Published Articles

Creativity & Passion, Keys to Wowing and Returning Guests

Training at five-star resorts around the world offers a window seat into the more-refined sector of creativity and the achievements of those who are constantly striving to enthrall guests—guests with ever-rising expectations driven largely by access to an ever-expanding field promising and delivering equally exceptional experiences—and so move beyond merely satisfied guests into the heady domain of delighted guests who return again and again, friends in tow. The following anecdotal observations of effective initiatives being undertaken at the sumptuous end of hospitality are just that: neither official and sanctioned statements nor measured analyses with scientific conclusions; they do, however, have the advantage of a cross-chain perspective filtered through the prism of a butler’s luxury service mindset—with the same basic stresses and initiatives being relevant, equally, to three- and four-star environments.

Life Loves Life

Few GMs will argue whether friendly and professional service holds as much, if not more, sway in guest satisfaction as a splendid location and a wide array of quality facilities. As much as robot manufacturers strive for the ultimate robot that will make butlers and other service professionals obsolete, the warm and fuzzy truth is that people are people and like to be treated not just with mechanical efficiency, but also intelligence and empathy—by other life forms, in other words. Herein lies a key challenge for hotels and resorts: making live and friendly guest interaction the norm, as opposed to throwaway communications that betray a lack of real interest and engagement. Smarter GMs have recognized this hidden guest turn-off and engaged in training to remedy it.

Pursuing the same goal of increased “life quotient” amongst employees, some GMs have turned to the butling profession—not necessarily because they are more alive, but because, as life units, their mere presence provides life: Until the advent of butlers in hotels a couple of decades ago, the opportunities for face time/guest interaction and developing a special rapport/relationship were limited to brief guest experiences spread out over specific outlets and activities.

Exceptional individuals do transcend this brief opportunity to shine and create a loyal following (the author still remembers fondly being serviced a decade ago by a fine-dining waiter named Terry at the Lautrec restaurant in Pennsylvania, for his passion, even rapture, and the live rather-than-canned communication this generated).

Butlers servicing guests properly in suites open up a tremendous amount of extra services and thus face time and life. The convenience of having someone manage all the logistics of staying in a hotel or resort and most importantly, seeing to any problems; someone who knows and follows guest likes and dislikes—these all add a tremendous amount of value to the guest experience, as well as the opportunity to form a bond that is a strong pull for repeat visits, whether on the initiative of the guest or the suggestion of a butler who is valued and respected.

A side benefit of the butler acting as the single contact point for the guest, is avoiding multiple interactions that do not hold much value for the guest. Case in point: the fourteen different employees who knocked on the suite door seventeen times total in a 24-hour period, all of which had to be fielded by the guest. The benefit of interacting with other life forms is lost when those communications are either conducted at the wrong emotional level, or they do not forward the guest’s goals/interests.

The key to taking advantage of this (relatively) new resource for creating guest interaction, service, and thus loyalty, is having butlers who are alive, who know how to interact with and bring people to life, let alone guests, and how to provide a full range of hotel/resort butler services. Where hotels elect to take the shortcut of a butler in name but not deed, the results will be more burdensome budgets without the anticipated increase in guest loyalty.

The same poor result follows having too many guests for the butler to service, thereby losing that personal touch and relationship. One butler per suite/villa is optimum, but 1-to-4 would work. If the guests spend most of the time away from the suite, then a ratio of 1-to-8 would also work.

It is estimated that four hundred hotels around the world have understood the value of butlers, while the number that understand the need for alive and skilled butler service is smaller, but growing incrementally.

Data, Data Everywhere

Data is like air: we do not seem to be able to do without it for too long—even when on vacation far from the maddening crowds. Luckily, in most cases, the data is liberating and not something we need to avoid. This is certainly the case in hospitality, and some very good solutions have been implemented to keep guests informed.

For three- and four-star hotels and resorts, a large touch screen, such as Monscierge’s, in a hotel lobby providing all possible information from flight details to restaurant and theater information and booking capability is a boon for guests; Monscierge even provides the opportunity for instant guest feedback on TripAdvisor while the guests still have their experience fresh in mind and the time to input feedback—helping GMs put in perspective on the Web those who are determined to write up their complaints when they return home, and are persistent enough to do so!

