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Friday, June 22, 2018

Cool Hotels

I have been traveling extensively recently, to the point where I have stayed at dozens of hotels already this year. During the course of these travels, I have discovered several really great properties, which I will share from time to time here.

But lest you get the idea that a travel journalist’s life is all heavenly beds and five-star hotels, let me first off assure you that I have stayed in several fleabags along the way. To that end, I can’t advise you enough against staying at New York’s Riverside Tower Hotel and Boise’s Best Value Inn and Suites. They are so bad that I won’t even grace them with a link.

But let’s get back to the good stuff.

In May, I traveled to Austin to be a judge in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships (yes, that’s a thing).


During my stay in the capital of Texas, my home was Hotel Eleven, located in Austin’s funkadelic East End. The 14-room property is owned by a wife and husband team. He’s the architect; she’s the hand-son general manager.

Credit: Paul Bardagy

Rooms are located on three stories, each floor with its own outside lounge/balcony. The rooftop sports a for-guests-only lounge with spectacular 360-degree views of the city.

The Crash Pad
Credit: Paul Bardagy
The interiors are modern, popping with orange and blue accents. Guest rooms (from a Crash Pad to the junior suites) feature wallpaper of varying color and design, along with cool lighting fixtures and contemporary artwork from local artists. Some rooms have freestanding bathtubs that are just inviting guests in for a soak.



This month, I decided to spend a couple of days in “my happy place.” That place is Sun Valley/Ketchum, Idaho. I discovered that the previously-rundown Clarion Hotel in downtown Ketchum had been refurbished into the Hotel Ketchum. While the general manager refers to it as a three-star hotel, and the rates are among the cheapest in the area, I was impressed, and I don’t feel sheepish in saying so.

A mural by a local artist graces the exterior of Hotel Ketchum
In fact, the hotel mascot is the sheep--which is appropriate given that this area is known for sheep farming. (Ketchum and neighboring Hailey host The Trailing of the Sheep every October, which is one of the best festivals I have ever attended.)

Trailing of the Sheep Festival
But I digress. While looking around the 58-room property can be an exercise in counting sheep (there’s the sheep mural, and the sheep salt and pepper shakers, and the sheep doorstops, and the “thank ewe” messages on your receipts),  the decor doesn’t cross the line into kitschy. Rather, the Idaho-inspired interior design, from the potato sack collage scaling the lobby walls to the local wood used in the furnishings and accessories, give the hotel a modern, cool ambiance.



Guests can also hang out at the Hangout. The onsite cafe is open in the morning for breakfast (free to guests) and again after 4 PM. That’s when the space converts into a cocktail lounge featuring beers and wines made in Idaho, along with craft cocktails and a light menu.oor covered patios and

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Why Luxury Hotels Spend So Much Time Deciding on Bathroom Amenities



The general manager of Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris once told me that “the bathroom says everything about a hotel.” It's true. Focusing on the bathroom amenities — the soaps, lotions, and potions — provides a valuable insight into the brand story.

This story originally appeared in the Skift New Luxury Newsletter, for which I am the luxury correspondent.


Bathroom at the Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour
Let’s face it, you often judge a hotel by the amenities it keeps. If you find a bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap and some flimsy unbranded, unopenable packets of shampoo, you know you’ve arrived at an ultra-budget hotel.

On the other hand, should the likes of Acqua di Parma or Le Labo populate the counter, it’s likely you are paying a pretty penny for your room.

The process behind selecting bathroom amenities is an exercise in brand alignment, especially in the luxury space. Top hotel companies have been known to get themselves in a lather about choosing the perfect product line.

Skift spoke with product development and brand management pros at Four Seasons and Sofitel about the selection process. Coincidentally, both hotel companies are in the midst of changing up their amenity lines, both processes years in the making.

Four Seasons was looking to make a change from primarily using L’Occitane and Bulgari products, while Sofitel wanted to modernize its approach beyond solely Hermès and Lanvin. In both cases, the companies wanted to update the amenity offerings, while ensuring the labels chosen were in alignment with the luxury image both brands convey.

According to Isabelle Laroque, director of product development at Four Seasons, the reimagining of the company’s amenity program has had a couple of different iterations.
“At first, we had the idea of capturing a sense of place in a literal way, by finding local products. But as the process went along, we decided that luxury transcended place,” she said. The local tie was not as important as an affiliation with a luxury brand that resonated in the market.

That’s when Laroque “started scrubbing the luxury market – not just in hospitality. I went to Paris, London, and other big markets and looked at the higher brands on the retail side.” It was important to look at the retail market, she said, because “people react better to products they actually buy.”

