The Changing Role Of Luxury Hotels

In the wake of the global travel apocalypse, our relationship with five-star accommodation may very well change.

Article by Lee Tulloch

A private infinity pool awaits guests at a Beachfront Pool Villa at the new Legian Sire hotel in Lombok, Indonesia.

You enter the hotel room and close the door; what awaits you is a place to lay your head. But it’s much more than that. A sanctuary from the outside world. A theatre in which to enact your deepest fantasies. A zone for sybaritic pleasures like wallowing in the glories of the room service menu. At the very minimum, a place of comfort and safety. At least, that is how many people viewed hotels before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. “For me, a really good hotel needs to capture your imagination [and] fully immerse you in its purpose and story, as well as have all the usual trimmings that make a stay so spoiling,” says Tamara Lohan, the founder of Mr and Mrs Smith, an online booking service for boutique hotels.

But some of the wonderful things about a hotel stay – the excitement of mingling in a lobby, the lavish breakfast buffet, the “high touch” luxury of butlers and porters, and the housekeepers who tuck fine Egyptian cotton sheets into pillowy, soft beds – do lose some of their appeal when every crowded lift carries a lethal threat, interactions with staff can make us ill and rooms not clinically sanitised can harbour killer germs. Add to this the new concept of city hotels as quarantine hotels – essentially holding pens for contagious people –  and it’s no wonder some of the thrill has gone from the whole idea of checking in.

It’s not just germophobes who look at their hotel room’s television remote and pillows with suspicion these days. Everyone is paranoid about germs now. “Increasingly, we see travellers asking questions about hotel practices, more so than ever before, because that matters to them now,” says Bill Bensley, the prolific Bangkok-based architect and philanthropist whose beautiful and creative hotels include Bali’s Capella Ubud and Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. Lohan agrees, saying the hospitality industry moved incredibly fast across their operations at the start of the pandemic to ensure guests felt safe. “Cleanliness has, of course, always been part of the running of a good and successful hotel, it’s just been a slight change in really communicating that to the customer as a message of reassurance,” she says.

Even so, no-one loves the idea of a luxury hotel looking and feeling like a hospital. It does rather take the romance out of it. When we all made our hotel reservations in 2019, the last thing on anyone’s mind was hospital- grade disinfectants. But it’s not just the fear of infection that has changed since then. Enlightened travellers are starting to demand more from their hotels. “This year has been a time of reflection and I can see people are starting to think about how they travel and what they expect from a stay,” Lohan says, adding that she hopes we’ve seen the end of the Instagram- fuelled quest for the newest, hippest and hardest-to-get-into. “I think we’ll definitely see some lasting changes. More conscious consumers will consider flying less but staying longer, maybe by twinning city, coastal or countryside stays. We’re all much more familiar with remote working, so a blend of work and leisure has become easier than ever.”

The entrance to Aman New York.

She adds that sustainability credentials are becoming one of the most important considerations for consumers when they’re choosing their accommodation. “It’s become incredibly jarring to see single-use plastic, excess waste and any abundance of imported produce,” Lohan says. “For those opening hotels today, for instance, we would hope sustainability is considered from the very outset – and we’re seeing a lot of innovative efforts in that respect.” Bensley agrees. His dream is that sustainability will be “the standard, not the exception” for all hotels.

It’s clear that hotels are in need of careful reinvention, and Lohan believes that might come in the form of “tedious at-the-desk check-ins and check-outs” disappearing altogether. (One can only hope.) “Human interaction elsewhere – chefs, gardeners, mixologists, marine biologists, etc – will become ever more important to a hotel stay,” she predicts. “And an enhanced connection with nature will likely be at the heart of those more rural stays, while city hotels will foster a community atmosphere that benefits both guests and their neighbourhoods at large.”

Bensley says hotel operators will need to create “space” for their guests, with an emphasis on fresh air and Covid-free zones. “I think we are looking at a world which has been turned upside down, where we are all longing to escape into places that are completely different to our daily life,” Bensley says. “We want a change. We want greenery and a connection with Mother Earth — we want escapism!” Not coincidentally, “Escapism” is the name of his latest book.

In addition, Bensley believes hotel operators need to reconsider the role that they play in society. “My biggest hope is that all hotels will bear a purpose and make it their standard, their raison d’être – be it the education of their guests, supporting the local community and empowering them, using the hotel as a means for conservation,” he says. “There are so many ways one can go with this. My dream is that sustainability will be the standard, not the exception, for all hotels. The youngest of consumers are much more aware of important sustainability issues – way beyond the plastic straw.”

So how then, will attitudes towards hotels change? Pre-Covid, it wasn’t enough to visit a hotel – many wanted to live in one. Guests shopped the Four Seasons boutique for mattresses, The Ritz- Carlton for lamps, The Connaught for martini glasses and Firmdale by Kit Kemp for fluffy bathrobes and Wedgwood china. The stylish filled their homes with votive candles and luxe throws, inspired by the opulent interiors of hotel rooms, places that they had either stayed at or spotted in the pages of a magazine. They piled throw pillows onto beds, introduced cocktail trolleys to living rooms and turned humble bathrooms into showcases for souvenired Le Labo amenities.

During the pandemic lockdowns, when the world seemed to shrink, those hotel comforts transformed homes into sanctuaries. And the longing for a five-star getaway was only reinforced. What hotels do best is help their guests make memories, and who doesn’t want more of those? We’ll be back.

A version of this article appears in print in our launch edition, Page 117 of T Australia with the headline:
Destination Unknown
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