Appearing now in five-star hotels and resorts, at least, is the iPAD in the suite/villa to do everything from room management (HVAC, curtains, & lights) to the items usually included in the hotel compendium, including menu photographs, wine list, booking, locale facilities, etc. There is no limit to how this little chap may be used—Anantara Kihava Villas (AKV) in the Maldives and others show videos on iPADs as part of their luxury bath package. Louis Vuitton’s newly launched Maison Cheval Blanc Randheli (MCBR), also in the Maldives, has provided a tremendous amount of functionality and information for their guests through the iPAD, and the majordome (French for “butler”) makes sure they know how to use it when needed.

Another opportunity for information relay is when a guest arrives at a hotel or resort for the first time—and needs to know their way around their villa/suite, as well as the resort—particularly where more than the usual basic facilities and amenities are offered.

Sometimes bellmen provide this “rooming” service, but butlers have guest orientation as one of their key duties. Where well trained, butlers stick to pointing out the less-obvious features and refrain from explaining, “… and this is the toilet (pointing to the bowl)” (actual occurrence). More so, they will be sensitive to guest attention span and tiredness/disinterest (something robot manufacturers will have trouble inculcating into their creations) and not push the guests beyond their interest level.

As touched on above, it may seem that the concierge could be made redundant by the iPAD and iRobot (no doubt to come), as guests become increasingly independent. In response, consider how much time one spends booking flights and trips today (beyond a simple, domestic round trip), with how much more pleasant an experience it was leaning on a travel agent to apply their expertise and present the best solution(s).

Naturally, a butler lacking the required skills will have no clear advantage over a metal/plastic robot namesake, hence the importance of proper training and standards to capitalize on the life that is already in them, and which their namesakes will never, ever have.

Features that Bring a Smile

There are so many different deliverables offered by hotels and resorts, all of them desirable and well executed, but it is the quirky offerings that stand out for their attention to detail and anticipation of needs. Take the baths at Peter Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands—twice as wide as normal, with the two contoured backs facing opposite directions so romantic couples can sit together without one of them leaning into the taps, or the couple having to squeeze in, one behind the other.

Contrast this with one hotel where the spout was hidden in the ceiling and resulted in a wet guest (in the case of the author when he leant over to turn on the water before undressing!). Such is definitely innovative, but what benefit is there to a spout in the ceiling and taps in the usual place—with no accommodation made for more than one bather? And when the Jacuzzi feature would not turn on unless the bath were made to overflow (counter-intuitive), then it should serve to illustrate that innovation has to be anchored by benefits to the needs and perspective of the guest in order to bring about a wowed guest.

Falling Rock in Pennsylvania was built following the architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, so the hotel capitalizes on this theme by taking guests on a tour of nearby Frank Lloyd Wright buildings—in a Bentley (a one-of-two special edition)—followed by a butler-presented English Afternoon tea.

While many resorts offer world-class golf courses, some, such as Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Pennsylvania, and MCBR, and no doubt others, offer computerized swing analysis and correction—taking the golf concept one step further in a direction that all golfers want to go—meaning they will likely be back for more, with their friends.

Needless to say, many hotels offer in situ or nearby, many luxury brand shops and facilities—The Regent Taipei, for instance, but Marina Bay Sands (MBS) in Singapore probably takes the cake in terms of the sheer number of luxury brands represented, quite in addition to the theaters, convention center, museum, and of course, casino, etc.—all designed to keep 2,600 rooms filled year round with guests who value such offerings.

Facilities for children are vital to keeping families happy: one trend that seems to be taking root is giving children the opportunity to explore the real world that lies beyond the virtual universe of electronic games, widgets, and canned entertainment that generally define their lives today. One might say an innate need to socialize and move beyond the space one foot in front of their eyeballs and eardrums is being embraced eagerly. Whether it is developing creativity and imagination in the form of arts and crafts, or exploration of the stars above, fauna and flora around about, or treasure hunts, or the thrill of playing action-packed or cerebral games, it is clear that what enthralls and engages is participation, rather than being receipt point of the creations of others.

Top of the list in any deliverable is the accommodation itself, obviously: Original artwork and furnishings from Louis XIV give certain guests a good reason to regard a hotel or resort as their home away from home, as does the scope of the offering and view: 29,000 sq. ft of luxury in a private beachside villa (Anantara Kihava Villas), 27,500 sq. ft. of mountain-top villa (Peter Island Resort), or penthouses overlooking a cityscape (4,500 sq. ft. at The Plaza, NY, 10,000 sq. ft. at The Setai, Miami). These are not options or even desirable for all hotels, given their markets, but they speak of the continued need to attract with creativity in ambiance and décor that appeals to a specific market.

