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What Luxury Really Means

True luxury is hard to find, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be far more widespread

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A scouting trip once took me to a notable five-star hotel in Sydney, Australia. The event was a wedding for a prominent family in Asia with a guest list requiring a full buyout of the hotel, which would mean several hundred thousand dollars worth of revenue for the hotel. If there were ever a way to capture a general manager’s attention, this was it.

But by the end of day two, I had not received a note or the notice of any manager, much less a bottle of champagne or a basket of fruit that my team and I were sure to have enjoyed and remembered. Not feeling the love, I looked up the toll-free number for the Four Seasons and called. Forty-five minutes later, a common taxi pulled up to the Four Seasons Hotel Sydney, where the doorman confidently opened the door and greeted me: ”Good morning, Mr. Cowie, and welcome to the Four Seasons!”

Forget the bottle of champagne from a general manager—while on the phone, the Four Seasons operator took the time to gather information about me, including a photograph, and send it to the team at the hotel prior to my speedy arrival. Such a simple task, but one that left a lasting impression.

Whenever I tell this story to high net worth clients and consumers, I receive the frustrated response: “Why doesn’t this happen more often?”

Hospitality is really customer service. But as my friend, the motivational speaker Simon T. Bailey, reminded me recently, it’s not about customer service anymore, it’s about customer love. I didn’t feel much from my first hotel in Sydney, but I did at the Four Seasons. I felt cared for, looked after and yes indeed, loved!

This notion struck me so deeply that it became the mantra for my team and now guides everything we do. I think the poet Maya Angelou summed it up best when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is the very essence of what hospitality is all about.

Today, we are too complacent with mediocre service; we don’t like to cause a scene or create tension, and so we accept poor service even though it leaves us with a bad feeling. Whenever I receive bad service, I politely let management know. When you call people on mediocrity in a straightforward and courteous manner, they make an effort to do better. I encourage everyone I meet to join my crusade. Here’s what to look for.

There are two types of hospitality: reactive and proactive. Reactive hospitality seamlessly solves a problem when something goes wrong: a room isn’t ready at check in, the wrong item is delivered by mistake, etc. A provider can recover and gain a bit of customer loyalty if handled correctly, but this places the relationship in a negative starting position. This isn’t where I want to start with my clients. I have studied this phenomenon deeply and believe that the majority of the world provides reactive hospitality. It’s the basic, the minimum, and costs the least.

The game changer is proactive hospitality, or the ability to anticipate and solve needs before they occur. Proactive service is nimble, attentive and spontaneous. It is guided by an overarching set of high standards that start at the top levels of management and are carried down through solid teamwork and good communication. Proactive hospitality engages guests in a personalized manner, creating a connection and making them feel as if they are the only person in the hemisphere.

I experienced such a feeling once in Hong Kong, where I was (again) staying at the Four Seasons. At the time, I was making a concerted effort to avoid white flour. The beautiful pastries and breads that accompanied my room service tray were left uneaten. On the third day I noticed my tray contained only whole-wheat pastries and bread. That demonstration of proactive hospitality blew me away. Not only did room service check to see what came out of the kitchen, but they checked to see what came back in. The staff looked for an opportunity to provide better service and take better care of one of their guests. It’s the reason I return to this hotel time and again. Without teamwork and communication, this would not have happened. (Of course, none of this matters if the experience is spotty or not consistent. Good service one day and bad service the next is a fail.)

Today it seems that luxury brands such as Four Seasons, Belmond and Ritz-Carlton are leading the charge in true hospitality. But why should true hospitality be limited to the world of luxury? Why shouldn’t it exist during a transaction at the local market, or in an exchange with a stranger waiting in line behind you? Given the caustic nature of our everyday existence, a healthy dose of hospitality would do us all a lot of good.

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