Wellness Woven In

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Humpty Dumpty’s is an attitude that describes very well many of the common definitions of ‘wellness’ and ‘well-being’. Surely two of the most bloated and ambiguous terms in hospitality today, both are ‘fat’ words loaded with potential and yet devoid of universal meaning. Try it for yourself: what is wellness and how does it differ from well-being? And what do either of them have to do with hotels?

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) promotes an eye-watering statistic that trumpets wellness as a $4.2 trillion global economy. What’s more, it’s a Giga business that grew 12.8% between 2015–2017, nearly twice as fast as global economic growth. Driving this growth are the industry’s third, seventh and eighth largest sectors: spa (+9.8%), wellness tourism (+6.5%) and wellness real estate (+6.4%).

Even though their combined value of $.9 billion doesn’t come close to the $1.8 billion of the personal care, beauty and anti-ageing segment, spa, wellness tourism and real estate do suggest that hospitality and wellness enjoy a healthy symbiotic relationship. And as tourism itself continues to grow, the two industries will inevitably continue to intersect and promise interesting new forms of interaction. From the increasingly prominent role that wellness is playing in the hospitality projects that Luxury Branding is working on currently, I am sensing the emergence of new possibilities of integration between the two.

Blazing a trail for the elite consumer, the luxury echelons of many industries provide a reliable bellwether of what will become mainstream later through the trickle-down effect. I remember when it wasn’t expected for luxury resorts to boast destination spas and it isn’t long since space for a spa in even ultra-luxury city hotels was a low priority for operators. Today, however, a fabulous spa is not just de rigueur but almost a hygiene factor.

Some facilities are undeniably spectacular but spa has become a zero-sum game and is no longer an effective differentiator. Set in beautiful, highly-designed spaces, albeit that the obligatory Technogym studio will most likely occupy a windowless basement, hotel spas offer a more or less consistent experience. After completing a health questionnaire, there’ll be a choice of oils, room temperature and music before a cleansing footbath ritual and a regulation 45 mins of squeeze, roll, rub and pull. Proceedings conclude with a light boing of the singing bowl, an infusion of the day and the inescapable product pitch before being escorted to the deep relaxation room. Here, 10 minutes of deep breathing prepare you for the bill, the size of which is likely to instantly negate any temporary state of well-being that may have been achieved.

Wherever one spas, the programmes and treatments have converged into a common experience. So perhaps it’s little wonder that guest capture rates have plateaued and that hoteliers now regard spas as a guest amenity more than than a profitable department. So, what’s going on?

To answer this, we need to ask a more fundamental question: what is actually going on in hotel spas as we know them? The proposition of most spas is still mainly about me-time and pampering. It’s a promise of indulgence in a cosseting luxury environment: panpipes tooting in the ersatz Himalayan distance, aromatherapy atmosphere conditioning and mood lighting in showers where if you close your eyes and really stretch the imagination, you might be bathing in the rainforest. And don’t forget the Prosecco, cheeseburger and fries because F&B data suggest these are actually the golden keys to the pearly gates of earthly happiness and contentment.

Not that there is nothing anything wrong with a wellness model that evidently pleases most people most of the time but, as I’ve suggested, change is afoot and it’s being driven by the changing demands of the luxury travelling consumer.

Luxury hoteliers are now familiar with the experience economy law, which states that as people tire of material possessions, they seek to replace things with intangible memories, Now, however, the most experienced luxury travellers – typically the most affluent – have begun to tire of experiences, which are, themselves, becoming commoditised. When almost every upscale hotel brand delivers immersive local programming to Millennials and even the Gen Z that is following, where is the mature luxury traveller to go next? Experiences have reached a ubiquity that is breeding what we call the ‘been there, done that’ syndrome. Facing this new threat down, what can the luxury hotel or resort operator offer a ne’er to be satisfied Mr and Mrs Luxe? A couple that has experienced everything is desperately seeking something more.

Once upon a time, products were the manufacturer’s customised evolution from commodities while the services that followed were a customised progression from tangible products before yielding themselves to experiences. But now we come to transformations, the fifth and final economic offering, which sits at the apex of the experience economy pyramid. Transformations are the most elevated form of experience and may be described as the ultimate luxury because it’s only when people can meet all of their basic needs that they are free to search for satisfaction and fulfilment on a higher level, not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. For this reason, in a post-materialist world, wellness is fast becoming the new luxury and whereas in the experience economy the producer’s role was a stager (and don’t hotels make excellent stages?), in the transformation economy this, too, transforms to that of a guide, a much more proactive and complex responsibility.

As may be expected at this rarefied height, the fifth economic offering is the most difficult to define and to deliver. First, change is a highly personal business for which there is no one size fits all solution. Second, recommending and guiding a transformation through which customers are improved is a smaller scale business opportunity than offering a pleasurable and valuable experience of the world.

Indeed it is difficult to think of many commercial forms of transformation, although education and psychotherapy, dieting, personal training and cosmetic surgery are the most frequently referenced. Finally, experiences are essentially outside in endeavours, bringing the glory of the world to the attention of the client, while transformations are just the opposite. They are inside out, bringing the client closer to the best version of themselves.

And that’s where things get technical, complicated and certainly outside the core competence of most hoteliers. Promising a transformation of any kind requires the provider to engage in an entirely more intimate and potentially risky relationship with the customer. Mess up a bespoke experience and there’s little damage that a comp or a boost to the points balance won’t fix. Mismanage an act of personal transformation and you’re likely to be hearing from the client’s attorney holding a suit for personal damages.

Amongst Ultra High Net Worth consumers, we are starting to see a redefinition of luxury, where the prize with the greatest value is to live life longer, well. It seems we have finally an answer to that old conundrum “what do you buy the person who has everything for their birthday?” More birthdays of course. Says Fflur Roberts, Head of Global Luxury Goods at Euromonitor, “Wellness is a status thing: people want to show that they care about their bodies and self-preservation.” We can be pretty certain that we are going to live longer but are we going to live longer well? Are the extra years going to be productive and enjoyable? Will we continue to be independent and immune to the effects of deterioration? As they hit middle age, most high achievers feel that there is still so much more to do but fear that they won’t have the time to do it?

With these consumers in particular increasingly drawn to travel as a form of self-actualisation, personal transformation and growth, a new opportunity for wellness within the hospitality environment opens up. While they may be seeking an experience of the world that takes them to a deeper emotional level and fundamentally changes them, paradoxically perhaps business travel and short stay leisure provide a welcome dislocation to normal routines opening the possibility to explore alternative wellness opportunities. In this practical respect, travel is a particularly good catalyst for transformation. The fresh horizons offered by travel also help to open the mind meaning that hotels are brilliantly positioned right at the nexus of that possibility and make an excellent centre for safe discovery.

And it’s in this context that spa as we know it is simply no longer enough. A pleasant time out from the daily routine a massage may be but it doesn’t really do very much, change anything or leave us feeling enabled to continue making more change for ourselves.

If we accept – even partially – that wellness is the ‘new luxury’, then it is not now well overdue that spa itself transformed? Metamorphised from a discrete facility buried in the basement, the management of which is outsourced to third-party operators more expert in these matters, to a core service inextricably woven into the physical fabric of the buildings and integrated seamlessly into a transformative guest experience.

We are starting to see this new approach from a handful of enlightened owners that have come to this realisation themselves and are asking for wellness to be woven in. Of course, it’s one thing to recognise the opportunity but quite another to address it, although the challenge of operating without a rulebook is what makes work in this emerging space so interesting. Inevitably, it will take a few iterations over a number of years for propositions that are successful both conceptually and commercially to crystallise but wellness and hospitality intermingled your time has come.

This article is an extended version of an opinion piece first published in HOTELS magazine.

Sea of Sameness – a Rising Tide

Back in 2011, when embarking on the brand-led transformation of Naiade Resorts into LUX* Resorts and Hotels, I coined the ‘Sea of Sameness’ as a term to describe the more or less generic offering of so many resort companies at the time.

During the five years that followed, working closely with Paul Jones and his highly motivated Team Members at LUX*, we strived to develop a truly differentiated brand platform from which to set this bold little Mauritius hotel company apart.

Sadly, beyond what was achieved at LUX*, across the industry the term still applies widely today and nowhere is this more apparent than in the paid communications of so many brands.

The image shown above is a composite of two full pages of expensive colour advertising taken out by brands and independent properties in a single issue of Condé Nast Traveller.

Blue sky – Check. Fair weather clouds – Check. Azure blue waters – Check. Chalk white sand – Check. Maldivian thatched roof – Check. Wooden jetty – Check. Palm trees – Check. Water Villa – Check. 50-60% image coverage of page – Check. White background – Check. Two-word headline – Check. Mention ‘Marine Life’ in body copy – Check. Spot the difference. Checkmate!

I understand that the consumer aspires to the Maldivian dream and hence the temptation to display it so literally but is this really as creative as the clients and agencies responsible for this work can be? At rate card, each of these executions, which are placed only 12 pages apart in the magazine, costs £12,500 and yet all they are really achieving is to promote the generic attributes of the destination. The Maldives Tourism Board must be thrilled that Marriott and Milaidhoo are doing such a generous job for them. The government must be rubbing its hand with glee as they contemplate leasing another 100 islands or thereabouts to developers keen to peddle a piece of island paradise. But switch the logos and you’d be none the wiser which brand is which or what sets one experience apart from another. Or maybe the reality is that nothing much does set the experiences apart and there’s the rub.

Not that these hotels are the only culprits. Flick through the same magazine’s back issues and it is evident that the beguiling warm waters of the sea of sameness are rising in sync with those of the Indian Ocean itself to flood almost every operator in a tsunami of clichés both visual and verbal. We all know that a rising tide lifts all boats, so why do brands persist in playing a zero-sum game?

Incidentally, although the narrative of its campaign has evolved over time, the double page spread One&Only ad on pages 28-9 of the same magazine still cuts through with strategic precision and creative clarity. For all I know or can tell, this delightful lifestyle scene may have been shot in the Maldives or indeed in Dubai, Mauritius or Mexico but that’s not the point. It’s an ad about One&Only, not the destination; it’s a vivid and captivating portrait of life at One&Only and its monochrome art direction can only be that of one brand. The spread may have cost double that of St. Regis or Milaidhoo Island page but its value is priceless.

Two Brands, or not to Brand: that is the Question

During September 2018 and within weeks, there were two significant announcements from The Lux Collective and Constance Hospitality Management: the two leading Mauritian hotel groups are to launch second brands – Salt and C Resorts respectively. Intriguingly, the inaugural properties of both debutant marques will be located less than a mile apart at Palmar on the East Coast of Mauritius.

