The hotel industry started more than a century ago when stagecoach outposts gave overland travelers a refuge from the elements — and little else. Nowadays, however, five-star properties offer well-heeled guests spa treatments, personal butlers and even room service for pets.
Such popular services and experiences could be helping keep occupancy rates high. Luxury hotels have yet to suffer from the sluggish economy, with occupancy falling just 1 percent between January and May 2008 as compared to the same time period in 2007, according to Smith Travel Research, which collects data on the lodging industry.
While that's an insignificant dip for a market that made $29 billion in revenue last year, luxury hotels are still fighting for customers; creative, high-end amenities and services help them stand out. Stephanie Ricca, editor of the trade magazine Luxury Hotelier, says that top-tier properties are in "reinvention mode."
"Having a similar-looking property in different cities around the world isn't going to work anymore," Ricca says. "They have to keep things fresh."
High-end properties, says American Hotel & Lodging Association president Joe McInerney, aspire to give guests a "home away from home." Of the luxury hotels recently surveyed by the AH&LA, 81 percent had flat screen TVs and about 60 percent had docking stations and DVD players.
Since such features are standard at most properties, hotels distinguish themselves by focusing on outstanding service. At Keswick Hall, a colonial-style mansion at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, new mothers can call on the baby butler. This attendant warms bottles, places a rocking chair and personalized crib in the room and rocks the baby to sleep while mom soaks in the tub.
The baby butler may be a unique service, but enhanced concierge and butler programs have become an industry bellwether. Steven Ferry, chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers, has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of hotels adding butlers to their staff in the past four years. They are trained to handle even the slightest of needs, from drawing a bath at the perfect temperature, to serving morning tea, to laying out a guest's clothes in the morning. A properly trained butler, says Ferry, will anticipate a guest's needs and address them seamlessly.
Details small and large
While there are at least 150 hotel butler programs around the world, according to Ferry's organization, properties are incorporating a number of services to satisfy their guests.
Some concentrate on minor but telling details. At the Ritz Madrid in Spain, monogrammed robes are placed in a guest's room before arrival. At Jade Mountain, a Caribbean resort, a poem is placed on each pillow at turn down.
Other hotels target a specific type of guest, like the pet-owner or environmentalist. The Lowell New York offers room service for pets, with choices like filet mignon tartar and organic buffalo marrow bone. At the Four Seasons Resort Nevis in the West Indies, guests can contribute to local conservation efforts by paying to adopt an endangered sea turtle, which has been tagged with a satellite transmitter for research purposes. Adoptive guests then monitor their turtles' migratory patterns via an Internet-based program.
Many luxury hotels have also shifted from a staid atmosphere to one that indulges their guests' interests, whether that's gourmet food or adventurous excursions.
The Enchantment Resort, a spa in Sedona, Ariz., has outfitted room terraces with built-in grills and offers an assortment of meats which are delivered by room service. At the Banyan Tree Phuket in Thailand, guests can fly by private plane to a secluded island, where they'll watch the sun rise over breakfast. This may sound unoriginal, but the most sophisticated hotels integrate a guest's every whim to make the experience truly memorable.
Such extravagances will only become more common among luxury hotels since fierce competition begets stand-out services and amenities.
"Once a hotel comes up with a specialty item," says McInerney, "you're only holding a competitive edge until another hotel does the same thing."