Skift Take

In episode nine of the Skift Ideas Podcast, we are joined by Christopher Norton, CEO of Equinox Hotels, to examine how the evolving expectations of the modern traveler are redefining the way brands are delivering luxury hospitality experiences.

In today’s episode of the Skift Ideas Podcast, Colin is joined by Christopher Norton, CEO of Equinox Hotels, a brand that is aiming to redefine luxury hospitality as the ultimate in experience.

Christopher has been designing premiere guest experiences with holistic health in mind throughout his 30-year career, and is currently responsible for overseeing all facets of Equinox Hotels and executing a future growth strategy.

Join us as we explore Christopher’s take on what luxury hospitality really means, and examine how wellness and hospitality now go hand-in-hand when it comes to catering to today’s modern traveler.

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Episode Notes

Colin Nagy: Today, I’m very excited to be joined by Christopher Norton, Chief Executive Officer at Equinox Hotels. Chris has been designing premier guest experiences with holitic health in mind throughout his 30 year career in the hospitality industry.

Raised in Zurich, Chris’ first taste of the industry was visiting a friend’s family-run hotel and restaurant business located on the outskirts of the picturesque Swiss city. Not long after, he became an apprentice at the famed Baur au Lac and his passion later led him to study at the prestigious EHL at Lausanne in Switzerland, where he currently resides as an active board member.

Following stints at the Watergate Hotel, Boca Raton Resort & Club, and Ritz-Carlton New York, Chris began a long tenure at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts as President and Chief Operating Officer.

After Four Seasons, Chris brought his keen sense of style and design, commitment to a healthy lifestyle and dedication to the people that he works with to launch Equinox’s first-ever luxury lifestyle and hospitality brand.

Christopher Norton: Well, first of all, I’m thrilled to be here and thank you for for having me on your podcast, I’m very excited. I fell in love with the business when I was 15, 16 through a friend of mine whose dad owned a bunch of luxury boutique hotels and restaurants in Zurich, Switzerland, and I was infected by the atmosphere and everything that went on not only in front of the house but in the kitchens and back. And I just thought this whole environment was very, very stimulating. 

And so I did an apprenticeship at the very famous hotel in Missouri called the Baur au Lac when I was 16 and ended up in hotel school in Lausanne and graduated and started my career in the U.S. in 1980, and literally had a very classic hotelier career that eventually took me around the world working in, I think, every continent and, you know, spending the last 45 years in the industry kind of evolving it and trying to innovate and make it relevant.

So that’s kind of the big picture story. I’m still as much in love with it as I was then. I get up in the morning without an alarm clock and I’m excited to go to work. I did spend a whole bunch of time in luxury hotels after graduating before I joined Four Seasons in 1989 and moved to Montreal. One of my languages is French, so we, my wife and I felt very happy that we were there and started as a hotel manager with them and then kind of moved up the ladder with them over almost 30 years until I ended up being the president of the company and chief operating officer out of the Toronto office, or out of an airplane actually, more accurately. 

Nagy: And what’s interesting to me about your Four Seasons time is you really presided over not only quite a substantial expansion of the brand, but also, you know, there was quite an interesting evolution of luxury and also Four Seasons’, you know, approach to it, which actually in some ways hasn’t changed. But, you know, throughout your career, you saw consumer tastes changing, you saw lots of evolutions.

What were some of the big observations that you had with your Four Seasons tenure? 

Norton: So first of all, I want to give Four Seasons credit for having been a spectacular learning ground for me to develop over almost 30 years, and spectacular leadership with Isadore Sharp, the founder, who I still believe is one of the great geniuses in this business.

The culture at Four Seasons was very strong, and they always believed in treating others the way you want to be treated and in a very high service ethos, which was then and I think is still at the core of what the brand is all about.

But I did see evolution in brand, you know, as the brand would start going into London or Europe and catering to different tastes or different spots, trying to reflect some local characters without losing the brand identity. But I also remember, in addition to that, the brand going into Asia, the brand going into some of these other cities, or Paris, the brand going resorts, for example, was a huge step for Four Seasons that had for decades been the urban brand and I think was driven by the success of the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, which was a spectacular success for the property to pursue the resort business, understanding that it was the same customer just traveling for different reasons. And I think today 60% of the brand, or when I left, I think 60% of the brand’s revenue came from resorts. 

