERS 

I met with a lot of incredible hoteliers this year: Ashraf Amaani at the Mandarin Oriental Dubai who manages to bring cool people and the most interesting culture and weave it with the beating heart of the hotel; Ana Aguilar of Auberge, who oversees rooms at the Commodore Perry in Austin; Natasha Dodd of the Four Seasons Surf Club; Natascha Seifritz at the Austin Proper Hotel; as well as the ever-elegant Ernesto Floro and Heiko Huenstle of the Lowell. All of them are at the top of their respective roles and give me hope for the recovery of the industry post-Covid. 

BEST INNOVATION 

Constraint builds innovation. And in Covid, thankfully there were interesting things that came out of chaos. I was inspired by what the Newt Hotel in the English countryside did: they tapped their gardens to create The Mobile Newt — a home delivery service bringing quality estate produce and healthy treats from Somerset to locked-down locals and Londoners. 

I was also very happy to see Peninsula Time, the concept pioneered by the Los Angeles managing director Offer Nissenbaum, being rolled out across the portfolio. Beginning January 2021, guests at all Peninsula properties can arrange to have their room ready as early as 6:00 am on their arrival date and check out as late as 10:00 pm on their departure date at no extra charge. 

I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Wendle and his hotel Escencia. They’ve rolled out new duplex suites with private, indoor fitness studios allowing fitness-focused guests to have a private way to get their workout in. Luxurious? Yes. Is there a huge audience for this type of thing among their clientele? Also yes. 

AN OPTIMISTIC CONVERSATION ON THE FUTURE 

I had the good fortune of speaking with the dean of Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, Ines Blal about hospitality education, how the curriculum is evolving, modern luxury versus the table stakes that won’t change. I’m pleased to say that she is on the cutting edge of what is required to create the next generation of hoteliers and creating meaningful experiences in a post-Covid world. Any notions I had about hospitality education being old-school and stodgy were quickly erased as we delved into a tech-centric conversation of balancing data, UX, strategy, and empathy with timeless notions of service. A refreshing and optimistic conversation, indeed. 

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Tags: airlines, coronavirus, hospitality, hotels, On Experience

Photo credit: Outdoor pool at Four Seasons Surfside in Miami. Christian Horan / Four Seasons

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