One of the best definitions of high-end hospitality I saw this year suggested: “Luxury is when the standard operating procedure isn’t showing.” This hit the nail on the head for the products and experiences that transcend good into great. The guest feels a sense of detail, thoughtful anticipation, and comfort but the gears and machinations to deliver it remains hidden.
Luxury is indeed at a crossroads: with the resurgence of travel, some of the tensions and pressures come front and center; to deliver this type of experience (and to justify the cost), staff that feel a higher calling are necessary. This, of course, is difficult in a job market that is still healing from the deep cuts and emotional scars of the pandemic. But I firmly believe that future of enlightened hospitality will be less by financial engineers and debt-laden entities but rather defined by the entrepreneurs, the thinkers, and those that see the task of providing comfort and obsessing over detail as a calling.
Following are some of the interesting places, spaces, and hoteliers that have brought inspiration to my year, and to the wider industry.
At its best, high-end hospitality forges a particular type of leader: one that has a global worldview, strong emotional intelligence as well as operational and design/aesthetic chops. I’m consistently impressed by the general managers across the brand at Four Seasons. The brand trains and grows a particularly special type of leader. By virtue of the fact that they work across the globe, there is a hard-earned worldliness that seems them able to navigate different cultural operating systems. And I find there to be a unique, yet intangible common thread that unites the types of men and women in the role. In a world where luxury has a tremendous amount of inconsistency of late, the Four Seasons leadership corps is reliably great. Standouts for me this year have been GMs (general managers) Sunil Narang (Mumbai), Philippe Roux-Dessarps (Athens) Thomas Carreras (New York), Lubosh Barta (Bangkok) as well as hotel manager Sandra Oliva (Florence).
Ett Hem has always been a favorite of in-the-know travelers who want a more intimate, residential feel. The hotel recently expanded tastefully into two neighboring buildings. When I visited, I loved that there is no back-of-house: everything happens in the open and lends itself to a more intimate experience. Hotelier Jeanette Mix brings a thoughtful design sensibility, in partnership with Ilse Crawford, with attentive yet relaxed service. This is a near-perfect city hotel, and now it will be (hopefully) easier to get a room.
Most Inspired Opening
Hotelier Nicole Boekhoorn and her wife Fleur Huijskens created Sterrekopje, an intimate working farm in the foothills of the Franschhoek mountains outside of Cape Town. Similar to Ett Hem, the duo believes in the thoughtful integration of the guests into the rhythms of the day. Instead of signing up for a formal, stilted cooking class, guests can tag along with the chefs to forage and select from the on-site gardens.
A lack of formality, combined with what Boekhoorn described to me as the regenerative power of nature from the place itself, portends something special. Also of note, many of the most meaningful places and experiences are being driven by women, crafting new offerings and ripping up the established playbooks. One to watch this year.
Best New F&B
BKK Social Club, at the new Four Seasons on the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, hit a lot of inspired notes for me. The cocktails are inspired, the design is lovely, and the team led by Philip Bischoff is warm and quite polished. It’s gone from starting out to contending for the best bar in Thailand very quickly.
Best Hidden Gem
I discovered the Kayu Bar at the Oberoi in Seminyak, Bali. Everything about it was perfect: elegant, veteran staff, immaculately manicured grounds, and good drinks. The hotel, and bar by proxy, is a refuge from this increasingly harried and congested part of the island. It has the type of gravitas and intrigue to serve as a backdrop for a scene of a long-lost Bond film.
Best Hospitality Experience
Owner Valentina De Santis is one of my standout hoteliers this year. She launched Passalaqua, a refit of a beautiful estate dating back to 1787 in Lake Como. The attention to detail, gardens, handpicked worldly staff, and love and care were undoubtedly my best stay this year. I visited on a quick side trip from Milan in the off-season and found a property that stood out from the big leagues of hospitality heavy hitters on the lake. No mistakes.