What do these strikingly parallel developments tell us about the state of health and innovation capacity in the island’s hotel groups, a key player in the Travel and Tourism sector, which is forecast to contribute MUR34.7bn or 7.5% of GDP in 2018?

Piers Schmidt explains why two local hotel groups have unveiled second brands within days and metres of each other.

Judging by the recently launched website for the LUX* Collective, the success of LUX* Resorts & Hotels has emboldened Paul Jones to fabricate a house of brands, emulating the established stables managed by the global hospitality behemoths, including Hilton, Hyatt and IHG.

By adopting an opportunistic, multi-brand strategy, has Jones been inspired by the example of the merged Marriott/Starwood supergroup, which now boasts some 30 more or less discrete brands, addressing nine different segments? Or Accor – surely the most innovative and dynamic of the big groups today – which has overtaken Marriott, the world’s largest hotel group, with no fewer than 40 hospitality propositions of its own?

In addition to its eponymous marque, LUX*, which is now seven years old, and Salt, The Lux Collective will soon be managing two new hotel brands: Tamassa and Socio, about which we are still waiting for further detail. And that’s not to mention the Group’s successful Café LUX* franchise.

What is going on here? Was it not only a few short years ago that local politicians and commentators were deeply pessimistic about the Mauritian tourism industry? In 2012, despite increasing supply, demand was more or less static, growing only 3.7% from 930,500 tourist arrivals in 2008 to 965,400 by the end of that year. A study conducted by the MTPA in 2012 in the island’s core market of France critically revealed that Mauritius was “losing its charm among French tourists.” Furthermore, the 2013 Global Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index saw Mauritius not only yield its number one position in the sub-Saharan regional ranking to Seychelles but fall from 53rd to 58th in the overall table.

In remedy, a rapid diversification from the EURO to BRIC tourists was pursued but even in combination with a welcome liberalisation of air access occupancies hovered stubbornly in the mid-60s. The giddy days of 76%, last enjoyed in 2007 before the Eurozone crisis, seemed like a distant dream. Throughout this period, however, the four largest hotel groups (NMH, Sun, LUX* and Constance) continued to represent around 50% of the entire industry, a consolidation that did little to foster innovation.

During 2011, while we were working together on the development of the LUX* Resorts & Hotels concept and branding, I remarked to Paul Jones that Mauritian hospitality seemed to have gone dormant since I was a regular visitor a decade earlier. In 2002, we had been planning the launch of One&Only Resorts from its mother ship Le Saint Géran and preparing the re-opening of Le Touessrok, two resorts imagined and managed by the legendary South African hotelier Sol Kerzner. Even then, we had to admit, innovation, in the form of Kerzner International, came from an external catalyst.

Fast forward six years and Mauritius hoteliers seem to have rediscovered their mojo. Rates and occupancies are at record levels, debt is back under control and share prices are outperforming the market. Not only can their success be seen domestically as local operators have co-developed hotels and acquired management contracts both within the Indian Ocean (Seychelles, Réunion, Madagascar and Maldives) and further afield in France (Beachcomber and LUX*), Italy, Turkey, China, UAE, Vietnam (LUX*) and Tanzania (Constance).

Until the September announcements from Lux Collective and Constance Hospitality Management, this growth in properties, owned or operated by Mauritian hotel groups, had been derived from one of two models: either by expansion of the house brand (i.e. Beachcomber, LUX*, Constance etc.) or by managing hotels, which failed to meet the ‘luxury’ specifications of those brands as independent properties (e.g. Merville Beach and Tamassa by LUX*). This was an approach we pioneered with Sugar Beach, La Pirogue and Coco Beach (now Long Beach), the Sun Resorts hotels that were ‘Managed by’ One&Only.

During strategy reviews at One&Only and LUX*, I recall vigorous debate about the most appropriate form of brand architecture to accommodate properties like Sugar Beach and Merville that fell short of the minimum luxury (hardware) standards that had been specified for the house brands. The issue became all the more vexatious given that the service and guest experience in these 3 and 4-star properties was often on a par with that enjoyed in their fancier and more illustrious siblings.

Given these circumstances, there was always the potential to introduce a second tier brand or ‘diffusion line’ under which to house these poorer cousins. Indeed, there were plenty of precedents for this approach: Courtyard by Marriott was an early pioneer of brand extension but from pure-play luxury operators, Evason (Soneva), Angsana (Banyan Tree) and Vivanta (Taj) are prominent examples.

In Mauritius, this strategy met resistance for a variety of reasons. Frequently, Board directors deemed the introduction of a second brand as an unwelcome distraction from management’s proper focus, which was to grow the luxury house brand. Whether this fear was grounded or not, with access to only two or three properties to flag with a second brand, its slight physical presence and modest marketing budget would make it difficult to gain traction. Additionally, we faced an inconvenient truth: Coco Beach and Sugar Beach or Tamassa and Merville Beach were as distinct from one another as they were different from the main lines One&Only or LUX*. Would it be possible to build a credible brand if it was stretched across resorts as diverse as Tamassa and Merville Beach? To this day, the evidence suggests not as LUX* Island Resorts will not only be managing the four brands of its Lux Collective but continues to market and operate Merville Beach and Hotel le Récif in Réunion Island as independent properties. Although I am sure it has little intention of rolling out either of these as a brand, the same assumption applied to Tamassa until recently.

So, what’s changed? Well, four things.

First, the increasing need for customer segmentation. In common with the supply side of most industries, the fundamentals of a hotel or resort offering are very similar. The basic accommodations, facilities, food & beverage outlets and those all-important immersive experiences are largely the same.

When it comes to demand, however, it all about horses for courses. There are at least 400 brands of wristwatch available today. Their products perform the same basic function and most of them keep the time as accurately as the next. And yet most of these brands will survive because one man’s Panerai is another’s poison. So, too, with hotels and resorts. There are Aman ‘junkies’ and Four Seasons devotees that would never be seen in the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton. While there is little perceptible difference under the hood between many of the 30 Marriott brands (e.g. The Ritz-Carlton vs. St. Regis), theirs is an exercise in badge engineering.

Closer to home, a loyal client of Prince Maurice would probably feel less comfortable at LUX* Belle Mare whose own client feels more at home there than at the St. Regis Le Morne. So long as there are sufficient numbers of customers with distinctive tastes and different levels of spending power, producers will be able to slice and dice their offerings ever more thinly to meet the needs and aspirations of precisely defined and deeply understood market segments.

Second, most global hotel companies now employ an asset-light strategy pitching themselves against one another for the same lucrative management contracts. The leading Mauritian hotel groups are no exception. Rather than developing new assets for their own account, groups may even prefer to dispose of their bricks. LUX Island Resorts Limited, for example, off-loaded Tamassa to Grit on a sale and leaseback basis for US$40m in 2016. Going forward, Mauritian operators will also be seeking to grow the distribution of their brands via the acquisition of management contracts, a model that requires no capital outlay and produces attractive annuity income, which is much cherished by stock markets but deceptively difficult to execute.

Here’s the rub, though, and our third driver of change. Owned or not, luxury has become an exceptionally difficult territory in which to compete propositionally as well as to make adequate returns. The capital budgets it takes to develop at this level have escalated significantly and the long-term operating costs of luxury hotels are increasingly prohibitive. As a result, there are fewer promoters developing in the luxury segment than previously and yet there is an increasing number of asset-light management companies chasing the same deals.

This double whammy produces a buyers’ market for hotel owners and however attractive your Brand Concept, however powerful your sales, distribution and marketing and however impressive the results you are achieving with your owned properties, third-party owners are seeking bulletproof track records achieved on behalf of investors like themselves. They crave the reassurance of a management company that is able to demonstrate repeated and sustained success in relevant markets with equivalent projects. Of equal importance, so do the banks providing the debt portion of their project financing.

In a crowded market for scarce management contracts, small local players, such those starting to emerge from Mauritius, may still catch the eye of an owners’ representatives and their advisors and while one should never discount the value of personal relationships. Nevertheless, as negotiations proceed, it quickly becomes difficult for a nascent and unproven management company to match the metrics and ratios of a Four Seasons (with its mono-brand focus) or a Marriott with its reputable stable of thorough-bred brands, each boasting reams of performance data to lend credibility to its projections. And that’s before they even mention the secret sauce, which is their global loyalty programmes.

Fourth, in small destinations, there is market saturation to factor. How many Constance or LUX* resorts can an island sustain? LUX* has three in Mauritius but would it be able to gain Tour Operator support or find even more direct business and airline seats for a fourth in the South? Constance has two resorts in each of Mauritius, Seychelles and Maldives and I know they wouldn’t want yet more rooms in the Maldives, if for no other reason than to hedge their market exposure.

On the other hand, when it comes to risk management, where better to develop more product than in the destinations where you operate successfully already? On that basis, it makes total sense to develop depth in places where you know how to operate and where both consumer and trade trust your reputation in those markets.

It’s to address this quartet of challenges that the international groups have architected carefully segmented and regulated multi-brand portfolios. And it’s for these same reasons that the Mauritian operators are following suit.

Constance Hospitality Management announced its intention to launch a sister brand to Constance Hotels & Resorts to the European trade in May 2017. The result of more than a year’s development work since then, C Resorts, has been thoughtfully positioned and conceptualised not to cannibalise the Group’s luxury brand. It will offer a distinct proposition designed to appeal to long-haul leisure travellers to largely package tour destinations like Mauritius and Seychelles.

While Salt is also opening its first proof of concept hotel in Mauritius, I believe it won’t be long before we find LUX*’s seasoned sibling sprinkled in less conventional, fly and flop destinations. Salt’s promise of “meaningful” travel experiences designed – in the brand’s own words – for “cultural purists, modern explorers and mindful travellers who travel to satisfy their curiosity and challenge their perception of the world” seems better matched to the more off the beaten track destinations favoured by younger and truly free, independent travellers.

These recent developments are clearly encouraging and we wish both the new arrivals every success. One word of caution, however, in closing. In recent months, we have been approached by two international operators whose brand aspirations have got the better of them. These are independent hotel groups both of whom have reached around 20-25 properties open and under management with another 5-10 in their pipelines. Their issue? Too many propositions and too many brands for the number of properties with not enough clear water between them. The resulting confusion in the minds of the consumer and owner communities alike now needs to be undone and the portfolio both simplified and rationalised. Although it makes interesting work for us to untangle the mess, maybe Four Seasons have had it right all along – one brand.

This article was first published in Hospitality Mauritius Magazine.

