Reinventing Five-Star Service
Examining every detail of high-end hospitality, so-called luxury consultants are helping top hotels reinvent the five-star experience.
It is 9 a.m. in the first-floor conference room of the Hôtel Métropole in Monte Carlo, and a sous-chef, a janitor, a chief steward, the maître d'hôtel, and a hostess—all employees of the 1860's palace hotel—are analyzing their recent experiences on the receiving end of luxury service. The seminar's teacher is Lionel Meyer, a handsome, immaculately attired Frenchman from a Paris consulting firm called Luxury Attitude, and he has sent them in teams to local purveyors of the high life—the Dior and Piaget shops, the Jaguar dealer, competing hotels such as the Hôtel Hermitage and the Hôtel de Paris—and asked them to take careful notes.
They were underwhelmed.
"There was a guy outside who looked like a KGB agent," says one. "I had to open the door myself, and there was no one inside to greet me." "There was no welcome," reports another. "It was, 'Oh, you're there, I didn't see you.'"
Not good, explains Meyer. "Luxury means being recognized," he says. "When you are in the world of luxury, you are not in the world of the merely functional. Pleasure and emotion are primary. The fabulous entry is lovely, but it is only made magic by human beings."
And greetings are only the beginning: the Métropole has hired Meyer and the firm's president, Erik Perey, to examine every aspect of the service it provides and to train its staff accordingly. The hotel is not alone—other Luxury Attitude clients include Paris's Plaza Athénée and Hôtel de Crillon. In London, the Dorchester (among other top-flight establishments) has hired a company called Green Ink to consult on its approach toservice. Indeed, while you will never see them, from London to Bangkok, new masterminds of luxury are behind each perfect waiter, busboy, and butler, analyzing and calibrating every aspect of the high-endhotel experience like never before.
The idea at the heart of much of the new thinking is that the traditional power relations of hospitality are archaic, a dynamic epitomized by disregard for anyone who isn't a client of the hotel and servility toward those who are. Old-fashioned European service demanded that employees show their hands only when using them, explains Meyer, and otherwise "store them" behind their backs. "This," he says emphatically, "transforms the employee into a service machine whose initiative is visually amputated." Today, neither inferiority nor superiority is appropriate when it comes to guest relations. "I work with housekeeping a lot," he says. "Often they have terrible complexes. They're afraid of clients, hiding behind their trolleys, knocking timidly. We create a completely different system: Equality. We ask them to stand up straight. They enter, they say, 'Bonjour, monsieur,' and they do their work. As equals. That is luxury service today."
"The problem with luxury," says Luxury Attitude's Perey, "is that these companies don't comprehend that luxury is, actually, service. Not products. We help companies fully realize the role of service." The Métropole recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation by Jacques Garcia, on which Luxury Attitude consulted. "They opened the walls in the lobby so you see the concierge, the bar, the restaurant, and the reception all at once," Meyer says. "The guest has visual landmarks; he orients himself immediately. And from the moment he passes through the arch on the street, he is recognized, and there is not a single time that he has to give his name. Not once. That is why the staff has earpieces."
Modern, top-of-the-line service does not stand silently by, waiting for a command—it actively anticipates guests' needs. At One & Only Palmilla resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, for example, some guests are offered iPods loaded with music tailored to their preferences, based on pre-visit questionnaires. Each guest is assigned a personal butler, and the pool concierge will note if you're falling asleep and bring you pillows, arrange a poolside wake-up call, and provide you with an unending stream of chilled water. At the Hôtel Martinez on the Côte d'Azur, says Perey, "When you leave for a run the doorman discreetly asks about your route; then he judges its length and estimates when you'll return—and has someone waiting at the door for you with a fresh towel."
In London, Ann Styles and her consulting firm Green Ink execute what she calls "service refurbishment." Nigel Badminton, the Dorchester'smanager, characterizes Styles's approach as "less about finding what's wrong and more about finding what's right. Most hotels focus on the hard skills: 'Serve from the left.' Here, it's about getting the touchy-feely right." In practice, the Dorchester's service policies guide everything from the way people move ("One quick-steps toward guests in the public areas," Badminton says. "It shows courtesy") to the way they speak ("We position ourselves in the lobby, not too close to the door," he says. "We allow people to acclimatize to the space. Once they've taken three steps, they're good to talk to"). Receptionists are made "jet-lag aware." "People arrive grumpy," Badminton says, "and we can't be put off by this. We're as helpful as we can be. Once they nap and freshen up, then they have questions, and that's when we deliver more information."