Nagy: And your transition after your significant tenure at Four Seasons was kind of going into a different and an unexpected place.

You saw some whitespace in the evolution of luxury and wellness and you partnered with Equinox and joined to to build out a hotel brand. What was the whitespace that you saw and what was the sort of traveler preferences that you were observing that made you think that this was an interesting place to get into? 

Norton: I guess it goes back to my upbringing in Switzerland to some extent, where the healthy lifestyle, respect for your environment, good eating habits, and being active are part of the country’s culture.

So I grew up in that environment already, but in the hotel business specifically, even pre Four Seasons, I remember working at the Watergate where I spent a lot of time renovating what was then called the Swim Club into more of a fitness area and always myself, you know, believing in the lifestyle and always working out and going to the gym.

I always believed that that was an important part of a hotel experience, not to interrupt your daily routine, which part of it is to work out, it’s something we do every day. So when I started talking to Equinox and listened to that concept, I was convinced that doing it right would put this brand in a very unique position and offer something that would be truly differentiated and something that hadn’t been done, nor the lifestyle or luxury part of the business.

And so I thought it was thrilling. And, you know, after months of thinking about leaving, you know, what you could consider is one of the best jobs in the industry, and start basically at a startup and sit in an office for three years, just literally planning out and making sure this brand would be differentiated.

I just believed that as the new generation of luxury consumers moves ahead, that wellness, wellbeing, whatever you want to call it or label it, is going to be the key, if not one of the key things that people will be looking for as they as they experience hospitality.

Nagy: And it’s a very astute read because what we see in consumer culture now is we see more awareness, more people listening to Huberman, you know, the biohacking movement, you know, Peter Attia, you know, more people are wearing a Whoop Band to understand their recovery. So luxury in many ways is moving from sort of excess and decadence into something that is providing functional benefits to someone that’s on the road, that has a high stress career, that is trying to find that one or 2% alpha.

And I think what’s very interesting about what you guys have done with Equinox is, you have a very strong point of view. It carries through the brand in a meaningful way, it’s not just lip service. There’s a lot of platitudes given to wellness, right? And there’s a lot of sort of basic and remedial things that are done.

But you’re coming with a very, very sharp, I would argue, one of the sharpest worldviews. So help me understand how you guys have thought about this holistically. It’s not just the spa, it’s everything. 

Norton: You know, it’s really the importance that’s the big shift here. And one of the shifts you mentioned, which is the definition of luxury, because we’re doing this at a high end and the shifts not occurring just now, the shifts have always occurred. 

If you go back the last 50 or 100 or 300 years, you know, these people’s priorities and the definition of luxury has changed. And to me, one of the key definitions of luxury still is something that is rare and high quality. And when people consume, you know, gilded spoons and thought that was luxury, that because that was very rare, the life, you know, didn’t provide that to many people.

Today, what we provide is rare. And health is something that has become incredibly important in order to give you happiness. So I think you have this huge shift that is happening, and when I talk to the young consumers, there is this, you know, this is a pressing need to have an experience versus buying things.

And we provide an integrated experience that hits on what we believe are all these building blocks to being the best version of yourself and having a happy, fulfilled life. And that is, you know, the health component, the wellness component is number one we believe 

Nagy: And I really believe that with great brands, everything communicates. So to set the stage for the listeners, you know, when you open up the minibar, you know, at an Equinox Hotel, there’s, you know, liposomal vitamins, you open up the closet, you have a range of very interesting mobility equipment that is de facto for every room, you don’t have to request it. There’s a yoga mat. There’s kind of mobility tools.

You know, when I saw the room, it’s blackout curtains, an HVAC system that is designed to be like not rattling, but very smooth and buttery and non disruptive. There’s no lights in the room. The cohesiveness of the vision, what my impression was, is it’s attention to detail.

And, you know, I think that great hoteliers pride themselves on this. And I want you to talk about some of the obsessiveness that you’ve kind of brought to this exercise, making it transcend a real estate play. You know, I was really impressed with the nuance of the lighting of the room. How you obsessed over having the Lutron system.

Because all of these small details really add up, and especially at a more luxury price point, you know, people notice the tiniest things. So what are the things that you really obsessed over in creating this experience? 

Norton: You mentioned a number of them already and I’ve always been obsessive when it comes to detail because I think the detail makes the difference.