What the New ‘Ultra-Luxury’ Means for Hotels

The value proposition of this firm is helping luxury brands to develop elevated service and transforming experiences, and while we serve organizations in the travel, retail, real estate, wellness, fine dining and financial services sectors, hospitality is our sweet spot. It’s the industry most purely defined by service and with the highest potential for delivering transformative experiences. It’s also a lifelong passion.

Historically, within hospitality at least, our clients have been mid-sized, entrepreneurial enterprises and legacy operators seeking to catch the next wave of innovation. Moreover, as its name suggests, the focus of Luxury Branding has been hotel groups positioned in the ill-defined “luxury” segment. Pre-2008, unequivocally luxury meant 5-star deluxe – reaching for the stars metaphorically and not infrequently literally as well. This era was the age of One&Only, Dorchester Collection and the audacious translation of haute couture brands such as Armani into luxury lodgings.

As we came to terms with the present age of austerity, a new variant of luxury emerged. ‘Affordable’ or luxury ‘de-luxed’ offered newly cost-conscious travelers 5-star service delivered at properties developed with reduced capital budgets and lower operating costs. October 1 sees the launch of an excellent example of this ‘luxury for less’ genre from Constance Hotels and Resorts. C Resorts is a vibrant upper-upscale ‘lifestyle’ offering targeted at mainstream Gen X vacationers who can neither afford the real thing nor desire the offer made by the elder sibling brand.

Now, from our privileged position as concept designers, I sense things are changing again. Engaged early in the development process, advisory firms such as ours, in common with architects and interior designers, get to interrogate projects and their nascent propositions very soon in their genesis. Consequently, the inquiries that we receive from innovative promoters provide a fascinating bellwether or long-range radar that’s an interesting indicator of emerging trends. And when it comes to what lies beyond, our pipeline of projects reveals much about the future shape of hospitality.

Despite the individual circumstances of the developers and notwithstanding the diverse geographies of their settings and unique attributes, these new projects share two remarkable similarities that combine to represent a challenging, experimental ambition.

Beyond Luxury
First, it becomes apparent that true (ultra) luxury is back in demand, but only if it is reincarnated. No fewer than five of the proposals we have written for potential clients in the last 12 months have been designed to determine what lies beyond luxury. These are private projects or nascent brands imagined by maverick UHNWIs or renegade family offices. Invariably, the backers have experienced every genre of luxury hotel in the current canon, and still, they say they are left wanting.

Listening carefully, we hear that gilded suites, exquisite service and the familiar trappings, offered by Aman et al. no longer tickle the taste buds of the global elite. It’s the realization that something’s missing, therefore, that has motivated these successful entrepreneurs to enter a new business they know only as customers.

Also, let’s be clear just how elite we are talking: Generally, these projects are targeted not, as one might assume, at the infamous ‘one percent’ but rather at the top (as defined by wealth) 20% to 25% of that uppermost tier! Such clear and narrow market focus results in a group of no more than 18 million potential customers worldwide, which surely brings new resonance to the notion of “niche.” We are targeting one proposition on which we are currently at just 1.8m people, which represents a sliver segment indeed.

As we listen to the founders of these early-stage propositions, we quickly elicit the disappointment that’s driving their new ventures. Almost universally, these conversations reveal that luxury in the various incarnations we have known it (e.g. palace, deluxe, de-luxed, affordable, conscious, whispered, eco, barefoot) is no longer satisfying or desirable to the highly experienced – too experienced, even – luxury traveler.

What makes the challenge supremely interesting for those of us involved in searching for something meaningful to replace conventional luxury is that few if any of our clients can put their finger on what should replace it. While the diagnosis is definite, the treatment remains undiscovered. Together, therefore, it’s our task to locate and articulate a new expression of hospitality that more profoundly addresses the needs and wants of the worldly wealthy.

Of course, there may be more than one method of cracking the nut and potential solutions will undoubtedly lie in different territories and may be influenced by the promoters’ points of origin. With some, we are heading in the direction of wellness – for them, longer health-related quality of life is the ultimate luxury. For others, it’s simply about finding an effective antidote to the “been there, done that” syndrome that’s poisoning so many luxury travelers. For others again, future enjoyment will rely on a skilful paring back of all that is superfluous until only the essential remains, a vision of luxury of which surely Dieter Rams would approve.

Beyond Hotels
The second shared characteristic of this new wave of hotel ingénues is that the final product of the ideation and subsequent development will almost certainly not be a hotel or a resort.
Although there’s still a growing general market for familiar hotels, offering comfortable bedrooms, original and healthy F&B outlets and immersive local guest experiences to boot, at this rarefied echelon of the market, the target customer seems to be “over” hotels.

It is likely that the propositions we develop and the products and services we provide to this discerning elite may still enact a form of hospitality. However, I predict that we will no longer constrain the environments in which these new offerings are organized within the envelope of what we currently refer to as a hotel.

This revolution in the very form of the hotel requires that those of us involved in the conception of such progressive projects dismiss what we have spent a whole career learning. Architects and designers – in fact, every type of conceptual project consultant – must be prepared to rethink what it means to be hospitable beyond hotel.

It’s not easy to let go of years of experience, especially when you probably secured the appointment from your track record in the first place, but perhaps that’s why the most far-sighted and demanding clients in this emerging space are from outside the industry.

It’s unlikely that, even in their final form, any of these entrepreneurial projects will upset Marriott, Hyatt or Accor in the way Apple knocked Nokia and BlackBerry from their legacy perches. Nevertheless, we also know that niche innovation has the potential to go viral and become mainstream quicker than ever before, so I don’t rule anything out.

If ‘Beyond Luxury’ and ‘Beyond Hotel’ do prove reliable indicators, then the nights of the hotel, as we know it, may be numbered.

This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

The Lusty Allure of Loyalty

Love them or loathe them, loyalty programs are a defining feature of the hospitality landscape. Indeed, the integration of the three loyalty programs (SPG, Marriott Rewards and Ritz-Carlton Rewards) may have provided much of the investment logic behind Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood, whose combined unique members now number more than 100 million.

IHG Rewards Club (100 million), Wyndham Rewards (52 million), Hilton Honors (63 million), Le Club AccorHotels (33 million), World of Hyatt (20 million) and other similar mechanisms, including global airline programs, promise a range of rewards to reimburse customers for frequent purchase. Hilton estimates approximately 57% of its occupancy comes from via Honors, so it’s clear that such programs work.

Some are simple schemes in which earned points may be redeemed for free or discounted nights and upgrades. Others introduce the alluring prospect of free gifts and exclusive events curated by peer partners.

Either way, the rich customer data that these schemes yield also is supposed to provide a basis for brands to better personalise their offerings, thereby generating even greater loyalty among the loyal. Or so the wisdom goes because I can’t remember the last (or, for that matter, the first) time my needs were anticipated or exceeded based on data captured by a rewards or frequent flyer program. Instead, they bombard me indiscriminately with poorly matched “offers” and generic enticements to purchase more and again. Thanks for trusting that I’m loyal!

But let’s take a step back. What, in fact, is being measured and rewarded by these programs? Is it really loyalty, as the name implies, or more prosaically just repeat behaviour or incentivised habit? Are we actually faithful to the promoter brands or just dopily devoted to their invitations to collect?

By definition, being “loyal” is giving or showing firm and constant support or unswerving allegiance to a person or institution, although my favourite synonym for the concept is steadfastness. But are the millions of members of the so-called loyalty programs demonstrating unswerving allegiance, or are they really just lazy selectors or points addicts unable to kick their patterned behaviours? Perhaps, more likely, they simply fear missing out on promotion to or retention of an elite tier status? Is the terror of losing precious lounge or club floor access just too great a barrier to switching?

In my experience, there is a critical distinction between a customer who is a member of a loyalty program (or, ironically, quite probably several programs) and a customer who is truly loyal to a brand. These two individuals may regularly purchase rooms at the same hotel but there is a fundamental difference in what drives their behaviour. Loyalty program members are motivated by discounts and upgrades, whereas truly loyal customers are influenced by their affinity and affection for the brand.

For example, if British Airways removed the obligation they place on me to accumulate 1,500 tier points every year in order to retain my gold card, would I exhibit the same repeat purchase pattern that I do?

As this rhetorical question illustrates, many loyalty programs are really institutionalised forms of bribery as opposed to reliable indicators of fidelity. Every time I make gold again, do the Executive Club team at BA pride themselves for how well their colleagues in operations have performed to earn my loyalty? Or do they snigger at me for being so pathetically unable to resist the status anxiety they’ve cynically baked into their CRM? I have little doubt that it’s the latter and of course, this suspicion breeds an entirely different emotional relationship with the brand; one that’s far removed from the fidelity or steadfastness meant by loyalty.

For reasons of scale and competitiveness, most of the independent luxury hotel brands don’t even attempt to compete with the behemoths when it comes to loyalty preferring to make little and bespoke differences guest by guest.

I wonder, however, if the misnomer that masquerades as “loyalty” doesn’t actually represent an opportunity, especially for the smaller brands that are excluded from the rewards club premier league. Genuine fidelity and allegiance is available to be bestowed by discerning customers and nowhere more than in luxury segments where the purchase risks are commensurately greater. Surely, without the complacency that must arise from knowing that you have millions of customers hooked on “crack” points, innovation in this arena is not only possible but long overdue.

This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

Public Spaces. Fighting Fire with Fire

This is a follow-up post to my blog entry, “Public spaces: Battleground of the brands,” prompted by reader Mike Cantrell’s thoughtful reply.

He wrote, in part:

“I have seen a new C-level position pop up as of late, CXO (Chief Experience Officer). These positions are being filled by hoteliers and with that means the blending of hospitality and retail experience, or in this case the lack or retail and more of a pure hospitality experience. With these lines being blurred, how do hoteliers combat this? My only though is fight fire with fire and create the same thing. Create a local experience tied with the hotel but with no rooms.”

In our own consulting experience, we have seen many parallel industry verticals from retail to airlines hiring at senior levels (often, effectively, the CXO to whom Mr Cantrell refers) to transfer hospitality ‘technology’ into their operations.

Within many industries, hospitality is rightly regarded as the leading sector for customer experience design and operationalisation, especially for operators in luxury segments. Sadly, however, the flow of know-how has been largely one-way and these previously parallel sectors are now beginning to converge on hospitality as my piece demonstrates with just two of many possible examples.

Arguably, hospitality has been complacently content to have its proprietary distinction pillaged by others while sticking too stubbornly to its own knitting. Innovation can and should circulate from industry to industry and yet hoteliers have been slow to adopt and adapt great customer thinking from retail, in particular, but other sectors, too.

