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  • David Richey

The true future of luxury – for those who can achieve it

Recently, I wrote for HOTELS about the three levels of authenticity – Objective, Constructive and Existential. The last, and most difficult, is Existential. It’s all about the customer. It means allowing the customer to remain within their true self and allowing the customer to fulfill their vision of self-identity. (First proposed by P. Berger, “Sincerity and Authenticity in Modern Society,” 1973)

Some readers commented by asking exactly what type of products or experiences would allow customers to be their true self. It sounds sort of weird, doesn’t it? Well, there are some.

For example, how about a kitchen blender? No matter how sophisticated, it is a blank device, providing no experience, no inspiration, no result. However, it is the instrument through which cooks can create beautiful things that express their talents and tastes. In other words, the blender’s entire purpose in life is to be here for you, the customer. You get to fulfill your own vision of self-identity. Without you, it is nothing but a motor and some wires.

Okay, that’s a product, but is there an experience that offers a “blank slate” for customers? How about a ski mountain? Of course, one hopes the terrain is beautiful, but beyond that, the operator’s mission is to provide a safe, high-performance environment, with adequate facilities like chair lifts and foodservice. Then it is up to the guests to create their own four- or five-hour experience. Some will spend most of the time eating burgers and drinking schnapps, punctuated by gentle trips down the bunny slope. Others will go all out, slamming the black diamond mogul trails for hours.

How about a restaurant? To be a total experience all about the guest, the restaurant would need to provide an empty room. Then, when the guest makes a booking, they would be invited to choose the furniture, the color scheme, the music, staff uniforms and service style, and, of course, any food or drink in the world.

Nonsense, right? But in reality, hotels slide up and down this scale all the time. Some decide that they are providing a scripted, immersive, mostly orchestrated experience in which the guest is truly there for them – to absorb the wonderfulness that is their brand.

Another hotel, say, an urban hotel in a bustling business district, might choose to be more of a blank canvas in which diverse guests can accomplish diverse objectives. They want to be the “blender” with which guests cook up their own outcomes.

You might think that the former hotel example is more luxurious and the blank-canvas example is more mid-market. But I would suggest it is exactly the opposite.

Today’s sophisticated consumers have mostly been there, done that. Sometimes, they elect to have a transporting experience. But often they are mainly interested in their own business objectives or time spent with loved ones.

In a way, it is hubris to imagine that guests need to be “stage-managed” and that your own brand has just the right solution. The result is stylized and predictable environments and cuisine. But perhaps worst of all, it has stilted, standardized and scripted service interactions. It’s sort of like Kabuki theater in which guests are simply members of the audience.

I think we can all agree that affluent customers increasingly seek authenticity and individualized experiences and products. The problem is that this is really, really hard to do properly. That’s why it’s up to the luxury sector to lead the way.

Of course, hoteliers must build and outfit the hotel with features and décor they believe will resonate with their clientele and be authentic to their brand. But beyond that, is it possible to set guests free – even in small ways?

For example, I’ve read thousands of room service breakfast menus. They’re all pretty much the same. Is it really necessary to print specific combinations of what is and is not permitted? What if the guest wants three scrambled eggs, not two? What if they want a bit of bacon and a bit of sausage without paying for two separate side orders? These are the kinds of things that often require a manager’s intervention and a POS system override. Why not just have appetizing pictures of typical breakfast ingredients on the page? Then, when the guest calls, simply ask, “What can we prepare for you today?” A guest at one luxury hotel was recently refused an item from the lunch menu in the restaurant because it was after 3 p.m. Really? Policies like these portray an operator shouting, “You’re here for me! Stay in line!”

Here’s another example: Why must every guest check in at 3 p.m. and check out at 11 a.m.? It’s another rule through which an operator flatly tells their guests, “It’s about me and my convenience (or capability).” Of course, if a guest pleads, they may be extended a courtesy – again, with manager intervention, system override and perhaps a half-day rate. I know, I know all the reasons we think it’s necessary. But you can’t deny that operators are telling their guests, “Here is my box – you must fit into it.”

And it’s especially discouraging when the natural charm of the staff is wrung out as they attempt to satisfy myriad standardized behaviors, mandated by company inspections or ratings agencies. This is truly low- to mid-market behavior. In this case, both staff and guests are merely playing a role scripted by a faraway authority figure.

Existential authenticity simply means that customers want to be their real selves, and they want to be served by staff and organizations who are also real. Like I said, it’s really, really hard. But those that figure it out will win. It is the future of luxury.

In which areas of your experience can guests can truly fulfill their own vision of self-identity?

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