I also do believe that successful brands have CEOs that have the ability to go macro to micro in a nanosecond and back. And, you know, we really looked at the traveler and the consumer and what they need and how they travel and what they miss when they go into many hotels these days.

And so a huge part of our definition of luxury was what I call content defined luxury.

So it is not only about the color of the cushions or the design, but it’s what’s inside the mattress, what’s inside the pillows, what’s as you mentioned, what’s inside the private bar.

We reinvented room service. There’s no room service tables in this hotel. The way we deliver and unfold, the experience is very unique.

And somebody recently asked me if we had one of those incredible buttons in all of our hotels. It’s part of the technology package where you could press the button and all the lights went off and I said, we’re actually doing better than that. We have a button on our iPad that is called Dark, Quiet, Cool. And not only do the lights go off, but whilst the lights go off, the shades close and the air conditioning sets the room to scientifically the most perfect environment in which you can get the best possible sleep.

And so it’s not only lights going out, it’s a lot of other elements that you might not see if you walk in the room. But when you wake up in the morning, you tell the difference. And interesting enough, the most written comment that we get from guest feedback on our Instagram and other other ways of feeding back to the hotel, people say, I don’t want to leave. We kind of through our research found that out. 

And I think what people are surprised with is how they feel when they’re at the hotel in addition to what they see. And that all of these all of these moments and all of these details play into that overall sense of hassle free environment as far as your health and your wellbeing and your and your eating and sleeping go.

And I think we spend much more time than most of brands today. I spend a lot of time and as you know I’ve done a lot of hotels and resorts in my life. And you know, when you when you run 110 and you build 35, you don’t have the same amount of time that you put into building one, getting that right.

We spent two years locked up in the offices without having to operate, just really making sure we get the brand and all these details tight and that we could execute consistently at a very high level. 

Nagy: And it seems like it’s really working. You know, the hotel is doing very well. What I’ve heard and what you’ve told me in our other conversations is, you know, you’re starting to see a migration.

You’re starting to see guests that were previously a Palace guest in Paris during your times there kind of trade into this world. So it seems like there’s consumer resonance. What’s more of the feedback that you’re hearing from these sort of converts, from the traditional five star sort of palace luxury? What are you hearing? 

Norton: So first, they don’t really know what it is until they come here.

Usually what I hear is they’re blown away by the quality of the room and the details, the way it is designed and the way it functions. And they’re blown away by the integrated experience between all these elements that pull together our brand pillars, which is movement, nutrition, region and community. And when they see it and experience it, they’re blown away by it. It’s very unexpected. 

In addition to that, we’re in a spot in Manhattan that’s kind of spectacular. And, you know, it was a new spot. People didn’t really know what it meant staying in Hudson Yards, Chelsea. But the fact that we’re on the river on the High Line, we have a private driveway, we’re sitting on the plaza in the park. You know, it creates almost an urban oasis.

There’s a spectacular indoor pool. There’s a great outdoor pool with views over the Hudson. So it really offers an enormous amount of experience that is all tied together in this very unique experience. 

Nagy: And what I think is interesting about the location is there is a tremendous amount of dynamism there.

I mean, obviously, a lot of New Yorkers have some hip hop beef with Hudson Yards. But when I was walking around, I heard Emirati accents, I heard French accents, I heard the kind of world congregating there. 

So it’s interesting to have the dynamism and the global travel that’s kind of in that pocket, particularly in terms of the guests that are either dining with you or staying with you.

I noticed very stylish Chinese, very stylish Korean guests. So it is a nice mélange of the world that’s kind of being attracted there.

Norton: I think in the beginning it was some of your naysayers that you know, wanted to be critical. But actually the retail area, which is very unique for Manhattan, was criticized at the beginning, you know, that we don’t do that in New York.

I see a lot of New Yorkers that come in on the weekends. When it’s very hot outside, it’s great. When it’s very cold outside, it’s great. It feels very curated as an environment and it feels very safe. So I think a lot of locals also enjoy it. 

But that’s the added plus to the pure product. I think the other thing that makes it special, I always said that great city hotels are kind of resorts in cities and, you know, I think to create a hotel that can be a business hotel, but can also tip its hat to the hours you spend there relaxing is an important combination in today’s luxury world.

Nagy: It also makes it more interesting, right? I’ve always joked that a good hotel bar or kind of common space is a good little kind of aquarium, right? Where you want lots of different types of fish, and the person that just lives down the road or the person that’s just landed from Dubai. You know, having a nice mix of that kind of makes a place have a little bit of a pulse. Right? As opposed to just a transaction. 