I personally very much like the idea of hotel brands opening facilities without rooms. Of course, we know where the GP contribution comes from and, as your final question suggests, the challenge is how to make a hotel without a rooms division make money. However, this isn’t an unsolvable challenge. Uber and Airbnb have figured out how to make money without traditional inventory, after all.

Unlike disruptor startups that have to plough millions of investor dollars into brand building, hotel chains have strong and established brands with global recognition, footprints and customer bases. That’s a great foundation that every startup enterprise would be grateful for. Why is it, therefore, that there is barely a hotel brand I can think of has really stretched its brand outside of its core business?

Surely, the whole co-working space was a missed opportunity? What Mr Cantrell describes is really little different to WeWork. Could that not have been Westin or W? Could not Four Seasons and The Ritz-Carlton have taken a slice of the lucrative private members’ club market?

One of our former clients, LUX* Resorts & Hotels, has successfully taken its in-house Café Lux concept outside of the hotel walls, operating a growing number of stand-alone outlets in Mauritian shopping centres, tourist destinations and the airport. I’d be grateful to hear of other examples with which readers may be familiar.

Years ago, I was involved in a project with British Airways to explore whether its Terminal 7 building at New York’s JFK airport could become a destination for New Yorkers with no intention to fly. Perhaps paradoxically, it was a blue sky exercise but the innovation thinking was to create a British Airways experience of global travel that families, in particular, could consume and enjoy without the need to buy a seat, take off or to leave the country.

Too often it seems that hotel innovation is incremental. Improvement by a thousand minute adjustments may keep the machine well-oiled and optimised but it’s not going to prevent the industry waking up (one day!) to find that somebody has moved its cheese.

This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

Public Spaces: Battleground of the Brands

How many people noticed Nordstrom’s recent announcement that the first Nordstrom Local will debut in Melrose Place, Los Angeles?

This may not sound like much of an event – after all, supermarket chains have always flexed formats so it’s no great surprise that a luxury department store should try out smaller modules, allowing it to serve customers closer to their homes.

But look closer at what Nordstrom have planned and you learn that its loyal customers, hooked on a peerless brand of timeless customer service, won’t actually be able to shop at a Nordstrom Local. That’s right, this 3,000 sq. ft store will offer personal styling, manicures, a tailor and a panoply of beverages including wine, craft beers, cold-pressed juices and a barista bar but will stock no physical merchandise. Nordstrom Local is a store without the shopping.

Nordstrom describes ‘Local’ as a “service-focused concept store” and a “neighbourhood hub”, which is a brilliant idea but a move that should have the hospitality industry thinking hard about its own business model. Here’s why.

Review that list of amenities again and you’d be excused for thinking it described the lobby experience of a trendy, new lifestyle hotel concept.

For decades, hotel lobbies have served a dual role: part point of sale for its resident guests; part meeting point or neighbourhood hub for transient locals. Combine the value of the non-guest spend in lobby bars, cafés, restaurants, boutiques, spas, fitness centres, meeting rooms and co-working areas and these public spaces drive significant revenues for many operators.

In a retail environment where conventional wisdom holds that bricks and mortar are becoming obsolete, Nordstrom’s new format is an innovative commitment to a “redundant” channel. Or is it? It wasn’t the Nordstrom CEO that said “a department store should be a social centre, not merely a place for shopping” but rather one Harry Gordon Selfridge, speaking in 1909 when his eponymous Oxford Street store opened.

Nordstrom is not the only brand moving beyond conventional retail to enter territory that has traditionally been the preserve of hotels. Less surprising perhaps is news that Apple’s next-generation stores will be even more lobby-like than their present format. Immediately preceding their announcement of the iPhone X, Apple released fascinating detail about its own new store concept: “public spaces, complete with outdoor plazas, indoor forums and designated boardrooms for local entrepreneurs.” All of which sounds very like not only the lobby but the first floor and basement of many hotels that I know. Apple has even appropriated the “public spaces” terminology of hospitality to describe what they no longer refer to as a “store” but rather as “town squares”. Cultural agoras vs. points of sale.

Apple Cultural Agora

According to Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry and now head of Apple’s retail operations, the idea is “to create spaces where people can relax, meet up with friends, or just listen to a local artist on the weekends.” That’s a hotel, isn’t it?

Both moves, from Nordstrom and Apple, are effectively hotels without bedrooms so where does that leave hospitality in this battleground of the public spaces?

Clearly, the hotel sector enjoys a considerable advantage in the combined size of its estate – one small unit from a department store group and even Apple’s 361 global stores won’t present a significant commercial threat to hotels any time soon. But I do believe that the direction of travel indicated by their thinking presents a very real threat to conventional hotels.

Without a doubt, powerful brands like Nordstrom, Apple and Samsung – whose Samsung 837, a 55,000 sq. ft technology playground New York City’s meatpacking district doesn’t sell a single product – will fuel a wider trend within retail to make physical locations less about merchandise and more about immersive brand experiences. In that case, very quickly the exclusive – almost default – position that hotels have enjoyed as community meeting places will be under threat and could disappear overnight, particularly if hotels fail to innovate and stay competitive with these fresher offerings. Remember, Nokia and Blackberry thought they had the right to serve our mobile connectivity needs until Apple came along and pretty much overnight they were done.

Having encroached on the hotel’s public spaces, what’s to stop Nordstrom, Apple or any one of a myriad of strong brands with excellent service credentials making their next move into bedrooms? Actually, it’s been done before and by none other than Selfridges, which ran their own branded hotel behind the Oxford Street flagship from 1972 to 2008.

If they are not vigilant and proactive, hotels may find themselves relegated again merely to bedroom factories. And when the bedroom factory model itself is under heavy fire from the disruptors like Airbnb, Homestay, HomeAway and FlipKey, will people need hotels at all a few years from now?

Hotels face the very real danger of losing their monopoly on the serviced public spaces business. If they allow that to happen and travellers become comfortable sourcing their lodging peer to peer, the whole game as we know it could be up.

This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

The Name Game, Part 2

Starwood Capital Partners had morphed from a real estate company into a fully fledged hotel operator with its twin acquisitions in 1997 of Westin, a 1981 contraction of Western International (1963) and ITT Sheraton Corporation, which was itself named after the 1962 opening of the Sheraton Motor Inn on Manhattan’s West Side.

Worried about the impact that Ian Schrager’s hip hotels were having on corporate sales at Starwood’s Westin and Sheraton chains, in 1998 CEO Barry Sternlicht responded with W.

Overnight, as it were, this sleepy industry woke up to the potential of strongly branded concepts and conscious – even mannered – naming that would help to articulate and publicise what a brand stood for. This was not something that concerned the Pritzkers, for example, as they built Hyatt Corporation from the name of the Hyatt House hotel at LAX, which they purchased in 1957.

W, which brought hip, boutique accommodation to the masses, was an unashamedly Morgans-inspired concept but one that actually worked and supported business travellers with their needs, which let’s be honest, beyond their lobbies, Schrager’s hotels never really did being a monumental triumph of sizzle over sausage.

The W brand name was eye catching both graphically and linguistically but it was a bold move to place all of its marketing dollars behind a solo letter vs. a family name or proper noun. The strong and striking twenty-third letter of the alphabet was made to work hard, however, not just as a brand name but as leitmotif woven throughout the guest experience, most obviously in the brand’s trademarked “Whatever/Whenever” service. But W’s branding went further popping up across a wunderkammer of warm, witty and welcoming touchpoints many of which were aptly named with Ws (e.g. swimming pools = Wet, laundry = Wash and suites were Wow.)

Sternlicht’s $75m makeover of New York’s Doral hotel spawned not just the first W but a veritable lexicon of pretenders, eager to demonstrate that they, too, had absorbed the branding lessons from Starwood’s “funky” brand but too often regurgitating and imitating W verbatim, without so much as a second thought.

Where W had blazed a trail, the hotel industry – ever follower rather than an innovator – has tried to emulate and replicate W’s success to such an extent that possibly every inch of the lifestyle brand naming territory has been mined out. To illustrate, consider just how extensively linguistic or literary references have been used for naming inspiration. In addition to W, we have Autograph, Chapter, Edition, Journal, The Unbound Collection and Verse Hotels.

Lifestyle Hospitality Brand Names

In fact, there are at least 22 attempts to do a “W” – literally by naming brands after the remaining letters of the alphabet: The A Hotels, B Hotels & Resorts, C Hotels, D Hotels & Resorts, G Hotels, H Hotels, K+K Hotels, J Hotels & Resorts, L Hotels & Resorts, M Gallery by Sofitel, (NH Hotels), O Hotels, P Hotels, Q Hotels, R Hotels, (So by Sofitel), U Hotels & Resorts, V Hotel, Xotels, Z Hotels.

The careful reader may have noticed that E, F, I, T are still available, so if you’re about to name a new hotel brand, hurry to bag one of last remaining places in the alphabet. Or you could stop and do an Apple, an Orange or yes, a W, which was truly to innovate.

Recently, Luxury Branding was commissioned to help formulate and then to articulate and name an innovative new hotel and resort concept. Sadly, for commercial reasons, the brand isn’t going to go ahead but after a great deal of creative angst we managed to find an entirely new way of branding a concept and I promise you, there was neither a name nor, heaven forbid, a letter of the alphabet in sight!

This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

The Name Game, Part 1

Once upon a time, naming a brand was easy. You simply adopted your own family name, which also served to distinguish private enterprise from public: Heinz (1869), Ford (1903), Kellogg (1906), Hilton (1919), shown above, and again with his first name Conrad (1985) and Marriott (1957).

As corporate brands developed, stature was established by stating origin and describing what you did: American Telephone and Telegraph Company (1885), Bank of America (1928) and British Overseas Airways Corporation (1940) – later British Airways (1974).

Professional firms like Deloitte (1845) and McKinsey (1926) and creative agencies such as Doyle Dane Bernbach (1949) and Ogilvy & Mather (1964) made a virtue, not to say an art, of etching their egos in stone above the door. At one point, the London outpost of DDB was known as BMP DDB Needham accommodating the vanities of Messrs Boase, Massimi, Pollitt, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, Needham, Harper, and Steers on the lintel.

As corporations succumbed to the urge to merge, abbreviation provided a neat solution to fitting such compound names onto a business card. International Business Machines (1924) was thus telescoped to IBM (1947) and hundreds of corporations followed them into the safe anonymity of initialism or acronyms: NASA (1959), UPS (1961), BT (1994), GSK (2000) and BP (2001).

The age of machines manufactured a jumble of founder names: Hewlett Packard (1939), Dell (1984) and portmanteaus: Compaq (1982), an elision of compatibility and quality, Cellnet (1985) and most famously Microsoft (1975), a coded mash-up of microcomputer and software.