Next, Laroque and the procurement team reached out to amenity distributors and cosmetic lines. In all, Four Seasons saw 170 contenders. According to Laroque, it only considered 120. Those then went through a vetting process with a strict list of considerations.
One factor was gender neutrality. “We think about gender purposefully,” Laroque said. “We want something with a wide appeal... that not only is unisex but doesn’t have an overpowering scent.”

Then, there's packaging. “We prefer packaging that is more reflective of the actual retail product. We also consider how bottles feel, how the product flows out of the bottle, how easy the screw cap is to open … every aspect. Can you read the label without putting on your reading glasses?”

Four Seasons wanted to give their hotels a broad selection of brands from which to choose, so it settled on 19 for its new portfolio. “We wanted to tighten the supply chain, but we felt having 19 lines provided the right combination of craftsmanship and best in category.”
Hotels are currently in the process of sampling the brands and will make decisions in the fall. By next summer, all hotels will be using their newly chosen lines.

Sofitel is also in the process of reviewing its amenity offerings. According to Joao Rocco, vice president for luxury brand management, the French hotel brand is “in the process of finalizing the product slate – most likely, we will have five luxury lines spanning four luxury brands (including Hermès and Lanvin) to cater to different markets and their regional preferences.” The new products will be in bathrooms next year.

While Sofitel’s main criteria is selecting luxury brands it wants to associate with, its job is a bit easier than that of Four Seasons. That’s because, as a French brand with a French ethos, Sofitel is sticking to brands sharing its national art de vivre.“Since Sofitel is a French brand and we carry that in our DNA, as an ambassador of France, our amenity brands must be French,” Rocco said.

Sofitel’s change process started with a survey of 2000 luxury hotel guests in 10 markets. “We wanted to understand their expectations and the brands they prefer,” Rocco said. The first lesson Sofitel learned: it’s important to have branded amenities, as opposed to creating your own brand.

The survey found that 76 percent pay attention to the brand products. And in developing markets, the results showed a known brand is even more important.“Guests are expecting to see a high-quality luxury brand but are not necessarily expecting to see the same brand everywhere," Rocco said. "They like the surprise."

In addition to looking at survey results, Sofitel looked at scents and cents. “There are varying perceptions of scent in different parts of the world – and we want to cater to those,” says Rocco. Sofitel also considered the cost of shipping and import taxes. Even though the amenities chosen will be French, those brands that have packaging operations in China and South America, for example, might have a leg up economically.

In today’s environment, a discussion of bathroom amenities isn't complete without bringing up the matter of dispensing with small bottles altogether. But most in the luxury space balk at bulk.

“Of course, we think about being more environmentally-conscious,” Rocco said. “But when we ask if [bulk containers are] something that people are willing to accept, the answer is loud and clear. Seventy-two percent of the survey respondents said dispensers don’t convey luxury, while 87 percent get the impression that they are being used to reduce costs.”
Laroque agrees that “using bulk amenities is a very big conversation right now. And in places like Costa Rica, where they have high regulation in terms of plastic disposal, and in remote, remote properties, we might use bulk ... but would do so in residential quality curated containers.” That said, she concurs that for the Four Seasons customer, “Bulk usually seems utilitarian.”

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Greenwashing or Green Cleaning?

I encountered something new upon checking in at Westin in downtown Denver recently. The front desk agent offered 500 Starwood Preferred Guest points per night for every night I opted out of room cleaning. The agent remarked that this was for the purposes of being green, and, environmentalist that I am, I opted in.

But after a few days of the program, I came to sense that the “Green Cleaning” program was more about saving money on housekeeping than it was on saving the environment.  After all, I was still using the same amount of towels and bathroom amenities (although I had to call housekeeping whenever I needed to exchange dirty towels for clean ones, or to restock soaps, lotions and potions).


The Westin is the building on the left.
But that is just one part of the quibble. My main beef is that if this 430-room hotel is so worried about the environment, why is it dispensing plastic water bottles right and left? Now, I applaud the hotel for providing unlimited free water, to guests especially given the dry climate of Denver. But personally, I went through at least six bottles of water a day (and yes, don't rag on me for not putting tap water in a refillable bottle).  Assuming most guests are not water guzzlers like me, let’s say that the average is three bottles of water per day per guest.  Let’s say the hotel runs at 80 percent occupancy, with each room housing 1.5 guests per day.

Here's the math: 324 rooms (80 percent occupancy) times 1.5 guests = 488 times 3 bottles of water a day = 1464 bottles of water a day.

If the Westin is seriously concerned about green, perhaps, instead of offering guests to opt out of housekeeping, it should instead install water dispensers on each floor, and provide its SPG members with a free water container upon check-in.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Discovering Chicago's Neighborhoods: WIcker Park and Bucktown

homeaway.com
Booking a hotel in an urban neighborhood provides a visitor with the tools to feel like a local — and for Chicago-bound tourists seeking out a hipster vibe, the Wicker Park/Bucktown area is the place to be. Here, you'll find the addition of the 606, Chicago’s version of the High Line, where you can rent a Divvy bike or jog along the paved 2.7-mile path carved from abandoned elevated rail line. Below, you’ll witness streets filled with locally owned boutiques, bistros, and bars (with a few chain stores and juice shops thrown in).  

myopicbooks.com

Perfect for all budgets are the neighborhood’s music shops and bookstores. Head to Myopic for poetry readings, live music, and used books or grab a beverage at Volumes Book Cafe. Fans of vintage records will find their heads — and their turntables — spinning. The vinyl frontier includes Dusty Groove, Reckless Records, and Shuga. And there's plenty of places to eat, drink, and sleep. From budget to splurge, here's our guide. 

On a Budget

Where to Eat: There are plenty of cheap eats in this area. Try Irazu for a Costa Rican take on Latin American cuisine. You can grab three empanadas for $9 or casado, a typical Costa Rican meat and rice dish for $15. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Need a snack? Try the horchata or a uniquely flavored shake. Just bring cash — they don’t take credit cards. Continuing the international cheap eats theme, En Hakkore dishes out bibimbap bowls ($9) and Korean-inspired tacos (two for $8).

chicagoparkdistrict.com

What to Do: By day, hang out at Wicker Park. The park for which the neighborhood is named is a playground for kids and adults. In addition to its sports fields, the park often hosts free movie nights and farmers markets. By night, sneak into the Hideout, a Prohibition-style bar with live music. From January to April, there’s free soup and bread, made by local foodies and artists; your donations go to local food banks. 

Where to Stay: Urban Holiday Lofts offers up shared rooms with shared baths, along with private rooms with shared or private baths. Don’t be surprised to be sleeping in a bunk bed, though. The rooms are barebones (no TVs, no lotion), and the lobby is a bit dingy, but the place is certainly well-located, and it has convenient amenities like free breakfast, a common room with a pool table and television, and a guest kitchen. (Dormitory style room with shared bath go for $39 per night; private room sleeping up to four with private bath: $137.)

Mid-priced Options

Where to Eat: Enoteca Roma is one of those family-run Italian joints with scratch-made food and a rustic feel reminiscent of the Old Country. On a nice day, mosey to the back patio for an al fresco dinner (a pizza for $20 and plenty of wines for less than $10 a glass). Despite its name, Dove’s Luncheonette provides counter service for three squares a day. Menu items (between $12 and $17) are inspired by south of the border and Southern fare.

Dove's Luncheonette
dnainfo.com
What to Do: Head to Trap Door Theatre for avant-garde performances of challenging and obscure works. The Den Theatre has five unique venues, which present productions developed by its multiple resident companies. After a show, head to the Den’s bar for live music. (Ticket prices average about $25 each.) 

The Robey
Where to Stay: The Robey ($250 per night) has the same high design and unique amenities sported by many of the downtown hotels, but at a cheaper price tag. Located in an Art Deco building at the triangular intersection of Damen, Milwaukee, and North Avenues, the hotel offers easy access to the city. If you have a choice, go for the extra-roomy industrial-style rooms in the Annex Loft. The El’s Blue Line, which runs downtown and to O’Hare Airport, is right next door (and can be heard from some rooms — so if you are a light sleeper, be sure to ask for a room on the quiet side).

The Splurge

Where to Eat: Mirai Sushi is a stylish sushi and sake bar. The menu includes the standard items you’d expect, plus more creative fare. For sushi, it’s not that expensive, but is still one of the pricier restaurants in the neighborhood with shared plates that run $7-$17. Another nice date night option is Cafe Robey, serving upscale American fare. 
Whirlyball
evisitorguide.com
What to Do:  It’s not a huge splurge, as entertainment options in the neighborhood aren’t excessively pricey, but WhirlyBall offers bowling, laser tag, and Whirlyball courts that can keep anyone entertained for hours. What’s Whirlyball?  It’s a made-up sport that marries lacrosse and hockey and involves riding around in souped-up bumper cars. Fuel up before, during, or after your session at the on-site bistro. ($15 per per for a half-hour; bowling starts at $60 per hour for 8 people.) 

Hotel at Midtown
dnainfo.com
Where to Stay: The Hotel at Midtown is on the northernmost end of Bucktown, and while it feels a bit isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, it's an easy 10-minute walk to the main drag. Even though it’s the highest-priced hotel in the neighborhood, consider that the cost of your room (plus the $25 a day resort fee) gains you free entry into the fancy-schmancy Midtown Athletic Club. In addition to having access to the latest gym equipment, you can choose from dozens of daily classes, ranging from barre to yoga, without paying extra for the privilege. (Rooms go for $250-$300 per night plus the resort fee.)

This article was written for Shermans Travel. The original version of the article appears here.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Brain Dating: Thought Leadership Conferences and the High-End Traveler






This article originally appeared on Skift.com. I am that publication's luxury correspondent.

Nowadays, luxury travel is all about discovering new frontiers. It’s not just about expanding physical and geographic boundaries. The travel cognoscenti are “brain dating” around the world in order to stretch their minds.


First came TED in 1984. Soon thereafter, in 1987, there was South by Southwest.
Now, after a bit of a lull, thought leadership conferences are popping up all over the map, with Vivid SydneyC2 Montréal, and Light City Baltimore launching in the last decade.
Light City Baltimore: Photo by Perry Mandelboym
These conferences, which meld creative components with thought-provoking programming, deliver high-end visitors, while providing a host city with the opportunity to develop, solidify, or refine its brand.
According to J. Walter Thompson’s Future 100: 2018 forecast, “Events like these indicate the increased appetite for thought leadership and innovation among consumers. These experiential events combine self-improvement with entertainment, networking, and access to today’s influencers, who are often tech leaders or startup founders, rather than traditional celebrities.”
Vancouver thought the sector important enough to woo TED to the British Columbian metropolis. Working with Destination Canada, the city developed a two-year financial incentive package to entice TED to relocate from Long Beach, California.
Image result for vancouver ted
Courtesy cantechletter.com
“The average economic impact for TED from 2014-2017 was $3.8 million per year, but the true value far exceeds that as the TEDsters are distinguished and influential leaders who can help share Vancouver’s appeal as an incredible convention destination, great place to do business, and an unforgettable place to visit,” Tourism Vancouver said.
According to Dave Gazley, vice president of meetings and convention sales for Tourism Vancouver, most TED visitors stay downtown in four and five-star hotels, meaning that “Vancouver also benefits from the affluent crowd in that people will come back here on their own and experience the city on vacation,” given that the TED schedule doesn’t allow for much city exploration time.
South by Southwest, or SXSW as it is widely known as, celebrates its 31st anniversary in March. It’s grown from what was primarily a music festival into one big event made of music, film, interactive, sustainability, and education tracks.
“The interactive conference has the largest per capita spend, between the individuals who may stay at more expensive hotels and the corporations spending more money to host events at ancillary venues around the city,” said Ben Loftsgaarden, a partner in Austin-based Greyhill Advisors, which analyzes the economic impact of SXSW.
“One of the things that has made SXSW so successful.” said Loftsgaarden, ‘is that while the organizers realize it’s largely about networking, to keep people coming back, you have to make it fun.”
Vivid Sydney light festival
Courtesy Vivid Sydney
Perhaps that’s why so many conferences seem to be melding elements of creativity and commerce. Witness Vivid Sydney.
What started as a modest light festival ten years ago, designed in part to attract visitors to Sydney during the winter, has become a huge draw for tourists. The 23-day show has grown from 255,000 attendees in 2009 to 2.33 million in 2017.
Destination NSW took over the event two years into its run and started transforming it into what it is today: a festival of light, music and ideas. According to Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination NSW and executive producer of Vivid Sydney, the pivot to thought leadership “reinforces Sydney’s position as the creative services hub of the Asia Pacific region….and builds access to global markets.”
Chipchase said that most international travelers stay at high-end hotels and extend their stays to travel throughout New South Wales and beyond. “The international luxury traveler comes because it’s unique. These are people who want to learn and immerse themselves in creativity.” What excites them is “what they are going to learn, who they will meet and how they can be inspired.”
Moreover, as Sydney looks to attract even more high-end spenders, Chipchase believes Vivid is the perfect brand ambassador. “Vivid is a reflection of who we are: beautiful, sexy, outrageous, optimistic and fun.”
Indeed, the branding benefit is one of the intangible elements that hosting thought leadership conferences can provide.
“SXSW is an invaluable brand that has helped define Austin as the center of creativity and commerce, a community that is innovative, entrepreneurial and cool,” said Michael W. Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
But to be successful at brand-building, according to Tourism Vancouver’s Gazley, an event must have “unbelievable, compelling content that is meaningful to people,” while also aligning with a city’s DNA.

