Recently, I was invited to present a keynote at the Boutique Luxury Lodging Association’s annual hotel owners conference, which took place in Los Angeles.
My keynote focused on a dilemma that unites not only most luxury hospitality brands but also other guest-focused services like high-end restaurants, premium airlines, luxury hairdressing salons and spas, and basically every luxury retail experience: how to put guests at the center in a reality where operations are often in the way of client experiences.
At first glance, luxury hospitality seems like the epitome of luxury experiences — stunning architecture meets high-end interior design in the most beautiful locations around the world. These brands promise either a visit to paradise or the feeling of coming home.
The dilemma? Staff shortages, lack of training (both on luxury experiences and the expectations of the brand), and internal silos between different client touchpoints (front desk, concierge, spa, restaurants, housekeeping, etc.) often lead to an experience that is just “fine.” And as the former CEO of Viceroy Hotels, Bill Walshe (prideology.com), describes, “Fine is the f-word in luxury.”
“Fine is the f-word in luxury.”
If something is fine, then it’s a catastrophe in luxury value creation. Clients expect the exceptional, and this requires feeling something completely different from any other experience.
Why do most luxury hospitality experiences completely miss the mark? Let’s start by following a typical customer journey: The hotel guest walks to the check-in. In most cases, the front desk staff will ask for an ID and a credit card for incidentals. Then a key card will be issued, and the guest walks to the room. He or she may have dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants, grab a drink at the hotel bar, get a spa treatment in the morning, and then check out.
In this simple example, there are a handful of client touchpoints. If they follow the same “script” as any other hotel, there is no way a guest will have a lasting memory. And the most critical touchpoints for any experience are the beginning and the end, with a few highlights in between.
Additionally, in many cases, the service delivery can have significant deltas between two properties. For example, I recently stayed at the One&Only in Palmilla, Cabo, Mexico, and received exceptional service. Every touchpoint was a highlight and the staff was incredibly caring; it was one of those rare experiences when you are just blown away.
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A few weeks earlier, in Cape Town, South Africa, the experience at the One&Only at VA Waterfront was disappointing. It felt transactional and distant, and fundamentally “just fine.” The same brand provided two diametrically different experiences, from exceptional to more of the same. I’ve had similar gaps in client experiences from many hospitality audits; there are very few brands that get the client experience right across properties and locations.
So, what can luxury brands do to be different? How can they avoid being “just fine” and wow clients with each and every visit?
The brand story must come first. Brands today must be able to describe themselves from a client perspective in less than five seconds, given that the average attention span of Gen Z is about six to eight seconds. This narrative needs to be authentic, relevant, differentiating, and client-centric; it is the fundamental value proposition of your brand through the eyes of your clients, describing how they benefit rationally and emotionally from your offer.
Why is the story so important? It is the connecting tissue for all staff members in every location. Without the clarity of a differentiating brand story, your staff will not know what the emotional response is that you are targeting and will have difficulties creating unique experiences for guests.
Hence, if I had to recommend one thing to luxury brands, it’d be to work on their brand storytelling. It is the single most critical task to create extreme value. Once the story is defined (which, in my experience, takes several months due to the need for significant external benchmarking and competitive and client analyses), any client-facing staff member needs to be trained on their role in bringing the story to life.
What are the emotional triggers for each guest or client? How can we connect these with the emotionality of the brand? Only when these questions are answered do brands create magic.
My advice to brands in service categories is: Don’t let operational necessities prevent you from forgetting the guest or client.
Here are actionable steps that luxury brands should consider:
- Host branding workshops: Encourage brand-wide workshops that define the core of the brand story. This shouldn’t be a mere marketing exercise but should take a deep dive into the essence of the brand. These workshops can also be a platform for gathering feedback from ground-level staff who have firsthand interactions with guests.
- Conduct experience audits: Regularly conduct audits of guest experiences across properties. Feedback should be actively sought from guests, and steps should be taken to remedy any identified shortcomings. Importantly, your KPIs need to match the brand story.
- Empower staff: Allow staff to be creative and personalize guest interactions. While there should be a general guideline or script, flexibility is essential in luxury hospitality. Every guest is unique, and so should be their experience.
- Hold regular training sessions: Luxury hospitality is dynamic, and staff training should not be a one-time event. Regular training sessions, updated with feedback from audits, can ensure that staff always deliver on the brand promise.
- Reward exceptional service: Incentivize staff who consistently provide exemplary service. This not only motivates them but also sets a benchmark for others.
- Focus on emotional engagement: The core of luxury hospitality lies in emotional engagement. From surprise gifts to recognizing significant dates for guests (like anniversaries or birthdays), little touches can go a long way.
- Build a community: Create a community around your brand. Engage with your guests even when they are not staying with you. Exclusive events, newsletters, or even a simple birthday wish can make guests feel valued.
- Immerse staff in the brand story: When onboarding new staff, don’t just train them on the operations but immerse them in the brand’s story. They should feel a connection with the brand’s essence.
Think of it like an opera. There are many players (your staff members) and many parts of the play (the client experiences). Only if all staff members act in sync according to a script and direct their efforts toward the audience will the “opera” be an exceptional and memorable experience. The slightest gap will make it awful. What will you do differently?
Daniel Langer, CEO of Équité, is recognized as one of the “Global Top Five Luxury Key Opinion Leaders to Watch.” He serves as an executive professor of luxury strategy and pricing at Pepperdine University in Malibu and as a professor of luxury at NYU, New York. Daniel and his team collaborate with luxury brands, mid-sized enterprises, and startups to enhance brand positioning, messaging, pricing strategies, and overall profitability. He’s authored best-selling books on luxury management in English and Chinese, and is a respected global keynote speaker. Daniel frequently conducts masterclasses on various topics across Europe, the USA, Middle East/Africa, and Asia. He’s a sought-after luxury expert, appearing on platforms like Bloomberg TV, Forbes, The Economist, and more. Holding an MBA and a Ph.D. in luxury management, Daniel has received education from Harvard Business School.