Postmodern branding initiated the trend for naming brands after an idea or philosophy instead of describing or projecting associative values. Apple (1976) suggested its human and user-centric approach with a friendly fruit and deliberately non-techie name. Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong transformed mobile communications with their entirely abstract brand, Orange (1993), which hinted not at all at what it did but focused single-mindedly on how it did it. The striking visible difference in name and logo symbolised a truly differentiated proposition and product.

The dotcom bubble of the late 1990s fuelled a land-grab for cool brand names that would attract investment and stake out a valuable piece of internet real estate where often the name was more important than the business behind it e.g. pets.com (1998). Securing a .com domain name became the main criteria for those charged with christening these promised titans of the new economy. As a result, brand names became sillier and sillier e.g. boo.com (1998), kozmo.com (1998), and flooz.com (1999).

When every usable word in the dictionary was taken, a new hybrid technique emerged – neologisms where random Latin and Greek morphemes were forced into arranged marriages to produce linguistic offspring for which a .com domain could be registered. Examples include Invensys (1999) and two of few that remain today, Diageo (1997) and Accenture, (2001). Even the British Post Office briefly rebranded as Consignia (2001) before, in the face of public opprobrium, admitting its error and beating a hasty retreat to the safety of description.

Very largely, this corporate branding activity passed the hospitality industry by. In a market characterised by high entry barriers (capital costs) and dominated by a handful of powerful legacy corporations, competition was low and there was little need for the differentiation that drives most branding, which remained an alien discipline to most hotel companies. However, as the Millennium approached, all that was about to change.

Keep reading The Name Game (Part 2) to find out how.

This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

Three Branding Lessons from Giorgio Armani

We live in an age of disruption and as economies, technologies and attitudes continue to change,
so, too, does the art of branding – or so conventional wisdom holds!

As the proliferation of start-up brands demonstrates, today’s workforce and consumer increasingly favours self-employment and entrepreneurialism as an outlet for their individual creativity.
In the climate of innovation and renegade thinking that results, it’s a common mistake to dismiss legacy brands as out-dated, irrelevant and lacking the agility to adapt. However, this “let’s throw away the rule book” attitude may actually be the reason why so many start-up brands, notwithstanding their grandiose intentions, not only fail to bring the disruption they promise but just fail – pure and simple. Easily overlooked is the uncomfortable fact that, through trial and error in its path to success, the ‘establishment’ has often acquired invaluable “baked-in” know-how, which should perhaps be used more respectfully as a reference for good branding practice.

Love it or hate it, Giorgio Armani has stood the test of time as a luxury fashion brand and has sustained its position as one of the most respected brand names in the luxury industry, not to mention one of the most valuable fashion enterprises in the world. So, taking Giorgio Armani as an example, what lessons can other brands learn as they look to grow and strive for greater commercial success? Among many possible learnings, here are three I find worthy of note:

1. Singularity of vision

Giorgio Armani founded his eponymous brand in 1975 with a clear market proposition built on his unique personality and tastes. As a brand that from the outset has had a solid understanding of who
it is and what it stands for (quality, class and exclusivity), Armani has created a coherent, powerful and differentiating identity. While some may criticise Armani’s regular collections as monotonous or safe, the brand consistently delivers a design clarity that believes in luxurious simplicity and extols what the ‘Made in Italy’ label represents.

Not every brand has the fortune of a hub of creative endeavour in the form of a founding visionary (although it’s interesting to note that Giorgio Armani had no prior experience in fashion design and yet has managed to build an impressive empire based on his unique creative talent). However, what every brand requires in order to have any chance of success is a clear sense of self so that the products or services delivered become a truthful artefact of said identity.

It’s this unshakable singularity in vision as evidenced in Giorgio Armani that brands should aspire to emulate in defining who they truly are, what makes them different (from their competitors) and special (to their audience).

2. Strategic brand expansion

Whenever a brand gains popularity and acceptance from one target audience in its core business,
the obvious next step is to charter new waters by venturing into adjacent industries, markets or segments. In exercising fashion and luxury industry knowledge, Giorgio Armani has successfully grown his brand from a signature menswear label into a luxury fashion empire with multiple brands, which include Armani Privé (Haute Couture), Giorgio Armani, Armani Collezioni, Emporio Armani, Armani Exchange, Armani Jeans, Armani Junior, Armani Casa and Armani Hotels & Resorts, the brand extension that Luxury Branding was responsible for conceptualising and defining.

While some snobs may turn up their noses at the diffusion brands with lower price points for diluting brand equity, there is no denying that the brand management of Giorgio Armani is an exemplary. Having created a brand presence in several lucrative sectors by leveraging existing capabilities and fashioning a brand architecture with clearly delineated sub-brands, Giorgio Armani has grown to become Italy’s second-biggest fashion brand generating an annual revenue of €2.65 billion in 2015.
And while positionings and propositions may differ across the brands, in all instances Giorgio Armani’s personal philosophy and signature qualities of elegance, sophistication and comfort have been applied to ensure a consistent Armani experience.

Accordingly, when considering brand expansion, brands would benefit from the same level of strategic thinking as Giorgio Armani to avoid making poor decisions that may cause brand over-stretch, customer alienation or cannibalisation.

3. Exquisite execution

To quote Giorgio Armani himself, “the difference between style and fashion is quality” and in fact,
one of the brand’s three core pillars is quality. Ultimately a brand must deliver on its promise through performance. Giorgio Armani has done something phenomenal to move the history of fashion and change the structure of the way we dress. On its journey to earning much renown in the industry for its modern aesthetic and ability to translate relevant themes and trends into fashion, the brand has never compromised on quality. Through its superior design and operational management, Giorgio Armani has maintained its status as a true luxury brand.

It’s therefore important to remember that “the proof is in the (execution of the) pudding”, so no matter how perfectly you construct your brand from a theoretical standpoint, if you don’t deliver in line with the expectation of your market, then your audience will look elsewhere.

The Proliferation of Lifestyle Brands: Differentiate or Die

In his post, “More hotel brands – really?”, HOTELS blogger and hospitality consultant Daniel Lesser bemoans the proliferation of the new – mainly soft – hotel brands purportedly answering the chains’ insatiable need for growth.

Without doubt, the sector is overly segmented, but we should also recognise that the mushrooming of brands of the past 10 years has been driven mainly by the so-called lifestyle category.

More significant than the sheer number of these new and more accessible brands, from Ace to Z Hotels, which have been driven by younger, tech-savvy millennials, is that very little differentiates them.
They may be distinguishable from their legacy siblings but they are almost identical to one another.

Recently, we’ve been analysing the profile, positioning, and promotion of 81 of these new brands in conjunction with their dates of introduction, and a series of fascinating correlations have emerged.

Look, for instance, at the taglines employed by lifestyle brands, and the lack of differentiation becomes apparent. A significant proportion of the slogans employ similar sound bites, such as “designed for the modern traveler” (Vivanta by Taj), “hotels designed for the modern traveller’ (Nylo Hotels), “created for a new generation of travellers” (Freehand Hotels) and “unique hotels for unique travelers” (Hyatt Centric). This is buzzword bingo at its best!

Under the surface

Whether to emulate or obscure the propositions of one another, these brands have failed to carve out a distinct identity, an omission that becomes concrete when you step inside their properties. Here, you are surrounded by a largely derivative set of what we term “spray-on” concepts: hotels that may appear different superficially but that are essentially the same when you scratch the surface.

Even when presentation and design differs, the core ingredients are the same:

• Design that reflects the unique community and culture of the area
• High-tech – or all-tech – approach
• A high-energy social environment
• Amenities that cater to Gen Y’s desire for healthy, authentic experiences

Lesser pleads for an end to “the introduction of confounding new hotel brands” and calls for the industry to focus instead on “bolstering and reinforcing existing brands,” but the burgeoning bandwagon of new brands will not slow anytime soon.

As of June 2017, there are more than 100 lifestyle brands, a number that has grown dramatically from 2007. The chart below plots the upward trajectory of the 81 brands we studied. As the recent New York opening from Ian Schrager (Public Hotel) and announcements from Trump (American Idea) and Wyndham (Trademark) attest, there’s little indication of a plateau being reached.


The chart also demonstrates the clear correlation between growth in millennial spending power and the proliferation of lifestyle brands. As the first-born millennials turned 25 in 2005, their disposable incomes and corporate budgets increased to the point where they graduated into a viable customer segment. With 92 million millennials in the U.S. alone, the combined spending power of this group will only continue to increase, and well into the middle of the next decade.

Consequently, the lifestyle brands that have already launched are also likely to significantly scale their portfolios over the same period. The 81 brands depicted in Figure 1 have 1,293 properties open and between them project a pipeline of 842 hotels, resulting in a projected hotel expansion of 65% for the lifestyle category alone.

Going generic

The issue is that although these hotel brands are currently on the rise numerically, there will quickly come a point when the promise, look, feel and experience they offer becomes (and is found to be) as generic and bland as the regulation Sheratons, Hiltons, and Hyatts they were designed to supersede. From that point, the only way is down.

To prevent falling off the cliff, all new brands but these new brands, in particular, must work harder to cultivate genuine points of differentiation between them and not merely from the legacy brands they are replacing.

One way of accomplishing this would be to think harder about purpose. Why should a guest choose you rather than one of the other 80 brands and what can you do for them that nobody else can? Simply being Instagrammable does not a sustainable purpose make.


This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

A Lexicon of Luxury

Defining the Language of Luxury Brands.

Our publication A Lexicon of Luxury is an illustrated dictionary of the terms that professionals within the luxury industry use every day to define and describe their brands.

A sample of our 20-page Lexicon may be downloaded below. To receive a full copy of the booklet, please contact us.

South Africa: New Frontier for Luxury Brands?

Understanding Luxury Brands in an emerging market, in this instance South Africa.

This volume is the result of a landmark inquiry into the market for luxury brands in South Africa. The underlying trade and consumer research was conducted during the second half of 2009 on behalf of the Southern Africa Luxury Association (SALA) of which Luxury Branding was a co-founder.

A synopsis of the study’s findings may be downloaded below. To receive a full copy of the study, please contact us.

The Paradigm Cut: A Definitive Model for Luxury Brands

For the first time in its history, The Paradigm Cut provides professionals working in the luxury brand industry, with a precise definition of their métier; a common language for how luxury brands should be described; a method of qualifying whether or not brands are ‘luxury’ and a quantitative technique for the evaluation of their status and momentum.

A synopsis of the 100-page white paper may be downloaded below. To receive a full copy of the white-paper, please contact us.