Styles deploys a team of 12 trained inspectors, and no one at the Dorchester knows who they are. "Every time a Green Ink inspector arrives at the hotel," she says, "he notes every movement, expression, tone of voice, choice of words, and the dress of every employee." Styles then analyzes the data with the precision of a code breaker. "We have broken down and specified four hundred fifty individual interactions. Is the doorman there when you pull up?Does he open the door?Look you in the eye?Say 'Good afternoon, welcome to the Dorchester'?Ascertain why you're there—if it's for checking in, does he lead you to reception and say, 'William, it's Mr. Smith checking in'?And does all of this happen time and timeagain?"
Styles tweaks every nuance. When she heard that a Dorchester employee said "Bear with me" as she put someone on hold, Styles took pains to make clear that it should be: "Mr. Smith, I'm going to put you on hold; I'll be back in just a few minutes." "You tell them what you're going to do and how long it will take," she says. She also fine-tunes the way employees use clients' names. "You use the name when greeting and saying good-bye. The third instance is when you need to get their attention, communicate important information. 'May I get you another drink?' doesn't require a name, but 'Mr. Smith, there's a call for you' does. Saying the client's name every time you pick up a bag is too much. All the hotels tell employees, 'Call the guest by name,' but they don't explore when to do it."
In Asia, the approach to building a luxury service experience is less formal. The Oriental in Bangkok sends all of its employees to a Buddhist monastery for a week to absorb—not "study"—the spirit of what service should be: a certain gentleness, never saying no, thinking of others. It is probably the Amanresorts properties that take this approach the furthest. Aman's service is effortlessly casual—the ease with which employees speak to you and react to you is a constant surprise. Aman makes attention to personal interactions a key element of its service, and it incorporates local customs and attitudes at each of its resorts. "Four Seasons is an excellent product," says Adrian Zecha, Aman's founder, "but what I absolutely do not want for Aman is Four Seasons' everywhere-you-go standards of experience."
At Amanjiwo, in Borobudur, Java, everything is undergirded by organization. Each morning and afternoon the general manager receives a briefing on engineering, food and beverage, and housekeeping, and he and the department heads make adjustments as needed. But you don't feel this in the delivery of the service. What you feel is the staff's authentic courtesy. Jack, one of Amanjiwo's cultural guides, says that Sharon Howard, currently training personnel at the new Amanbagh in Rajasthan, India, wanted to know "how we greet people in Java, about Javanese etiquette, how we receive guests in our homes. And that is exactly what the hotel wanted—to take Javanese culture and turn it into Amanjiwo service."
Like Luxury Attitude or Green Ink clients, Aman instills in its employees a sense of self-worth and, above all, a zeal for observation and anticipation. Each Aman property conducts its own training in the low season, and while there is little formal instruction—"There will never be a service manual as long as I'm here," Zecha says—employees know to ask discreet questions about guests' clothes (figuring when they might offer to do the laundry) and about what foods they like (which appear later, unbidden). Having learned to spot Hermès Kelly bags, the waiters at Amanpuri on Phuket, Thailand, began placing an extra chair at tables so that women wouldn't have to put their bags on the ground.
At the Hôtel Métropole training session, the one unequivocally positive luxury-service experience was recounted by the sous-chef and the chief steward, whom Meyer had sent to Piaget. "If I had any money, I would have bought the watch! He received us like kings," says one. "He was entirely courteous, incredibly giving," says the other. "He even offered us a drink! 'A coffee?A fruit juice?'" They had been treated with dignity and respect. Meyer smiles. "Piaget is luxury, and luxury is a voyage on which you take the client," he says. "Luxury is not the watch. Luxury is the beauty of the voyage into the watch's universe." And with that, the students dispersed, eager to guide their guests into the luxurious universe of the Métropole.
CHANDLER BURR is the author of The Emperor of Scent and has written for The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly.