May 31, 2011 / 3:24 PM / 8 years ago

Greetings trump giveaways at luxury hotels

PARIS/NEW YORK (Reuters) - At the best hotels, the new luxury is the old luxury: service.

Laurence Geller, President and CEO of Strategic Hotels & Resorts, speaks during the Reuters 2011 Global Fashion and Luxury Summit in New York, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Gary Hershon

In the post-recession world, high-end hoteliers’ investments are shifting away from fancy freebies like lotion and soap and toward expert service that reflects a real understanding of the guest’s preferences, executives told the Reuters Global Luxury and Fashion Summit this week.

“There was a time when you couldn’t go into a luxury hotel room without walking into the bathroom and being bewildered by the amenities ... on the sink,” said Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc BEE.N Chief Executive Officer Laurence Geller.

The recession caused the company to take a much closer look at what it offered in each room, deciding what current items guests would not miss and which additional ones they would pay for.

“Amenities don’t impress,” said Geller, whose company owns and manages luxury hotels under the Four Seasons, Intercontinental and other brands. “What comes down to it every time is service.”

Societe des Bains de Mer (BAIN.PA), which runs four hotels and five casinos in the flashy principality of Monaco, is training staffers to recognize customers so they can greet them personally.

“It’s a smile at reception, calling the guest by their name, serving breakfast on time, not making any mistakes with the bill,” SBM Chief Executive Bernard Lambert told the Paris leg of the summit.

“It’s about getting to know and then remembering your customers,” he added. “Guests want to be recognized.”

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Even big chains such as Starwood HOT.N, Hyatt (H.N) and Marriott International MAR.N are turning to boutique-style hotels to entice wealthy guests who want to feel special.

Marriott Chief Operating Officer Arne Sorenson said he expected an increasing focus on service, especially in the United States and Europe, as the global economy improves and hotel rates rise.

“I think as rates begin to go back up, which they have been doing since roughly midyear last year, you start to see customers expect more,” said Sorenson. “As they expect more, it will cause us on balance to increase service in most brands.”

Starwood Hotels & Resorts is exploring technologies to help it provide service that not only meets guests’ needs but even helps to anticipate them, said CEO Frits van Paasschen.

The oldest property in Starwood’s system, the Hotel Goldener Hirsch in Salzburg, Austria, has a little window in the general manager’s office that for centuries has been used to peek down at guests entering the hotel in order to intercept them and welcome them by name as they make their way to their rooms.

The hotel industry has come a long way from a secret peephole onto the lobby, but Starwood is still searching for the technology that will make its guests feel like they are getting exactly what they want, van Paasschen said.

In the future, he said, that technology will give guests a hotel experience with the freedom and control that a user of Apple Inc’s (AAPL.O) iPad tablet computer enjoys.

“I can watch what I want when I want to,” van Paasschen said. “I can work or amuse myself or do both at the same time.

“The iPad is a great example of what that personalization can mean. How that manifests itself in hotel experience is something we’re taking a very hard look at.”

He did not say what type of technology the company is looking at.

An emphasis on service, then, can attract even the most cutting-edge guests. Lady Gaga has stayed several times at St. Regis hotels while promoting her most recent album, “Born this Way,” van Paasschen said.

The Lady opted for the hotels best known for their luxury service instead of W, the Starwood brand more commonly associated with pop culture and night life.

“Given her age and profile,” van Paasschen said, “you’d think she’d be a W customer.”

Lady Gaga could not be reached for comment.

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