Interested in reading more about light festivals around the world? Read more here.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Punlinguistics




Love a good pun?
Don’t miss the DMV’s original pun show.
Beltway Pundits
February 27
7:00 PM
Maggiano’s Little Italy in Friendship Heights
For ticket information, go to this Eventbrite link. 


Friday, February 9, 2018

What's New in the World of Global Wellness Trends

Starring in your own distinctive adventure, female empowerment and trips for mushroom tripping are all in vogue for travelers, according to a new report from the Global Wellness Summit (GWS).


The newly released 2018 study identifies eight trends that will have a meaningful impact on the $3.7 trillion wellness industry. Many of these trends pertain to the luxury travel arena as well, since novel wellness trends often manifest first in high-end vacation spaces.


Travel marketers talk a lot about storytelling and experiences these days, but one of the GWS trends takes the journey steps further.
As Beth McGroarty, director of research for GWS, notes, by its nature, “travel is an ongoing quest versus piecemeal, disconnected experiences.”
Yet, itineraries provided at wellness destinations often do not connect the dots. McGroarty, the lead author of the report says, “We predict more wellness destinations will use the power of circuits and epic storylines” to create linked experiences, where the traveler is the pilgrim in an immersive story. The report calls this trend Circuits, Sagas and Epic Storylines.
It cites several examples of multi-chapter journeys, ranging from theatrical travel sagas to real-life games of Survivor.
For example, London-based Based on a True Story creates adventures for its well-heeled clients involving epic stories featuring multitudes of sets, actors and locations. According to founder and CEO Niel Fox, these journeys cast travelers as the heroes of their own stories. He cites “A Greek Odyssey… an adventure that unfolded with hundreds of actors, as a family encountered gods and goddesses…as well as having to overcome mythological monsters…. as they uncovered a trail of gold.”
Image result for six senses bhutan
Six Senses Bhutan
A more wellness-oriented saga is unfolding as Six Senses embarks upon a new venture in Bhutan. A story-based wellness circuit opening in autumn will have guests traveling among five lodges, where they will discover programming based on the pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. Six Senses is developing similar experiences elsewhere.
“A focus on multi-property wellness circuits will be a much bigger priority for us going forward,” says Vice President of Spas and Wellness Anna Bjurstam.
Black Tomato’s Get Lost program exemplifies this trend, plus another—that of Extreme Wellness. The $30,000 Survivor-style trips often require travelers to begin training months in advance so they are ready for the mental and physical challenges that await when the company drops them off in the middle of nowhere.
Less pricey and more civilized, but also extreme, many resorts are adding Body Boot Camps to their programming menus.
But the trend of Extreme Wellness is not just about exhaustion. It also encompasses “hacking our way to better brains, bodies and overall well-being.”
The report says, “Expect wellness destinations to create customized, individual programs through combining personal biomarker screenings for assessing body composition, stress, and prevention, with a fitness tests for optimizing performance.“ A handful of high-end wellness resorts are already on the mark with this trend, including Six Senses and Canyon Ranch.
Image result for canyon ranch
canyonranch.com
Several of the report’s other trends are relevant to high-end travel as well. One of the components of Getting our “Clean Air Act” Together is tourists avoiding going to polluted cities (or seeking to leave their own).
An obvious example comes from China. According to Ctrip.com, a leader in providing travel services to the Chinese market, smog avoidance and lung cleansing is becoming a major theme for luxury travelers there. Marketers are therefore touting destinations like the Seychelles, Maldives and Iceland as fresh air getaways.
Iceland's pristine air is a big draw for Chinese tourists

A New Feminist Wellness builds on the recent wave of for-women, by-women businesses. Given that Merriam-Webster picked feminism as its 2017 Word of the Year, travel aimed squarely at women’s empowerment is timely and highly promotable. High-end, women-owned operators like Wild Women ExpeditionsAdventure Women and Whoa Travel are leading the charge.

Likely the most offbeat of the trends examined is Mushrooms Emerge from Underground.  According to the report, “Magic mushroom retreats, in nations where legal, will continue to pop up…where the ‘trip’ gets combined with increasingly luxe wellness experiences.”
MycoMeditations is a pioneer in the movement. The company offers weeklong retreats in Jamaica for fungi trippers. It may seem a bit out there, but then again, in 2015, GWI was among the first mainstream trendspotters to predict the budding of cannabis tourism for wellness purposes.

This story originally appeared in Skift New Luxury, for which I am the correspondent.