Moleskine Limbers up as a Lifestyle Brand

Brand extensions have become a tried and tested method of leveraging brand equity to sell new products, services and experiences. However, the key to effective brand stretch is to ensure that new ventures are not only congruent with the mother brand but are truly independent children of the parent, not merely ugly stepsisters of existing lines.

In the context of an innovation exercise, a brand should be considered as a ‘generative idea’, which may be encapsulated in different forms – a vision, purpose and guiding values, say, or a promise and beliefs. However they are codified, generative ideas demonstrate the potential to be activated through a deep and varied portfolio of products and services, which are artefacts of the idea. Although these expressions may come and go as demand shifts and markets evolve, the idea itself, which is bigger than any product or service by which the brand is presently known, endures.

I consider myself a member of Moleskine’s creative class target market having been a loyal customer since my uni days. My interest was piqued, therefore, when the luxury stationer opened a stand-alone café, signalling its intention to move beyond black notebooks, the primary product artefact by which its brand is recognised.

The first Moleskine Café is located on the Corso Garibaldi in Milan and, according to the company’s press release, offers an environment “designed to deliver a mix of energising and soothing experiences, to boost creativity and spur deep conversations and thoughts”.

Founded in 1997, to resurrect the journals in which the sketches and muses of artists and writers such as Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway were immortalised, Moleskine is a young brand with access to a rich history. Known for its high quality products, it’s no surprise that the brand has become a favourite of creative types worldwide and as café culture has long been associated with creative endeavours, this feels like a natural diversification.

At the new venture’s launch, Arrigo Berni, Moleskine’s CEO, outlined the rationale: “The founders’ vision from the beginning was to leverage the incredible story behind Moleskine. Being associated with great artists and thinkers identifies the brand with a certain lifestyle and values: culture, memory, and exploration. The café is a way for us to provide a physical experience of the intangible dimension of the lifestyle brand we’ve been defining.”

Furthermore, we are told that the new retail format functions flexibly as a hybrid café, art gallery, store and library, a contemporary space that reimagines the concept of Parisian ‘café littéraire’.

Without doubt, the brand’s move into the experience economy is strategically sound and clearly signals Moleskine’s desire to position itself as a lifestyle vs. a product brand for the creative class. Once I’d seen the execution, however, my initial excitement was quelled because a basic principle of successful brand extension appears to have been ignored and Moleskine seems to have missed a golden opportunity to extend its franchise fundamentally.

At Luxury Branding, we sometimes find a sun and planets metaphor useful for modelling true brand extension. At the centre of the brand universe is the sun (our generative idea). The sun provides energy and enables life on the surrounding planets (the branded artefacts of the idea – its current commercial manifestations). While these planets are separate and distinct from one another, creating their own ecosystems and displaying their own peculiar forms and characteristics, they are held in the orbit of a common sun and benefit equally from a single source of energy.

When constructing a brand extension, it is vital to return to this point of origin and from it to derive new and original artefacts of the generative idea as opposed to borrowing equities from the current expressions. The objective must be to create standalone sibling planets not breakaways from existing matter.


The Moleskine Café, disappointingly looks and feels too much like a 3-D embodiment of the iconic notebook – a blank bi-dimensional space with “clean, contemporary interiors and a colour palette of neutral colours”. This is a café derived from the notebook rather than from the generative idea that gave rise to the products.

And as a café, surely everything is too conventional? Where’s the promised “creativity”, “culture” and sense of “exploration”? This is a conventional contemporary food and beverage outlet cum brand store. Such as they are, the branding elements – both graphics and interiors – are clearly designed to cue the minimalist design of the notebooks. But at the risk of stating the obvious, a café is not a notebook so why would its design conform so slavishly to that of an existing and entirely different product?

By drawing so heavily on a familiar artefact of the brand for inspiration rather than returning to the original energy source, the new concept doesn’t have an identity or planetary ecosystem of its own and fails to deliver a differentiated or ownable experience. In my opinion, the result is simply too generic and its association with brand Moleskine is at best superficial.

A largely positive review on TripAdvisor illustrates my point: “Coffee shop that meets 21st century requirements. Clean, comfortable, modern interior – easy to connect, sufficient wireless connection – helpful, smiling staff – clean, proper toilets with paper towels instead of air driers – the most important!!! All seats (not all tables) are equipped with USB and 220V connections.”

This customer rates the Moleskine Café 5/5 on all the ‘hygiene’ factors and their comments demonstrate that the café probably even over delivers on the basics, but so what? There are 1000s of Starbucks and local chains that can do the same. Tellingly, even in this glowing account, there is no mention of the brand, no hint of feeling the presence and power of Moleskine’s generative idea and certainly no mention of that “intangible dimension” about which Arrigo Berni waxes lyrical. Where are the surprising or immersive touchpoints that are going to “spur deep conversations and thoughts”?

Brand extensions are difficult and require strong strategic capabilities to successfully execute.

In 2012, we were faced with a challenge of how to originate a lifestyle and hospitality extension of the world-famous Paramount Pictures. Due to restrictions of the license, we were prevented from drawing on Paramount’s library of films – the most recognisable artefacts of their brand. Instead, we defined a concept that leveraged the essence of Paramount itself by invoking not the studio’s output but rather a creative process that had been honed over its 100-year history. We invited our client and their future guests to imagine luxury hospitality that had been ‘produced’ in the same way.

Similarly, when extending brand Armani into its hospitality variant, we drew on Giorgio Armani himself as the literal, living embodiment of the brand’s generative idea, as opposed to cloning any one of the sub-brands from Armani’s diverse stable of apparel and accessory lines. Our sibling concept was expressed in a dual brand platform: “Stay with Armani” for the hotels and “Live with Armani” for the residences.

Most recently, we have been engaged to help extend a global entertainment brand whose role and reputation as a creative producer is without peer but whose own generative idea remains at the service of and wholly subservient to its product artefacts, which are experienced as live performances in fixed and touring venues all over the world. Our challenge was how to harness the brand’s laboratory of creativity to produce a complementary artefact of its generative idea and apply that within the entirely alien world of hospitality. Again, the solution came by avoiding the temptation to exploit any equity or creative assets from the shows for which the brand is already famous and admired. Recognising that these spectacular performances are ultimately the product of an idea, we returned to its source – the company’s incredible global headquarters facility – and built our concept from the source code that resides there.

Moleskine are on to something with their new line of cafés but to better realise their potential, perhaps they should look inwards to their generative idea rather than sideways at their incumbent business as they consider future openings. By tapping deeper into the brand’s core values of culture, memory, and exploration and imagining a bespoke environment that genuinely stimulates creativity, I believe Moleskine could develop an exciting, differentiated and sustainable new expression of their highly romantic and evocative brand.

This article was first published by LuxurySociety on 13 October 2017

How Digital Democratised Luxury

I wish to propose the paradoxical motion that luxury has become democratised by digital, by which I mean three things that can be represented by an equation: dL=A3. The democratisation of luxury is the product of the three “A”s in aggregate.

Luxury today is open to more people, in part, due to a growing middle class but mostly because digital has delivered something that was once distant right to the doorsteps of many.

But this new and greater accessibility creates a problem for luxury brands whose distinctive allure is supposed to be ultra-exclusive: scarce, elusive and mysterious, especially in terms of price. Since their inception, luxury brands have existed to elevate and distinguish the elite from the tastes and trappings of the proletariat.

Conversely, the fundamental tenet of digital is that it’s welcoming and relatively wealth-blind.
Digital tries to reach as many people as possible, allowing them to connect and interact. Where luxury is divisive, digital is inclusive.

One luxury brand that has notably embraced the appeal of greater reach, however, is Burberry.
In September 2015, Burberry debuted its Spring/Summer 16 collection on Snapchat ahead of its formal catwalk show at London Fashion Week. The online event reached 100m people creating a huge boost.


Figure 1 further illustrates some of the tensions: where luxury is discreet and discerning, digital’s way is often intrusive and always agnostic. In fact, the only characteristic valued in both domains is the appetite and ability to deliver experiences that are personalised. So, it’s this set of dichotomies that explains why there’s always been an uneasy relationship between luxury brands and digital.

The second “A” is availability. Luxury brands, which were once reserved for informed connoisseurs,
are now freely available to an unvetted nouveau riche who lurk anonymously behind computer screens.

Where once there was the intimidation of having to go to luxury and purchase on its terms, digital has brought luxury into the bedroom where invisible consumers purchase in the comfort of their pyjamas.

And let’s not forget the huge increase in availability opened up by eCommerce channels, especially those like Net-a-Porter’s The Outnet, where luxury brands can distribute and monetise their unsold inventories discreetly online.

The third element of democratisation is arguably the most powerful “A”.

The term “democracy” has its origins in two Greek words: dēmos, meaning ‘the people’ and kratia ‘power or rule’ and yes, this third “A” of democratisation is shaping a world in which the people do rule and in which their opinion counts for more than the stellar reputation of the luxury brands.

Brands are constantly being judged by all of us but none more so than luxury brands that command higher prices, create greater expectations, and for whom the stakes are higher. With the advent of Amazon, Yelp and their like, in the online court of public opinion, we’ve reached a point where popular reputation outweighs insider brand image.

My third “A”, therefore, is accountability because online reviews, posted by ordinary people, have become one of the most powerful disruptive forces of the information age. With 70% of us consulting online reviews before purchasing, producers and their brands have had no choice but to become wholly accountable for who they are and what they do.

Let’s examine this principle of accountability in the world of luxury hospitality.

Being a 24/7 service business, hospitality is one of the most advanced industry sectors for integrating customer feedback into its operational management.

As we’ve seen, this democratisation of opinion, fuelled by the rise of peer review sites, has aggregated and amplified the consumer’s voice to such an extent that the hard-built reputations of brands like
Four Seasons and The Ritz-Carlton are being recalibrated by real-time ratings.

So, although word of mouth has always been the marketer’s holy grail, digital has enabled that word of mouth to grow in influence from a private whisper to a public broadcast shared with millions of people in minutes.

In the last five years, despite having initially been rejectors of TripAdvisor and other review sites, most luxury hotel brands have come to terms with the simple fact that they have lost control over who says what about them. The new reality is that luxury hotel brands are now being fabricated in the minds of their customers contemporaneously, rather than being the product of a tightly curated myth.

Whereas General Managers would once have simply turned their backs and hoped the clamour would die down, they are now using TripAdvisor and other digital feedback mechanisms not only to implement continuous improvement but to build community and demonstrate responsiveness to their customers.

