Skift Take

Big brands have a tendency for stasis: I'm particularly interested to see how AI and new technology will soften the ground for a new wave of hospitality entrepreneurs and visionaries to shape a very dynamic industry, particularly in emerging markets like Saudi.

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 last checked in at the half-year, highlighting the few brands, ideas, and services that deserved a hat tip for their executions. There were a lot of exciting ideas: At that point, we’d gone from the precariousness of a global pandemic into a full-throttle, growth sprint for luxury. Interest in high-end experiences continued to surge, along with eye-watering room rates.  

In a sense, hospitality is in the catbird seat: It is in the business of human relationships, care, and empathy. And it exists in the real, physical world.

Other industries may get blown apart by AI. The core hospitality business will remain unchanged: Care, detail, and rarity are among the details that make a luxury experience and they all can continue to exist and be elevated. 

And many brands are embracing change and pushing forward. The industry gets a tad too obsessed with the latest “best-of” lists. I’ve handpicked the brands and experiences I highlight below and believe they execute with integrity and have a strong point of view. Be sure to go deeper with me on the brands and the ideas and leaders behind them with my Skift Ideas Podcast. 

Most Inspired Openings 

Trunk Hotel Tokyo: I’ve long been a fan of the Trunk Hotel in Tokyo, and their recent addition on Yoyogi Park feels like a refuge in the urban jungle. It’s a sleek, minimal yet plush boutique situated in one of the most interesting parts of Tokyo. The rooftop pool, overlooking the foliage with a chic oyster bar is the icing on the cake. 

Hotel Chelsea: For a hotel that has so much history and importance to the neighborhood, it takes a deft hand to not screw it up. Fortunately the refresh of the Chelsea stalwart is inspired: They tapped into the history of the hotel, added some familiar touches from its other rock & roll hotel, the Bowery, and added an essential lobby bar. 

The Georgian: The Georgian is the b-side to the other essential stay in Santa Monica, the Proper Hotel. The team re-booted an art-deco classic dating back to 1933, adding a dose of historical gravitas and much-neeeded elegance to Westside LA. 

South American brand to watch 

I’ve taken to calling Awasi the “Singita of South America.” It operates at a high level of luxury, and have similar approaches to conservation. Guests have high levels of privacy, and the brand has taken the safari concept of game drives that punctuate the day into their properties in Atacama, Iguazu, and Patagonia.

Similar to conservation efforts in Africa, the team has been rehabilitating land and restoring the habitat of native species. Pumas are currently returning to an area that was previously devoid of wildlife and Awasi guides help monitor the growing populations and keep hunters away. 

A Bold New Airport 

We saw a sneak preview of it in the Mission Impossible movie, but after a long wait, Abu Dhabi’s new Midfield Terminal A has opened. The Middle East has no shortage of excellent hubs like Doha’s Hamad, but this has raised the bar for the region. The terminal feels grand, ambitious with inspired architecture and makes good use of one of the regions best resources: light. 

Brand Reboot

Regent had a storied history in the past: Even Aman founder Adrian Zecha was involved in the early days, and it formerly operated the famed Beverly Wilshire. It has been interesting to see the brand re-boot under IHG with a new Hong Kong property (formerly the Intercontinental in Kowloon), as well as a sprawling luxury resort in Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island where the villa product rivals anything I’ve seen this year.

I was curious to dig in and see how much was manufactured press and influencer hype, and how much was real: So far, the results are actually promising and worth keeping an eye on for the IHG portfolio. 

Onboard F&B Innovation 

It’s nice to see Cathay back in the skies after pre-Covid tumult and the pandemic shutting down Hong Kong. I found their comeback campaign, “It Feels Good to Move,” to be strong and I also liked the launch of new, plant based meals onboard in partnership with acclaimed Hong Kong vegetarian restaurant Veda

A Trend that Needs to Happen

We are seeing the Saudi Public Investment Fund get a lot of attention with mega deals. What I want to see is room for a certain segment of the private sector: Early-stage entrepreneurs and innovators building something from the ground up.

While I’m sure the market wants luxury chains, being well rounded also necessitates a homegrown Morgans Hotel Group or early Bunkhouse to come from a young Saudi visionary with an eye and an idea. It’s good to find and cultivate that home ground talent and give it a world’s stage. 

Inspired F&B

I loved Banyan Tree’s health focused restaurant, Veya, at its first Phuket property. The ingredients are all grown on property and I found riffs on healthy cuisine to be incredibly inspired: A mushroom dish cooked and wrapped in banana leaf had delicious umami, an eggplant soup with ricotta was well executed, and the team generally elevated plant-based cooking due to the hyperlocal ingredients. 

Banyan Tree’s Veya

Best Overall Hospitality Experience 

My best hospitality experience was undoubtedly Sensei Porcupine Creek. Formerly Larry Ellison’s private ranch, no expense was spared in terms of the art, landscaping, or recruiting a handpicked team. I define the experience as irrational generosity, increasingly rare in modern hospitality.