Norton: What makes it different. One of the things that people don’t realize immediately is that a hotel is designed to cater to guests that come in from out of town. Usually when you travel, the first thing you do is you go and see the front desk or the concierge and you ask for the good local restaurants because you do want to hang out with the locals go.

The club is designed for locals. Either you live or you work next to your fitness club. So you have the dynamics of a business that caters to locals as well as people from out of town.

So now when you descend into the club and by the way, in comparison to a typical luxury hotel where about 10% of the guests use the fitness area, in our case, it’s up to 40% of the guests using the fitness area.

When you just sit in that club and here it’s 60,000 square feet, you’re part of the local community that’s vibrant and that’s like minded. And so there’s a buzz and we have about 1500 people out of the five plus thousand members in and out of the building. So we create footfall for the neighborhood and on average, they stay two and a half hours in the club.

When they’re finished, a lot of them change and they go up and they go to the bar, the restaurant and they animate the building in a way that makes it very special. 

Nagy: It’s a good point. The fitness club integrated into the hotel also adds more to the aquarium, right? In terms of the sort of right type of people or the right fitness minded people.

I wanted to ask you, strategically, the hotel is operating at a very, you know, luxury level. It’s a premium level. What is the role of the hotel in the sort of lifestyle strategy of Equinox? How are the two kind of relating to one another? 

Norton: So I think probably the most obvious answer is that luxury over the last decade or more, two decades, has become much more informal.

And if you go and stay at the more traditional luxury brands or properties, you know, you might scratch your head and wonder, do you need to wear your blazer tonight? Or if you need to wear a tie for dinner or you know, you can, but you really don’t want to because it’s too hot or uncomfortable. And I think the new generation is much more casual in the way they dress.

And our brand gives people permission to show up in hoodies and sneakers and be super happy and sit in the restaurant and have dinner and, you know, and some of our most high profile VIPs have come and stayed with us. You know, they walk in and they’re wearing hoodies and sneakers and are relaxed and laid back.

And there is not a sense that they have to conform in any way to a more old fashioned way of consuming luxury.

Nagy: Sure. I wanted to ask about your kind of travel regimen. You know, I think now and during your tenure at Four Seasons, you were putting a lot of miles on the board, kind of an absurd amount of time on the road.

And now informed by your work with Equinox and informed by your Swiss upbringing, what is the the key to, you know, what are you thinking about as you’re traveling? What services are you availing yourself with from the hotel? Like what does the picture of wellness look like for you?

Norton: So first is the way I pack. I pack, like the Swiss Army, it’s very precise and very small and I carry on. So the thing is convenience getting in and out of, you know, airports and other places. 

But when I get to the hotel, I basically want to have a hassle free environment. I want to worry about my business and the meetings and what I have to do, I don’t want to worry about anything that happens at the hotel.

So I always said luxury starts with 300 pages of guest history. So they want to know who I am, what I like, what I don’t like. If I’m the type of a person who doesn’t like to be greeted and spoken to and escorted. I just use the key and go, that’s what I want. If I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t want a blind amenity.

You know, if I am on a diet, I don’t want to them to send me sweets. And so, you know, to really tune into the guests’ needs, because not only you and I might be different, but I might also be different a month from now. And a good hotel gets all of that. It spends a lot of time on preparing for it and executing on it. So that’s what that’s what I look for. 

The other thing is I also look for not to travel when I don’t have to unnecessarily. And I think, you know, certainly technology has been part of that. So maybe the leisure component in the hotel, as I do travel, has become more important than just making it a place to meet and sleep.

So I think a hotel like ours again, offers is this environment that has a lifestyle leisure component to it. Even though we’re in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. 

Nagy: And then in terms of your regimen, what you’re paying attention to from a mobility standpoint, supplement standpoint, what is the way you kind of think about arming yourself as you move throughout the world?

Norton: So you want to stick to moving. Working out is one aspect. I mean, all this moving out, stretching, being active is one. I think diet is very underestimated how important it is, what you put in your body. So I’ve always been a very careful eater, even though I love to drink wine and I love sweets, but I try to be consistent in that.

I think what has changed, and maybe the pandemic even has accelerated, I have become a much more conscious sleeper. I used to wear a badge of honor for making it on four and a half to five hours of sleep a day, and you know I was proud of it. And today I’m actually proud that I can get in my, you know, seven hours of sleep.