Best Ambassador for Hospitality
Since moving from running some of the world’s best hotels to the Forbes Travel Guide Hermann Elger has also focused on building the brand’s living, breathing school the Center of Excellence in Juillac-le-Coq, France. It teaches and importantly, exports the best elements of high-touch service and helps other industries apply the creativity, detail, and emotion of great hospitality to what they do day-to-day. There are training agendas focused on leadership, guest experience, and team dynamics, all centered on a service-driven mindset. Elgar told me “too many organizations leave their service culture to chance. Or they set out some lofty ideals, but never really teach the staff the how or why. That’s not a culture — it’s just an aspiration.” As a long proponent of the lessons wider industries can learn from hospitality, this approach is on the mark.
Best Experience and Cabin Staff
I try to fly a range of airlines and tried a lot of things this year but all roads lead back to Emirates for me. The cabin staff is worldly, charming, and kind. And the airline is investing in constantly improving its service: staff told me about their opportunity to rotate into the prestigious ESL Hospitality School based in Lausanne to refine and polish their craft. It is this investment in constant improvement that makes the brand consistently stand out among the other big guns (Singapore, Qatar).
Best City Hotel
The Gleneagles townhouse is the urban cousin to the well-known Gleneagles in Scotland. And it is a pitch-perfect city hotel that opened this year in Edinburgh. It’s a blend of members club and hotel open to the public, which creates pleasant collisions from the great and good of Edinburgh and visitors coming into town.
Best Architectural and Design Innovation
Though the opening got a bit minimized during the limited travel of the pandemic, the Rosewood Sao Paolo is one of the standout designs that launched this year. Comprising 160 guest rooms and 100 residences, Rosewood’s first property in Latin America also has a new tower designed by Pritzker Prize–winner Jean Nouvel envisioned as a vertical forest. Wrapped in 10,000 trees, the building has a biodiversity program that repopulates the indigenous flora and fauna from the rainforest. The hotel is an inspired fusion of bleeding edge and classic, with additional interior designs by Philippe Starck in local wood, marble, and earthy tones. Superb.
Brand to Watch
I’ve long been a fan of Chris Burch and James McBride as they’ve built Nihi, a discerning hotel on Sumba in Indonesia. It is the spiritual heir of what Adrian Zecha first created with Aman, while also being completely fresh and new. And now the brand is slowly and thoughtfully growing with locations coming in Santo Tomas, Costa Rica, as well as Rote Island, Indonesia. Watch this one closely, as these two don’t miss.
Best Brand Reboot
The Standard brand has been given an inspiring, fresh reboot in Asia. They recently launched their Bangkok property to serve the surging interest from the global creative class in the city.
In contrast to the slightly fading properties in the U.S. the Thailand iteration of the brand felt fully realized in HD resolution: the design was inspired and it had a strong sense of identity in an increasingly competitive city.
The Best Definition of Timeless Hospitality
The Lowell in New York remains one of my favorite properties in the world. It is reassuring that in a world obsessed with trends, chasing Gen Z, and following hype cycles, the hotel delivers warm, elegant service in classical surroundings. Whenever I step in the door, there is an intangible magic feeling. And good luck finding a wood-burning fireplace elsewhere in Manhattan.
Best General Manager
Mark de Leeuwerk is one of my favorite hoteliers in the world, and this has been a productive year for him. We first met when he served as the number two at Park Hyatt Tokyo, blending his Dutch background with a Japan-honed eye for detail and subtlety. He then opened the brand’s property in Kyoto, one of its most meticulous and ambitious design projects, and has since moved to the Park Hyatt Bangkok. Since coming out of the pandemic, Mark has led a team that went from a cold start: new Thai staff without a lot of experience in the business, into one of the brand’s best representations of what the Park Hyatt brand can be. I particularly like his subtle, discrete approach to hospitality, personified by a great quote passed down to him that stopped me in my tracks: “we do it for the people that notice.” I noticed the team’s efforts this year, indeed.
I meet with lots of hoteliers around the world to exchange notes, and there were many standouts this year: Stephanie Pournaras of Four Seasons, Anastasia Papaspyridi and Mai Mortaka of Mandarin Oriental were at the top of their game alongside Luis Cobo and Patrick Fernandez of Park Hyatt. All of them personify the grace, empathy and work ethic that elevate the industry.
Luxury faces a lot of question marks in the coming year: economic uncertainty, the talent wars, and the fight to deliver actual value among ballooning ADRs. But as many of these examples attest, thought, entrepreneurialism, and ensuring a through line of humanity are the beacons that can continue to inspire this important industry.
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