Everything was world class – from F&B from a Nobu master chef to the tennis offerings. Of particular note was the health and wellness: With everything from three-day sessions to month sabbaticals custom tailored from pre-arrival evaluations. The staff includes a physical therapist who rehabilitates the U.S. ski team, and a psychologist specializing in unwinding deep-rooted habits and re-wiring oneself. It is one of the best, most inspired instances of wellness and hospitality in the world right now. 

Yoga Pavilion at Sensei

Best New Business Class Product 

After too long splitting hairs about the differences among Qatar, Emirates, Singapore, and the other usual suspects, I was pleasantly surprised by my Starlux experience from LAX to Taipei. The business class was beautifully designed, and there was a strong attention to detail, from a custom fragrance with P.Seven to succulents in the bathroom.

Many of the staff came from big-name carriers like Qatar, but moved home during the pandemic. It is undoubtedly one to try, and a worth competitor to the impressive Eva Air business product. 

Most Anticipated First Class Product

Japan Airlines’ old 777 First Class product has been a longtime favorite. It might not be the flashiest, but it’s the inspired service from elegant flight attendants, the exceptional Japanese F&B, and subtle approach. The product is getting a reboot on the brand’s A350-1000 with a large, private cabin (1.3 times larger than the previous) that will take it to parity in terms of space with the likes of Emirates and ANA’s The Suite.

Marketing Inspiration of the Year 

Peninsula’s elegant takeover of the iconic Star Ferry in Hong Kong was my most inspired execution this year. I loved the merging of two icons, and how Peninsula served up its famous tea service with a stunning view of Hong Kong harbor. A simple idea, executed well.

Best Night’s Sleep

I approached Equinox Hotel’s marketing with a health dose of skepticism and walked away pleasantly surprised. The reason? Chris Norton, who currently runs the brand comes, from Four Seasons where he was known as a detail obsessed leader down to the smallest elements of a room.

The sleep experience at the New York property was second to none: Blackout curtains, a button that takes the temperature down to the scientifically level proven best for sleep and a wonderful bed with dual Swiss style duvets. I was also impressed by the wellness integrations in the spa: everything from drip IVs for long haul travelers to other future facing remedies.

Equinox is rightly recognizing that high performing creatives and executives are endurance athletes and has built an impressive product around this insight. 

Equinox Hotel

Best Airport

Again, I am normally splitting hairs between Changi, Doha’s Hamad, Zurich, and other places like Dubai. Instead, this year, I am putting my chips in Muscat airport in Oman. I am happy that Bloomberg agrees.

It is new, bright, and works incredibly well. Plus, the airside hotel works well for longer connections and the Oman Air lounges are plush and nicely executed. If you haven’t been to Oman, a new slate of luxury openings from the likes of Mandarin Oriental will give you a strong reason.

Best Small Detail

I loved how Alaska worked with Stumptown Coffee to develop a brew that tastes good in the air. It is the type of small, thoughtful overinvestment that the brand does well. I went deeper into the overall brand recently, here.

Best Digital Experience 

I flew a wide range of domestic carriers this year, trying to escape the yoke of loyalty. A pleasant surprise was just how good the United mobile app is. The user experience is great, there are subtle touches like when to leave for your date based on the distance, as well as intuitive bag tracking and rebooking options, personalized to your itinerary. In a world of mediocrity and bad design, this really stands out. 

Best Word of Mouth

I try to see as much as I can, but these hotels are on everyone’s lips as being interesting and differentiated. Word of mouth from highly dialed in friends is how I find the best things and I’m excited to dig in: Borgo Santandrea on the Amalfi Coast, The Drei Barge in the Swiss Alps, Chateau Voltaire in Paris, The Four Seasons Naviva tented camps in Punta Mita, Rechio in Italy, as well as One and Only’s Mandarina, particularly their inspired wellness offerings. 

I also hear that the Eden Rock St Barths, run by GM Fabrice Moizan, is one of the slickest operations in the world right now.

Best Hoteliers 

The industry runs on talent and inspired people. I always love to conclude these best-of’s with the people behind the experiences: Fagun Singh from Four Seasons Mumbai is one of the most thoughtful, detailed concierges in the world.

I loved talking to the legendary Peninsula Hotels COO Peter Borer, who is a master at brand management and has stewarded some of the year’s best openings.

I loved spending time with Mehdi Zaanoun, who recently opened the new Four Seasons Doha, with an emphasis on residential style offerings.

Maria Carneiro on the Guest Experience team at Park Hyatt Saigon was warm, thoughtful, and proactive.

And finally, I found Banyan Tree Group’s Renyung Ho one of the sharpest, and most creative, executives in the business. 

Overall, there’s a lot of be excited about. And amidst the floods of big brand capital and the top-down investment, I’m excited to see more of the founders, entrepreneurs and next wave of visionaries evolve and iterate on the timeless craft of taking care of others. See you in six months.

mark_email_unread

Middle East Travel Roundup

Get the latest news from the Middle East in one easy-to-digest newsletter.

Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch

Tags: abu dhabi, business class, equinox hotels, first class, On Experience, tourism, Travel Trends

Photo credit: Trunk Yoyogi Trunk Hotel

Up Next

Loading next stories