Nagy: And this is a big sea change, I think, for a lot of people, especially at the top tier, is, you know, it used to be being able to suck it up, but you realize that you’re cognitively diminished. You realize that, you know, the consequences of that are big. So, you know, as more and more consumers wake up to this, you know, whether it’s through an Oura Ring or Whoop Band or just paying attention, you know, the performance level.

So it it’s interesting that sea change that you’ve experienced is also kind of the consumer insight that’s informing a lot of the hotel.

What I want to talk about now is how does this scale? How are you thinking about taking this on the road into other markets? You know, Equinox has a tremendous amount of brand equity in the United States.

Where are the sort of targets of opportunity as you want to build this brand in the world? Like, what are you thinking about? 

Norton: So interesting enough, Equinox has 30 years in the business. It’s kind of in a class by itself. There’s really nobody at this quality, at this scale that competes with Equinox. 

But interesting enough, because the key locations throughout North America, Canada, and the UK, are concentrated in cities like Boston, New York, L.A., San Francisco, that a lot of international guests that we have that now live in Europe or in Asia or in the Middle East, a lot of them studied in the States.

They came and went to Boston, they went to New York, they went to universities in L.A. And a lot of them were members of Equinox over the last decade. When I go back and I sit in meetings literally all around the world, I just had a meeting in Madrid with a man, mid-Forties who studied in Boston and New York, and he was a member.

And he said Oh my God, I remember my times. And so the brand does have global recognition. So the strategy was to grow urban U.S. number one, number two go into the resorts that the East and West Coast would feed. So we have a project in Mexico, and we have a project in the Caribbean. I was actually just down there last week, which could be spectacular.

The next step was to be in the big cities in Europe, like London, Madrid, Milan or Paris. 

And then there’s a separate strategy on Asia and the Middle East. And there’s discussions in those areas, including discussions just a few weeks ago for South Korea, where I think, you know, a hotel and a few clubs could do incredibly well based just on the culture and the way they eat and the way they live.

But the idea was to go global very quickly. And the idea also was to work hard that our next opening would be a resort, because I don’t want the brand to be seen as either an urban brand or a resort brand. And we have some of our friends that sit with these brands that almost get locked or pegged into this perception that their brand is more of a resort brand or more of an urban brand.

So you know, we did this ultra urban opening because New York is kind of as urban as it gets in the world. The next is most probably going to be a resort. And so we will immediately spread out globally and we’ll go into both these areas very quickly. 

Nagy: It’s interesting, I love your point about the latent equity, because with highly global mobile people, you have people that lived in New York when they were working for Goldman for four years and then move back to Paris or wherever. So there is a brand experience based off of the sort of diaspora that creates. 

And then I love your point about doing both resorts and cities, because it is hard sometimes to retrofit or to do the reverse strategy, like Aman has been known for hyper hyper remote locations around the world. And then, you know, is opening in cities, same with Six Senses. So it is interesting that you’re going to figure out the value proposition for both and kind of execute on it, which is fantastic. 

Now with the Middle East, what do you see the opportunity as being? More urban based or more resource based? I mean, obviously there’s a tremendous amount of activity both in Jeddah, Riyadh, but also in some of the, you know, areas of development there.

Any conversations? I mean, totally fine, if you can’t talk about them. But I’m just kind of curious about the Middle East strategy. 

Norton: Yes. I mean, certainly everybody is looking at that part of the world. I can’t announce it at this point. But I’ll let you know. You’ll be one of the first ones that I’ll call. 

Nagy: Okay, cool. Yeah.

Norton: Yes, but it’s both resort and urban, you know, as that part of the world emerges, I think there’s some spectacular opportunities. So yes, yes. And both. 

Nagy: Cool. Well, we’re running out of time. Chris, you’ve been unbelievably thoughtful, both with the industry perspective and also specifically to what you’re building with Equinox. So we can’t thank you enough and I really appreciate you coming on.

Norton: Your you’re very kind and I appreciate your deep actually, when we met in New York, I was I was very impressed by your deep understanding of what luxury really is. So thanks for having me on. And I hope we’ll speak very soon again. 

Nagy: It’s our pleasure, thank you.

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Tags: hospitality, luxury, skift ideas podcast, skift podcast, wellbeing, wellness travel

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