Designing a new class of luxury – Luxury Is How the Consumer Defines It…By rooting out relational links and emotional bonds that guests are forming with their experiences, it’s possible to design better services and spaces that fit their desires rather than making assumptions about what guests need. Working with machine learning software, Metis, correlations can be extracted across words, images, and sentiments, from any number of sources.


BY DAVID BRAID & ANA BRANT
Credit: Leo Manjarrez

MISC
An Intimate Look at the Dorchester Collection Hotel Group
Resting in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, sits what many believe
to be the world’s oldest hotel – Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan. Established in 705 AD
on the banks of a natural hot spring, its foundational magnetism came from
healing and relaxing baths that, over the centuries, attracted many notorious
figures, including samurai, famed shoguns, and military men. While humble, it was
a true luxury of the era, a place of escape. As time charged on, this flicker of
repose remained relatively unchanged. Quiet. A place of generous hospitality,
simplicity, and the promise of retreat. It is, to this day, still in operation, a family
heirloom that has been passed down generations – 52 generations, to be precise.

It’s a remarkable demonstration of longevity, upheld by the secrets of family trade,
but it’s an anomaly by today’s measures of luxury. Where is the Michelin star
restaurant? Where are the palatial suites? Where’s the wifi-enhanced 24-hour
fitness facility? While luxury seekers are looking for many of the same outcomes
from their stays (such as escape and relaxation), there is no longer singularity in
how this should be fulfilled. From the high-powered executive to the privacy
seeking celebrity or the adventurous retired couple, there are multiple expectations
of what encompasses a luxury hotel experience. And yet, in many big name hotels,
there are limited expressions of luxury. Across brands, you’ll find the same service
practices, uniformity of amenities, and conformity to predictable luxury standards.
While this results in consistent, homogenous value propositions, does this actually
fit today’s luxury consumers? More importantly, in all this sameness, how can
luxury hotels cater to the individual when the system is designed for an assumed
version of luxury en masse?

One hotel brand is taking a different approach to inspiring luxury experiences by
centering around the individual (and what they define as luxury) rather than relying
on the property and amenities to inform the experience. With iconic hotels in
Europe and the US, Dorchester Collection is forging new ground in its customercentric
efforts, powered by insight and made real across the front line. The
following brings to light three of Dorchester Collection’s global initiatives and
how they’re impacting the luxury traveler’s experience.
Luxury Is How the Consumer Defines It
While it’s easy to segment business from leisure travelers, it’s a lot more
challenging to know what an individual may desire and the kinds of experiences
that they will equate with luxury. It may be a bother-free night of rest for the busy
executive, anonymity for the discreet celebrity, or an unexpected surprise for the
visiting couple. In these terms, luxury is not defined by a majestic entrance, grand
salon, or a members-only room, but by how the hotel (and more importantly, the
staff) responds to the guest. Despite the best intentions and carefully designed
service patterns, if it’s not couture by design – the right type of service interaction,
at the right time, and for the right type of consumer – the service will miss its
mark.

Context is what defines luxury service. Insight at an individual level enables deeper
understanding, thereby informing how the hotel should act. To this extent,
Dorchester Collection has incorporated empathy training into its learning and
talent development academy. As part of the onboarding process for staff, training
is enriched with personas that reflect a human-centered approach to staying at the
hotel, rather than focusing on categories on a spreadsheet or broad standards of
service necessitated by the industry (but not necessarily by the consumer). Going
beyond classic business vs. leisure distinctions, staff are trained to recognize,
understand, and anticipate guest expectations on a more contextual level, from
travelers like the female professional to the bucket-lister. Ultimate service delivery
isn’t benchmarked by traditional markers of luxury service – such as saying a
guest’s name three times at every interaction or ensuring that bags are whisked
away upon arrival – but rather on what is most suitable for the individual within the
present context.

Furthermore, in the perpetual campaign to better understand different types of
luxury consumers, it’s important to draw the distinction between feedback and
insight. While guest comments and feedback are critical to help sharpen services
to razor precision, they will rarely point to service gaps. Insight comes from looking
beyond what’s reported and instead hunting for hidden meaning among the many
pieces of data. For example, Dorchester Collection identified that across their
hotels 80–90% of breakfast orders were modified, marking an overwhelming,
unspoken indication that breakfast menus were dispensable. It is unlikely this
insight would have ever come directly from a guest. As a result, Dorchester
Collection has been experimenting with menu-less breakfasts, offering a “made to
measure” experience where guests can order whatever they like.

Connect the Dots Across Data
From online review sites, travel blogs, Instagram snaps, comment cards, and
Twitter posts, there is an exponential amount of data being generated about hotel
experiences. Much of this data highlights what the hotel does incredibly well or
mishaps that have been captured for all to see. Individually, these sources of data
provide a one-sided story, an extreme brought to life, while the average experience
is less likely to be reported as explicitly. Assembling the big picture requires
aggregating all the pieces and uncovering the relationships that connect the data.
This is no easy feat, with data coming in from multiple formats, from a myriad of
sources, generated by the minute. Even for the most seasoned analysts, it’s an
inhuman challenge.

So don’t leave it only to humans. This is the thinking behind Dorchester
Collection’s decision to integrate AI into their data mining strategy. Working with
machine learning software Metis (from a San Francisco startup, of which
Dorchester Collection is a founding first client), correlations can be extracted
across words, images, and sentiments, from any number of sources. For example,
in reviews for Dorchester Collection’s Los Angeles location, Hotel Bel-Air, guests
frequently spoke about the hotel’s outdoor spaces and wood-burning fireplaces,
using terms like “haven,” “secluded,” and “oasis.” Upon further investigation, it was
discovered that Hotel Bel-Air is the only hotel in Los Angeles with wood-burning
fireplaces, yet this is not a prominent selling point on the hotel’s website. By
rooting out these relational links and emotional bonds that guests are forming with
their experiences, it’s possible to design better services and spaces that fit their
desires rather than making assumptions about what guests need.

Build a Relationship Between CX and EX
While data can provide meaningful insight into consumers and inform directions
to evolve the hotel experience, it ultimately relies on the people delivering the
service. Many hotel brands have gone the route of standardized rulebooks for staff
to adhere to, regardless of whether they are in London or Los Angeles, so that the
guest experience is uniform across the board. While this can create a cohesive
brand experience, it leaves little room to celebrate what’s special about local
cultures and customs. Furthermore, for some hotels, efforts to regulate brand are
contributing to the brand’s commoditization, as the hotel experience is
symmetrical from city to city. Taking a counter position, Dorchester Collection has
purposefully chosen to design and operate their hotels independently of one
another. For example, the services and staff interactions (and even bed sheets) at
Le Meurice reflect its unique Parisian flair and differ from Hotel Principe di Savoia
in Milan or Coworth Park in Ascot. Autonomy has enabled each hotel to develop
guiding service principles that reflect its character, culture, and locality.

Looking one step further, through analysis of employee feedback, Dorchester
Collection has identified a high correlation between the employee experience and
the guest experience. While it’s not surprising these two go hand in hand, it creates
a compelling argument that evolving the guest experience means evolving the
employee experience in step. Dorchester Collection is experimenting with ways to
foster this. For example, their Beverly Hills Hotel has recognized that the iconic red
carpet that delights guests can have an equally positive impact on their staff, and
has fitted the employee entrance with a replica. At the Dorchester in London, the
staff canteen has been transformed into a restaurant, providing staff with their
own bit of luxury. And while they may be seldom seen, mobile phones are
becoming an increasingly important part of the job for cross-team communication
and immediate response. While there are lots of charging plugs for guests, few
hotels have infrastructure for their staff, leading Dorchester Collection to
experiment with employee “juice bars” to ensure a dying battery is no longer a
source of stress. As an organization, Dorchester Collection believes that their
employees are the curators of the experience – the hotel is merely a building.

Enabling a New Class of Luxury
While personalized service done at scale seems like the silver bullet to combat
standardization, commoditization, and devaluation of luxury experiences, it’s no
easy feat. It’s not a matter that can be solved simply by implementing greater data
collection, increased marketing budgets, or better staff training. It’s a far more
complex, interconnected, systemic challenge that touches all parts of the
business. The starting point for many organizations may be rewiring the metrics,
measurements, and KPIs to align with what the consumer would measure, rather
than the industry. Consumers generally aren’t checking that they’re being greeted
within 30 seconds of arrival or evaluating the breadth of the wine catalogue; these
are measures set out by regulators, ratings, and ranking agencies as markers of
luxury (unless these things matter to that particular guest in that particular
location).

Coveting stars has dominated what defines the luxury experience, to a point where
many hotels are aligning strategy to meet checklist criteria rather than focusing on
what’s ultimately important to the consumer. But we’re seeing signs that this may
be evolving. The proliferation of formal and informal sharing channels is shifting
the power balance. As this continues, the next class of luxury may not only be
defined by surface-level standards, but instead be driven by incorporating what’s
most important to the individual and their own expectations of luxury – rather than
relying on the industry alone to set the expectations. It will give a whole new
meaning to earning those stars.