And that makes good business sense because it’s been shown that if a luxury hotel increases its online reputation by 1 percent, then its Average Daily Rate will rise by 0.9 percent and its occupancy by 0.5 percent. These are hugely significant incremental gains.

Isn’t it fascinating how our decision-making as consumers has been changed by the Internet? Somewhere along the line our capacity to make a selection for ourselves has been critically compromised. Our default setting is to Google, to establish if there are any reviews and then to ignore any businesses that receive poor ones. It’s a new human condition, which illustrates the huge shift in consumer behaviour that has resulted from the phenomenon of digital democratisation.

What makes this particularly challenging for the world of luxury is that in the past just being considered ‘luxury’ was enough to instil trust – that barely spoken promise of quality and excellence. However, with the democratisation of luxury, trust of a consumer is no longer a given. We all want to double then triple check if something is generally considered good, enjoyable or reliable by others.


A version of this article was published by LuxurySociety on 28 April 2017.

Brand Value, Power and the truth about Loyalty

Recently published is a piece of typically rigorous research by the redoubtable David Haigh and his team at Brand Finance.

Reported in The Caterer and more fully in FTN News, the provocative news that Premier Inn is the world’s “most powerful” or “strongest” hotel brand raises important questions about the definition of a brand and its attendant value and power.


I’ve not reviewed the methodology behind the firm’s Brand Strength Index beyond what’s to be gleaned from the articles, which list marketing investment, familiarity, loyalty, staff satisfaction and corporate reputation as the main criteria of measurement. What seems to be missing, however, is a true measure of consumer sentiment or, more precisely, the value placed by real people on these hospitality brands yet alone the power which they attribute to them. Although this should be reflected in ‘loyalty’, we all know that when it comes to hospitality and airlines, in particular, rewards programmes are more systems of discounting and bribery than reliable indicators of fidelity. How many loyalty cards do you have in your wallet right now? These schemes encourage and reward habit and feed our addiction to collecting points and miles. In true Up in the Air style, successfully they prey on our fear of missing out – on that self-affirming gold card status for the next 12 months, the abject terror of losing our precious lounge or club floor access.

I’ve always preached that ultimately brands are fabricated in the minds of individual customers on the basis of their own personal experiences – a combination of direct and indirect interactions and touchpoints. Premier Inn itself would appear to agree with this interpretation of ‘brand’ as their promotional material proclaims theirs to be “a place made by you”. If the place is made by us, then is not too the brand?

I have heard good things about Premier Inn but as Ozgur Tore, the FTN reporter concedes, “the mass-market, UK-focused brand’s top billing may come as a surprise to some.” Tore reminds us of the brand’s pioneering advertising campaigns and strong financial performance but while these may, in turn, be enjoyable and commendable, I wonder if they really justify the claim of “strongest” in the minds of either its customers or the global hospitality market as a whole?

I’m reminded of Richard Armstrong’s banal, eponymously titled but also strangely addictive television show Pointless, the BBC quiz in which contestants try to score as few points as possible by testing their general knowledge to come up with the answers no-one else can think of based on pre-conducted public surveys of 100 people. If we asked 100 members of the UK population to pick their “strongest” global hotel brands, I strongly suspect that Premier Inn would result in a round-winning ‘pointless’ answer for the contestant venturing the brand as their pick.

Premier Inn’s commercial success suggests that it is indeed a brand with many virtues. I just contest that it can possibly be the world’s “strongest” hotel brand by any reasonable or generally accepted definition of that term. Perhaps Premier Inn can be touted as the world’s “strongest” hotel company but, as I’ve said, a company does not a brand make – the customer does.

Lazy Language and Alphabet Soup

Not far my home in the Cotswolds, there’s a new cluster development of “Luxury Homes” nearing completion on a greenfield site. Actually, more than likely on a greenfield site near you, too, if you
live in anywhere in the English countryside.

Every time I drive past the advertising board that loudly and proudly announces the arrival of these identikit homes (perfect for the modern executive), I chuckle at the wording they employ to promote the “just” eight detached properties.

An Executive Collection of Luxury Homes

Never mind the only-to-be-expected hyperbole, I find myself questioning if a collection of homes can,
in fact, be “executive” or whether it’s the homes themselves that are supposed to be for executives?

A few miles down the road, there’s a competing offering, differentiated at least in the words used to describe how it’s positioned and described.

A Luxury Collection of Exclusive Homes

Is one truly an executive collection of luxury homes and the other a luxury collection of exclusive homes or is this fundamentally the same message expressed differently but with equal laziness and disregard for language? I understand the promise of a luxury home but in what way is the second collection “luxury” and the homes “exclusive”, I wonder? Exclusive to me if I purchase? I’d hope so for the prices asked. Or is “exclusive” just another (tautologous) way of making sure I understand we’re talking about luxury, right? Gilding the proverbial lily.

In the short drive between the second development and home, I have fun seeing how many variants and discrete propositions I can fashion from the same elements and epithets:

An Exclusive Collection of Luxury Homes

A Collection of Exclusive Luxury Homes

A Collection of Luxury Exclusive Homes

Home to a Collection of Exclusive Luxury

Home to an Exclusive Collection of Luxury

Exclusively Collecting Homes of Luxury

A Homely Collection of Luxury Exclusives

Luxury Exclusive: A Collection of Homes

No doubt there are more. Semantics perhaps, pedantic even, you may say, but each arrangement of the words conveys a different meaning or at least it should do. But this doesn’t seem to occur to copywriters responsible for real estate marketing.

And then, I came across the property advertisement reproduced above, which prompted the penning of this piece. This time, it’s an “exclusive collection” but look how many wonderful, persuasive, compelling, descriptive, irresistible and generic qualities they’ve managed to append to those, yes, “just” six homes, although I will concede that the poor lily pictured does look as if it needs all the help it can get.

Dennis Potter once keenly observed, “the trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they have been in.”

Caveat Emptor if those words have sprung from the jaws of a property developer or their agents!

The Orient Express brand will now depart from Platform A(ccor)

AccorHotels, on a roll of late, has done it again as news came last week, announced 134 years to the day after the first Orient Express trip between Paris and Constantinople, that Accor will now develop and manage the Orient Express brand within the luxury hospitality sector globally. So begins a new chapter in the tangled history of this iconic mark.

Unlike the previous licensing relationship between SNCF and Orient-Express Hotels Ltd, the company founded in 1976 by James Sherwood and rebranded in February 2014 as Belmond, this new partnership will see Accor taking a 50% stake in Orient Express, closely aligning the two French partners, their common nationality not being without significance. The terms of the old licence were a key area of contention between the former parties.

The press release, jointly issued by Accor and SNCF, makes clear the new venture’s ambition to develop a new collection of prestigious hotels under the Orient Express banner. Described as the “very epitome of the art of travel, (the collection) will offer a unique experience steeped in history that combines the luxury, exoticism and sophistication of East and West in iconic locations.” The brand will also operate the seven SNCF-owned vintage cars from the Pullman-Orient-Express (shown above), albeit for private journeys rather than public itineraries.

The deal presents the intriguing prospect of a new branded collection of Orient Express hotels and trains, which may look very similar to the previous incarnation and that will compete directly with Belmond’s own hotels, trains and cruises. It is to be hoped, however, that AccorHotels will not fall prey to the temptation of ‘hard branding’ their collection in the manner of Rosewood and Belmond. This is an opportunity to prove their claimed savoir-faire by employing a more sympathetic and flexible application of corporate brand endorsement; one that is more respectful to the equity of the hotel assets that will be presented as part of the collection.

This new deal is fascinating in many respects but not least because it highlights the intriguing distinction between the value of tangible assets and the intangible value of brands.

On the face of it, Belmond enters the ring 49 assets heavier than Accor and a clear favourite to win any bout between the two Orient Express half-brothers. After all, its stellar portfolio of trophy assets, painstakingly assembled by Sherwood and his successors over forty years, is almost as difficult to emulate as it would be impossible to replicate. Equally, as Bob Lovejoy, John Scott and, most recently, Roland Vos have all discovered, it’s harder than it looks to acquire hotels and management contracts of an equivalent calibre to augment the Belmond portfolio without dilution.

Added to which, Accor’s owner pitch is surely more commercially compelling than Belmond’s and that’s before we discover if Accor plans to transfer some of its historic luxury properties, currently flagged under the Raffles, Fairmont or Sofitel Legend brands, to the Orient Express stable. If that’s the case, Belmond’s asset advantage may only be short-lived.

On the other hand, it is widely acknowledged that the Belmond brand and the manner of its initial application were botched. The current team in London are working to remedy this false start but it’s going to take years to get back to where they were, which is precisely the point from which the new venture can set off.

Apocryphally, it was John Stuart, the former CEO of Quaker Oats, which is now owned by PepsiCo, that once said: “If this business were to be split up, I would be glad to take the brands, trademarks and goodwill, and you could have all the bricks and mortar–and I would fare better than you.”

Orient Express is world-renowned: the release even references, “thanks to its history,” the brand’s “place in the popular imagination”. That goodwill is priceless and both Accor and SNCF know it. They must be smiling wryly at the significant role and contribution that their erstwhile namesake and new competitor, Belmond, has played in building equity, which they alone are now free to leverage.

Not that the route ahead is without “leaves on the line” for Accor. Attaining the “very epitome of… luxury, exoticism and sophistication” is not easy for the leading luxury operators and although Accor formed a new Luxury Group under Chris Cahill in the middle of last year, it is not a group with the luxury experience of, say, a Marriott or Starwood, yet alone the burnished credentials of pure play luxury operators such as Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental.

I’m going to keep a close eye on how this one develops but I wouldn’t bet against Accor in what’s shaping up to be a very interesting battle between brute asset strength and deeply cherished brand equity.

To find out more about Luxury Branding’s capabilities and credentials in luxury brand development, click Experience.

Spotlight on Italian Hospitality

Italy’s travel & tourism sectors have been performing strongly of late and the outlook for continued growth remains positive. Now welcoming more than 48 million tourists annually, Italy has become the most visited country in the world, when measured by international tourist arrivals. Qualitatively, Italy fares well, too, picking up the gong for ‘Best European Country’ in the Telegraph Travel Awards 2017 as voted by consumers. Boasting more UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites than any other country (47), beautiful countryside, glamorous beaches, fabulous fashion and a cuisine that enjoys universal appeal, it’s easy to understand why tourists are so enamoured with the nation.

Given the demand from well-travelled international visitors, how is it, then, that the vast majority of hotels in Italy remain so dated and tired? Low quality pervades while prices are eye-wateringly high. Why are sophisticated, worldly tourists obliged to and seemingly content to pay through the nose to experience inferior accommodation, that looks out of fashion even to my Nonna.

