Hotel Amenities and the Future of Hospitality

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
July 2014

 

If you recently checked into a hotel that didn’t have a number or the word “Super” in its title, there’s a chance you experienced those pivotal, petite hospitality phenomena known as amenities. They pop up in most hotels in small ways, for every guest—like the mint on the pillow, that tired, sticky classic. But when a guest’s status rockets to VIP, amenities become essential, a signifying introduction to the luxe experience. And for the first time in what seems like a very long time, these amenities are changing.

“The days of walking into a VIP room with a bottle of wine and cheese are gone,” says Anthony Carey, General Manager of The Siena in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Carey’s not some upstart trying to overturn cheese plates and start a revolution; he’s a long-time hospitality professional, starting as a bellman in the 90s, watching the industry change from the inside. So he knows what he’s talking about when he says the days of wine and cheese are over. “It’s so generic, so un-personalized.” Not to mention, Carey notes, “Wine and cheese plate? What about, ‘I’m a vegan. I’m gluten free.’”

Madelines and Fruits at the Fairmont Hotel

Madelines and Fruits at the Fairmont Hotel

 Sofitel - Los Angeles, CA

Sofitel - Los Angeles, CA

 Sofitel - Los Angeles, CA

Sofitel - Los Angeles, CA

Test Tubes of Wine with Charcuterie and Cheeses

Test Tubes of Wine with Charcuterie and Cheeses

Complimentary Cookies at Hard Rock Hotel Chicago

Complimentary Cookies at Hard Rock Hotel Chicago

Mandarin Oriental San Francisco - San Francisco, CA

Mandarin Oriental San Francisco - San Francisco, CA

Mandarin Oriental San Francisco - San Francisco, CA

Mandarin Oriental San Francisco - San Francisco, CA

 

Like many boutique hotel professionals—most of them food and beverage managers or general managers with assistance from executive chefs, etc.,—Carey is responding to a greater demand for specified, personalized attention. In an era of experiential cuisine and a digital frontier where Amazon knows what you want before you do and Gmail comes adorned with banner ads catered specifically to your keyword-searched emails, hotels can’t simply throw a one-size-fits-all amenity at VIP guests.

“Amenities need to change as the profile and dynamic of our guests change,” says Matthew Atkins, Director of the Front Office at The Sofitel in Los Angeles. The way Atkins describes his job sums up the shift, as a “[collaborative] effort to design amenities that evoke an emotional response in our guests.” That’s it: evoke an emotional response. With today’s VIP suites attenuated to particular tastes, allergies, even memories, the hottest commodity in hospitality is emotion.

The way hotel amenities play it up may vary. For some, it’s about the locale. For others, it’s about all encompassing customization. And for others still, it’s about showcasing the identity of the hotel itself.

The Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco is a larger boutique hotel with a gin and tonic VIP amenity. This doesn’t seem like a far shake from wine and cheese, but the beverage aspect is just one patch in their hospitality quilt (100 percent goose down, or course), meant to highlight a major 2012 renovation and the creation of their new gin-centric bar. “We now have one of the largest gin collections in the United States,” says Sophie C. Dier, Director of Food & Beverage. “We decided to create the G&T amenity,” she says, “both [to] welcome and to showcase this interesting feature of our hotel.”

Modern hotels don’t just stop at expressing themselves. Like grapes on a vine, they must express the land around them. Being in San Francisco, the land of the free and home of the local, the Mandarin’s gin and tonic features a local gin, St. George Terroir, “made by artisan distillers in Alameda, highlighting the sense of place that the Mandarin is known for.” says Dier,  A six-hour drive south, Los Angeles may be less known for its sense of place, but that doesn’t stop The Sofitel from showcasing local honeys in its custom-blended Harney & Sons tea VIP amenities. “Last year we released a brand new menu into our restaurant, Estérel, that largely focused on local and sustainable items from Los Angeles,” says Guest Relations Manager Nina Monraz. “I wanted to carry the theme over to our amenities.”

Monraz works with both Atkins and Chef Marius Blin to, as Blin puts it, “personalize based on our guest needs and moods.” Add-ons, like their recently offered Cronut variation, gently reiterate the identity of the hotel itself. As Monraz puts it, “a fun treat that blends our French heritage with our Los Angeles location.”

Which is to say, the modern amenity makes a triple statement: we’re here, you’re here, and look where we are. At the Siena, Carey’s forward looking approach to amenities is practically post modern. He quietly leads his guest relations staff in what can only be summed up as systematic hospitality recon. “We do some reconnaissance,” says Carey, mentioning “social media, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, [and] Instagram” as resources the staff uses to “track profiles and observe behaviors” in order to, among other things, individually specify VIP amenities. Do you Instagram your morning juice every day? Then don’t be surprised when the concierge hands you one on your way out to the car.

It may seem excessive, but Carey and company are actually just doing what online businesses such as Amazon do, except the Siena’s staff does it in person. “Research, demographic marketing,that’s what it’s all about now,” says Carey. They’re using the most advanced technology (and the modern phenomenon of rampant public self-promotion) to give the warmest possible welcome. If hospitality is about anticipating needs, consider this the most anticipatory technique. “We use tech to our advantage,” says Carey, “to create an emotional tie of some type.”

In the rare case that a guest remains anonymous until the point of entry, the staff will leave a sachet of lavender (or something of the sort) with a note inviting them to inform the staff of their likes and dislikes. “It creates a dialogue,” says Carey. Indeed, over the course of a stay at The Siena, that dialogue will yield a kind of portrait of the guest. The staff is equipped with pads and pens to note significant predilections, which the hotel will use to better serve clientele.

Carey is careful to draw a line between hospitality and invasion. “We’re very careful, very delicate,” he says. “If you create a feeling of stalking, you’ve taken it too far,” he says, noting a time early in his bellman career when he was “trying to maximize tips,” and freaked out an older couple from Michigan with knowledge of their names “before they could even speak.” For the current Siena staff, training is essential, though Carey finds that many of them—“Millenials, computer people”—are actually craving the nuances of hospitable interaction. “They’re excited to make that twist in service.”

Which brings us to the irony of the modern amenity: tech-nurtured young professionals using social media to personalize increasingly rare human interactions. The same way your credit card is associated with your email address, your hotel profile will be increasingly associated with personal detail—even, yes, a preference for a simple bottle of wine and some cheese.