Butlers have a maxim that holds good service to be the starting point, always pushing beyond it if one want to service employers and guests properly. In the same way, décor and ambiance can be the usual, tired offerings, or they can reflect great attention (life and interest) paid to lots of little elements that would appeal to the clientele and bring them, in turn, to life.

In AKV, for instance, while transitioning currently to iPADs, they provide colorful cards highlighting each resource/facility/service available on the island, and provide everything from humidors crowded with Cubans to a variety of mosquito repellents, including natural ones, sarongs for the ladies and straw hats for the gentlemen, snorkeling gear, incense sticks, chess table and pieces for those who like, and a library of informational books and novels to read on the swing/rocking chair/pool/bath—everything a guest would reach/ask for in that environment—and all in addition to the usual trappings.

Beauty in the Eyes, Ears, and Nose of the Beholder

Which brings us to the subject of aesthetics.

There are baths and there are baths, and then there are baths as can be found in AKV, where the bathroom—the size of a very respectable suite, enclosed by tall white walls but open to the air. The large bathtub looks like a four-poster bed with walkways connecting it to the rest of the bathroom because it sits in the middle of a pond. When decked out by the butlers with fine wines and delectables, flowers, music, bath salts, scented candles that mix with the fresh forest smells coming from beyond the walls after a rain—and when the guests are alone to enjoy themselves, the balmy temperatures contrasted with the piping hot bath, the taste of the wine, delicacies, and Cuban cigar; the chorus of birds at sunset and the crash of waves on the beach filtering through the music—we have a slice of slow life that is hard to beat—but the principles can be repeated.

The attention to detail and creativity in the interior design elements all add up to an ambiance that moves beyond the norm to something special. MCBR, for instance, draws on world-class designers, often from its own portfolio of luxury houses such as Guerlain and Dior, to create a unique environment that is at once local Maldivian and haute couture French. Not one thing is out of theme in terms of packaging, whether it be the custom-made scents, colors, artwork, and little details like a wooden model of a dhoni (indigenous sailboat) containing sand into which are impressed one-word messages each day for the guest, or the little “love box” of tasteful goodies placed discretely in the bedside table drawer for romantically inclined couples.

One does not need seventy or so luxury houses in one’s portfolio in order to be creative—just a culture of creativity.

Keeping Guests out of the Backlines

What do guests do, or have to do, while at a hotel or resort?

To the degree that any required guest action is mundane, catering to the back-lines administrative needs of the resort or hotel, it is a negative in terms of enticing the guest to return. The whole benefit of butler service is that apart from a necessary signature on a credit card at the beginning and end of a stay, the guest has zero requirements other than focusing on enjoying all the activities and resources. MCBR really understands this point, as they offer their guests (who, one-for-one, have no attention on the mechanics or finances concomitant with enjoying themselves), the option of only reviewing and signing their bill at the end of their stay, rather than after each event during their stay. While this approach may not work with cost-conscious guests, it does represent the ultimate in discretion, leaving guests free to focus on the benefit and joys of their stay.

Other butler-service hotels generally do away with any check-in, for instance, simply whisking guests from the jetty/porte cochère to their villa/suite and fêting them there, during which they also simply present the credit card slip for signing and, if not already done during any private plane, speedboat, or limousine ride to the resort, ask guests for any missing registration details and enter them.

Contrast this procedure with a thirty-minute wait at a front desk in a sometimes noisy and dispersed environment, and a five-to-ten-minute registration process.

Environment as Playground

Location is not everything: a good proportion, when it comes to success, is comprised of what one does with it. In the Maldives, One & Only Reethi Rah acquired an island that was too small to be viable, so they simply added crescent-shaped beaches (by pumping sand from the surrounding sea bed) and locally sourced palm trees, beginning a trend that adapts the environment (in a sustainable way) to man, rather than the other way around. Many other resorts turned disadvantage in their favor by building water villas on stilts. Soneva Gili (now Gili Lankenfushi) even created private “swimming pools” under each villa so guests could swim with the fish.

The Soneva chain even makes “environment” the theme, thereby appealing to the environmentally conscious market that has limited choices available in the luxury or other markets. Initiatives include organic gardens, packing out one’s recyclables, bottling the resorts’ own purified water and reusing the glass bottles (common to much of the Maldives and increasing numbers of restaurants around the world), no newspapers (for the bad news/stress they trumpet as much as the waste stream generated), solar power, natural mosquito repellants, the use of sustainably grown building materials, and a culture embodied in their acronym, SLOW LIFE (Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences).

Looking down, underwater restaurants (Red Sea Star, Eilat, Israel [1995], Guinness Deep Sea Bar, a submarine in the Baltic Sea near Stockholm [2009] and even hotels (Jules’ Underwater Lodge in Key Largo, Florida [1986] and Utter Inn on Lake Mälaren, Sweden, a one-bedroom inn) are no longer novel in concept, but Conrad’s Rangali Island Ithaa restaurant in the Maldives [2005] and AKV’s Sea Restaurant and extensive wine cellar merge the experience with five-star service. Burj al Arab’s Al Mahara (1991) is in a tank rather than the ocean, but offers an equally impressive five-star dining experience.

Promising to move to the next level is Poseidon Undersea Resorts, a luxury undersea complex in a 5,000-acre coral lagoon in Fiji, offering a restaurant, lounge, and twenty-two 550-square-foot suites priced at $30,000 per couple per week. The fact that it was meant to have opened six years ago leaves one guessing and may indicate that something quite this ambitious in scope may be overly challenging—let’s hope not.

Then there are those resorts that move underground in search of that extra-special experience: take Gili Lankenfushi, where the chocolate bar and wine-tasting room are in a cellar dug into the small island, to keep the bottles at temperature and the chocolate from melting in an otherwise equatorial environment.

And there are resorts that reach upwards, such as Soneva Kiri in Thailand, which offers a treetop-level pod for four to which diners are winched and where dinner is delivered on a zip line.

Needless to say, many hotels and resorts find simple ways of thinking outside the box and leveraging the local environment to jazz up guest dining experiences: picnics on the beach or remote islands, on all manner of waterborne craft, in the countryside, and iconic city destinations such as Hyde Park, London.

Not every hotel or resort can attract a clientele that keeps the tables filled at $1,500 per diner (wine not included), as MCBR 1947  does, but the real lesson in keeping all tables filled is great attention to detail and pride in quality, quite in addition to being creative and innovative in cuisine, ambiance, and setting.

Several resorts offer huge-screen outdoor movies complete with all the trimmings, whether on small private islands, in forests, over the water, and no doubt, other places, too. While the Soneva chain offers such, following the owner’s own interests, it also offers a large telescope and even an astronomer to guide guests across the copious canopy above the equator where a complete lack of light pollution leaves the firmament wonderfully clear—a universe to explore that is a rare treat for most of us, focused as we are on the dramas offered on terra firma.

All of which is to say, whatever the location, budget, resources, and market, the hotels and resorts that seem to be succeeding in guest happiness and retention are those that encourage a creative approach to, and passion for, making every possible artifact and service-occasion extra special and “life-giving” for their guests.

First published in Hotel Executive, then by Hospitality Net, Hotel Online, Hotel News ResourceJLC Travel and Tourism, and 4Hotelier.

Published Articles

Green Hotels, Butler Service, Oxymoronic, or Two Sides of the Same Coin?

The drive to go green by hotels comes not so much from environmental concerns as from economic considerations. How then, does an expensive butler department fit into this fundamental drive to balance shrinking budgets? Perhaps a more fundamental question could be visited first: is there still a demand for luxury in the hospitality world? This may sound like a question that could only come from a Martian or a socialist or communist zealot, but at the 32nd NYU International Investor Conference held in midtown Manhattan during early June, a gathering of preeminent capitalists, the first workshop was entitled Luxury: Postmortem or Post AIG? The words of one president of one luxury chain spoke of switching from imagery of a butler holding a silver tray with sterling silver on it, to less evocative symbolism. The general consensus was that luxury had taken a beating in the media and thereafter in the public mood, following ill-advised AIG-related pronunciamentos by President Obama about corporate use of travel and hotels which, it turns out, only made it hard on hotels and their rank and file in hospitality whose jobs depend on corporations continuing to travel.

But just as a government cannot legislate alcoholic beverages out of existence, a tendency to strive for quality products and services among those who can afford it cannot be repressed, either. The majority of products in the US may be built now in China to Chinese standards—melamine in the milk powder, heavy metals in children’s jewelry and who knows what in the drywall—but the same desperate effort by too many companies around the world to find the lowest price no matter the quality of the product is a no-win game in the long-run. It is ironic that the great emerging wealth in China, built in part on the sale of fake Gucci bags, speaking metaphorically, is demanding real Gucci bags (speaking real-world fashion now), not the fake stuff, and they may well funnel the much needed demand back into luxury brands. China is certainly the hope for many luxury hotel brands as they build multiple new properties in that great country. IHG alone needs to hire and train 70,000 new staff in China.