It’s a paradox all the more striking considering that Italy is deservedly renowned as one of the most design conscious and creatively capable of nations. Indeed, ‘Made in Italy’ is a global shorthand for leading edge design across industries from fashion and furnishings to supercars and yachts. Why has the sense of style that defines brands from Armani to Cassina, Ferrari and Riva, to mention just a handful, not permeated the interior and product design of the country’s hotels and resorts?

As the daughter of an Italian who proudly maintains strong connections to my home region of Veneto,
I can perceive two reasons for this anomaly although neither provides a satisfactory excuse and both pose considerable risk to sustained tourism success.

First, the majority of Italian hotels are small or medium in size and remain largely family-run concerns. Even in the big cities, international corporate chains are still scarce, accounting for only 4.1% of the total rooms available in 2015. Without doubt, this produces a pleasantly personal approach to hotel keeping but it has also resulted in a low penetration of global standards or best practices in product design, guest experience, and service. With few benchmarks, local hoteliers adhere to their own view of the world and perpetuate rules and practices that may long have passed their expiration date. In terms of hotel hardware, becoming stuck in the proverbial rut is exacerbated by an unwillingness or inability to part with privately held capital to fund repairs and renewals yet alone to invest in modernising infrastructure or decor.

More significant, however, is the local hotelier’s ability to fall back on the underlying allure and charm of the Italian lifestyle, which creates a kind of aura of forgiveness around the customer who obligingly turns a blind eye to the frequent ‘material’ deficiencies. Italians have made an art form of enjoying and promoting a way of life that values noble and wholesome qualities, such as family, conversation, connection, pleasure, vitality and well-being, as the fundamentals of life.

Affectionately known as la dolce vita, after Fellini’s landed film, this simpler and slower lifestyle, which restores the human spirit and inspires greater consciousness and internal tranquility, is rightly considered a rare and precious luxury in today’s fast-paced, urban society. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that three quarters of tourist arrivals into Italy come for leisure and are ready to be seduced by this deep sense of contentment. Amid a landscape of organic beauty, rich in nature and history, it’s understandable that they forgive more fickle or transient pleasures, including modern amenities, contemporary interiors and furnishings.

But who says the charm of la dolce vita and a broader national culture, which does pride itself on style, have to be mutually exclusive? Recently, Luxury Branding has been developing the destination concept and branding for a mixed use resort in northern Tuscany. Our governing idea has been to reimagine the tired Tuscan tale through an offering that blends the best of history with an entirely more progressive view of Italian hospitality: old wine in new bottles if you like. And in our search for comparators, we found two examples that demonstrate perfectly how, at once, to extol the beauty of Italian living while elevating the guest experience through modern distinction.

La Bandita is the renegade brand behind two properties; one a 12-room funked-up townhouse and the other an elegant luxury villa come stylish country inn. Both challenge the outdated and typically tired Tuscan aesthetic to create sleek yet inviting hotels that transcend the Tuscan lifestyle by providing environments and experiences designed for a design literate and aspirational audience.

Locanda al Colle is an elegant farmhouse where charm and grace create the backdrop for contemporary artwork and modern design. The attention to detail that has gone into the curation of modern furnishings has created a stunning hotel that feels luxurious and homely in equal measure.

It’s interesting to note the background of each brand’s visionary. La Bandita was created by a former music executive from New York and his wife, a writer for Condé Nast Traveler, while Locanda al Colle,
is the brainchild of an internationally acclaimed fashion designer who spent part of his career in Uruguay. Both owners have infused their appreciation of Italian hospitality with their international influences, capabilities and experiences, which were also cultivated outside the hospitality industry itself. Their understanding of the modern traveller’s mindset is revealed in details which combine to produce innovative, alluring and relevant concepts for a worldly guest who loves Italy but doesn’t wish to compromise their sensibilities. In the context of a stagnant hospitality market, their differentiation and desirability are shining examples of what can be done.

Of course, there are many more reasons to explain why Italian hotels can be so shoddy: e.g. seasonality, a sluggish economy and a relatively insular culture with a native mindset more inclined to retrospection than progression.

I, for one, hope that we’ll see more collision between the discrete worlds of high-design and humble-living. The strongest concepts are often born from a creative tension and the duality at the core of these universes strikes me as brimming with potential.

Perhaps further foreign interventions and new world influences will be required to catalyse and propel change in the market, or perhaps the international traveller needs to find the confidence to demand more from Italian hotels. One thing is for sure, however, there is considerable opportunity for improvement.

Six Steps to Differentiate your Brand

In a previous piece, ‘The proliferation of lifestyle brands: Differentiate or die‘, I highlighted the lack of differentiation among the burgeoning number of new hotel brands and concluded by counselling that all new brands, regardless of segment, must work harder to cultivate genuine points of differentiation.

So, how do you cultivate difference? How should you develop a brand proposition that is truly special and different – special to your customers and different from your competitors? Here are six steps to achieve that distinction:

1. Pinpoint the white space
To differentiate anything, you need to identify from what. You need to understand the competition:
who do they target, what is their promise, what are their relevant points of distinction and how much do they charge? Equipped with this data, you can map the market and pinpoint the white space. This is your opportunity. Avoid the cluster – it leads directly to a “me-too” concept. Find and confidently occupy the gap, and you have the basis for a successful brand with inherent longevity.

2. Know your customer
It is impossible to define who you are, what you do, how you do it and where you are going without knowing your customer precisely. Too many new brands fall into the trap of blanket targeting millennials, an incredibly large and diverse section of the population, which serves very poorly as a segmentation. People from 25 to 37 years old is not a target. Your customer profile should be drawn using psychographics: their attitudes, distinct wants, needs and the behaviours that arise.

Who are they, where do they live, work, play? What are their hopes, fears and aspirations? What’s the world like in which they live? Developing “personas” that are richer than mere demographic statements will enable you to develop a concept that genuinely speaks to your customer.

3. Uncover the unmet needs
For a brand to be genuinely different, ideally it should meet needs that other brands do not or cannot. Now, with your customer defined and their world explored, interrogate your findings for fresh insights into the unmet needs of your personas.

Don’t be seduced by trend forecasters with their guarantees of future salvation. You don’t need another generic report to know that travellers prefer experiences over products or that wellness is the next big thing. Instead, take responsibility for designing the future you want; otherwise, you’ll be managing the one that shows up. Yes, genuine insights are hard to reveal and you’ll have to work the evidence over diligently and from multiple angles but trust your instinct and experience, too, and the revelation will eventually emerge. Once you uncover the unmet needs, you will feel you are onto something.

4. Determine your brand purpose
Your brand purpose should relate to your customer’s unmet needs. What is your raison d’être and how will that change your customer’s world? When Steve Jobs had the insight that people were frustrated by the complexity of PCs, he defined Apple’s purpose as “making technology so simple that everyone can be part of the future.” In a world where computers competed on function, the white space Mac occupied (and still owns today) is usability.

Too many hotel brands seem to be founded on an interior design or programming concept, but these should really be the product of a clear governing purpose. W may look sexy and promote a wealth of entertainment, but to what end?

5. Make a promise
From an inspiring purpose, you can now prepare to make your promise. What will you offer the guest, and how will it help you fulfil your purpose? How will you make them feel, and what will they experience if they stay with you? The purpose of LUX* Resorts is “to help people celebrate life.”
The promise of the brand is a “lighter, brighter holiday experience.” The promise directly contributes to the brand’s purpose.

Your promise should not be complicated or inflated but a simple statement of what your customers can expect from your brand.

6. Operationalize across hardware, software and service
Normally, when you make a promise, you’re only as good as your word. But in hospitality, this principle extends to your every deed. The last and most important step, therefore, is to operationalize your brand strategy (steps 1-5) across the hardware (architecture and design), software (guest experiences and programming) and service (people and behaviour).

For your brand to be more than just fine words, it must be activated and animated at all the key touchpoints. Each encounter should be consistent with your purpose and promise. Apple’s genius bar or call centre support is as revealing of the brand as the latest iPhone. LUX* cannot open an outlet that’s dark and heavy and remain constant to its promise.

The more each encounter, experience and engagement is consonant with a rigorously and creatively differentiated strategy, the greater the brand’s chances of establishing and sustaining equity and returns.


This article was first published by Hotels on 18 July 2017.

Is Technology Displacing Craftsmanship?

One enduring expression of luxury over the decades has been personalisation; the ability to have an object or service tailored to your exact needs, as ‘bespoken’ by you.

This is becoming ever more accessible as technology enables it to be done at a much lower incremental cost than has been the case in the past.

Take luxury cars for example. When you enter the website of your preferred brand (Aston Martin/ Mercedes/ Porsche?), you will be offered the services of a configurator. This will permit you to make a choice of colour, trim, wheels, accessories, amenities; as many extras as you wish in order to make the expression of that marque personal to you. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that another model just like it will ever be made. Thus what is, in fact, a car made on a production line using expensive and sophisticated robots is built according to your specification. This is possible because computer aided manufacturing techniques have advanced so that wide variation (although still within set bounds) is possible at a relatively modest cost.


The paradox is amusing. Rather than mass production requiring increased standardisation and repetition, technology is facilitating craftsmanship that would once only have been available to those purchasing a small volume, handmade product. Any element of ‘hand-crafting’ will take place according to how it is already integrated into the production process. This level of individualisation is not a function of craft but of tech. Is this the opposite of the supposed trend towards artisanal, small scale making?

When we look at one of the latest forms of technology, we have 3D printing. This enables personalisation at the ultimate level of the one-off. A totally unique item can be produced wherever the printer is located. Heralded by some as the third industrial revolution, it offers the prospect of unique products that are dependent on the skills of the programmer rather than the craftsperson or workshop. Limited at the moment by the type of material that can be printed, the future will almost certainly see this constraint overcome. Digital technology will take a step closer to replacing handcraft.


In the 5-star hotel sector, guests increasingly expect a personalised experience. This can be arranged via the hotel’s apps or other software that ensures that a unique experience is delivered. The stay is programmed in detail according to the guests’ criteria, making it more memorable, building loyalty and encouraging positive reviews. At the same time, valuable data is generated and retained in order to improve future visits and to build up profiles and preferences relevant to other guests. Needs can be anticipated, apposite offers proffered and engagement intensified. Hotel staff will need to ensure that they have the technical expertise to manage these processes.

These developments challenge our perception of luxury. Customisation achieved through technological innovation, quality standards achieved through meticulous calibration and precision beyond the ability of any human hand. Our relationship to luxury, or rather its definition may be changing.


This article was first published by LuxurySociety on 7 April 2017