But having seen the expectations in the country of butler trainers, in terms of foreshortened training schedules demanded, the focus on the mechanical actions to the exclusion of any understanding of the persona and mindset of the butler, and in some cases, trying to take materials and make their own courses—the great effort to provide cheap imitations—one can only be concerned about the nature of the quality being provided. Still, Rome was not built in a day, and China will need more than a few years to move away from the great grey monolithic culture and find its roots again as a nation that produced the Great Wall of China (I doubt there are substandard materials or workmanship in that), and some of the world’s finest porcelain, for instance.

So, even though hotels are still in retrench mode in most parts of the world (Sands just spent $6 billion on their monumental Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and everywhere one looks in Singapore [and no doubt in many parts of China], construction cranes seem as plentiful as trees, so it is not true that retrenchment is global), luxury is still very much on the radar.

Are butlers still on the map as part of the vision for luxury? Not necessarily, as hotels have performed well without them for centuries. But whether one calls them “butlers” or “personal assistants” or whatever, if they are not performing the full duties of a hotel butler and with the correct mindset and communication skills, then hotels are missing a golden opportunity to pamper guests and give them the personalized service they expect (if they can afford it) or would like (if they cannot afford it) in their suites. Unfortunately, too many hotels have taken short cuts in establishing their butler departments and steered them off the full measure of the services they can provide. As a result, their butler programs have fallen short and may have resulted in more outgo and less income than hoped. That’s a bit like adding boiled coal (melamine) to milk powder because it has a chemical signature so close to protein that it fools inspectors into thinking that the milk powder has superior protein content, and so commanding a higher sale price.

So the current downplaying and –sizing of butler departments comes in part because of misguided political efforts to rein in financial and other companies creating a public mood that eschews the luxury it actually prefers; and in part because of improperly established butler departments that did not give the guests the desired service levels or the hotel the desired returns, making them easy targets for retrenchment-minded CFOs and GMs.

Yet properly established butler departments offer a whole new and vital en-suite arm of service not open to hotels until the last couple of decades. Guests are looking for value, and how better to add value than add services? And what better way to bring about increased rack rates (or justify existing ones) and increase revenue than the personalized servicing of high-end guests?

Bill Fischer of the preeminent Fischer Travel, spoke from the audience as a somewhat lonely voice (in a convention that was focused on rarified financial issues rather than the fundamental issue of service quality), noting that five-star hotels are falling too much into offering two-star service these days. The examples he gave made his point rather pithily, offering not so much a warning but a plea to keep the melamine out of the milk powder if we want to attract and service his demanding clientele. Certainly, at $600 a night, one would expect a private bar, some water to drink, and Internet access included, maybe even a butler, but this was not the case at our hotel.

For as noted by another CEO (with at least one luxury chain under his command) at the NYU conference, wealthy people do want luxury. There are two fundamental shifts with many of them, however: They are not just looking to be pampered, but also to make some connection with the environment/community/culture around them. One CEO spoke of their guests being taken to a local mosque and hearing an Imam preach on the similarities between the major religions, rather than the differences between them or the righteousness of one over the other. And the second shift is the desire to see a green component that is truly from the heart, rather than one presented Hollywoodesque, as a greenwashing PR façade.

Which brings us back to the main theme of this article: is the push for luxury, and therefore butler departments that cost money to establish and run, compatible with the drive for greening, which is designed to save money in a tight economy? Well, it takes money to make money, and it takes money to green. Not as much as one might expect, especially when new builds are designed green…the increased cost appears to be about 5% of construction costs over convention/non-green construction; and with energy savings alone of 20-30% of operational costs, it is easy to see that the savings do not take long to mount and surpass initial costs. The same applies in the green of existing structures.

With butlers, the initial upfront costs of hiring, training, and equipping the team are similarly higher than having no butler department. But assuming the department is doing what butler departments are meant to do (see Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators), it will increase revenue by a) building relationships that result in repeat visits; b) extra service opportunities that result in i) more charged-for services and ii) happier guests more inclined to make recommendations to others; c) discreet upselling and cross selling because of the opportunity for guest interaction; d) the opportunities for higher rack rates or to add value to existing ones and so differentiate the hotel from the competition.

In summary, paraphrasing Homi Vazifdar, Managing Director of Canyon Equity, LLC on that first workshop panel at the NYU convention, “luxury and green are compatible and both very much needed in hospitality today.” One saves money while meeting the expectations of increasing numbers of travelers at all levels, and the other makes it by attracting clientele who want to be pampered. They are two sides of the same coin—a coin that goes “kaching.”


This article was published in and various other publications thereafter