The New York Times: Looking for ‘a different kind of wow’: Next-level hotel experiences

Amy Thomas
The New York Times
From cooking with a Michelin-star chef to taking a chauffeured shopping spree in Singapore, hotels and resorts are offering ever-more-lavish activities for guests.
From cooking with a Michelin-star chef to taking a chauffeured shopping spree in Singapore, hotels and resorts are offering ever-more-lavish activities for guests. Credit: Chuyin Wang/NYT

Heli-hiking on a remote slice of Vancouver Island in Canada. Concocting your own perfume in southern France. Planning a shoot with a New York fashion photographer.

Now that amenities like infinity pools and posh spas (rebranded as wellness centers) are practically de rigueur at upscale lodgings, many properties are trying to distinguish themselves with activities that are ever more bespoke and brag-worthy.

“All of this is part of the trend we’ve seen for a while, especially since the pandemic, when everyone wants what they want and they want everything hyper-customized to their interests and their requirements,” said Ashley Isaacs Ganz, the founder and CEO of Artisans of Leisure, a luxury tour operator.

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Indeed, said Janelle Ruhumuliza, a travel adviser with Embark Beyond, “experiences have to go further than what they were before.” She notes that social media has amplified travellers’ desire to “one-up” what others are doing online.

Hotels are feeling the urgency. “We have guests that are almost aggressive in how they want to experience something,” said Philippe Gills, who oversees the concierge team at the Langham, Chicago. “Even if it’s something that they’ve experienced before, they’re looking to do it new now, so we have to be creative.”

Next-level activities

Activities and experiences have long been part of luxury hotel offerings. But many current offerings come with extra cachet.

“We are constantly trying to find cool things for our guests to do,” said Olivier Lordonnois, who, as managing director of Aman, oversees the luxury resort company’s properties in the Americas, including its newest in New York City. That could mean an invitation to an artist’s private studio to learn about their process ($7,500) or mastering fish butchery and handcrafted sushi ($750).

The resort also partners with the camera manufacturer Leica and offers master classes, such as photography with the fashion photographer Mark de Paola, who will help guests run a true-to-life shoot that includes hair, makeup and styling. Guests photograph models at iconic New York backdrops (starting at $7,000, lunch at an Aman restaurant included).

Set in a rainforest on Vancouver Island, Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge offers canyoning, horseback riding, salmon fishing and more. You can also take it to the next level and charter a helicopter to whisk you away for mountaintop adventures (650 Canadian dollars, or about $475, per person). “When you get to the top of the mountain, you’re talking to God,” said the general manager, Sarah Cruse. “I’ll send you up there with a bottle of Champagne and say, ‘Just sit down and have a chat.’”

Even resorts that offer a selection of activities included in the room rate take special pains to develop additional offerings. “Guests are paying a high room rate, so we need full programming and activities on the calendar,” said Corey Lens, the assistant general manager of Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, Maine. That means no additional charge for forest bathing sessions, watercolor lessons, and visits with orphaned owls, turtles and other wildlife. But you can also pay for extra sessions with a forest therapist to take you on a mindfulness hike ($85 per hour) or mixologists ($60) to level up your cocktail-making skills.

Exclusive access

Personalized experiences are something Annabel Rayer, a global communications director for IHG brands, which includes Six Senses, Regent, InterContinental and others, sees as non-negotiable. “It’s not just the case of going for a Michelin-star meal,” she said. Our guests want to meet the chef, and they want to understand everything that’s going on.” At the InterContinental London Park Lane, that Michelin-starred chef is Theo Randall, and guests can learn from him in a kitchen master class before indulging in a four-course meal (from 185 euros, or about $200).

In France, at Carlton Cannes, a Regent hotel, guests explore the perfume capital of Grasse in a vintage Citroën 2CV and create their own fragrance with some of the world’s best perfumers (from 109 euros), and at the Regent resort on the Vietnamese island Phu Quoc, guests can get lessons from an expert sailing crew aboard a catamaran (64 million Vietnamese dong, or about $2,520, for up to 12 guests).

In Chicago, the city where architect Frank Lloyd Wright established himself, the Langham tempts guests with an intensive tour of his home, which he built for himself in 1889 in Oak Park, west of downtown.

The three-hour excursion ($1,240) includes a chauffeured ride to Oak Park, which has the highest concentration of Wright-designed houses in the world, along with a tour of Wright’s own home and studio. The experience, said Gills, of the Langham, gives guests a new perspective on someone they thought they knew. “It’s a different kind of ‘wow,’” he said.

Jesmine Hall is director of communications for Raffles Singapore. “We see a hotel being a destination for not just rest and rejuvenation,” she said, “but a setting for cultural immersion.” The hotel’s Enlightenment Retreat (from 7,800 Singapore dollars, or about $5,745) features four days of holistic treatments — including yoga, meditation, hydrotherapy herbal body wraps — along with personalized menus from the hotel’s restaurants. It also includes visits to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Intan, a private house museum devoted to Peranakan culture — a mix of local and Chinese heritage. Tea with the owner, Alvin Yapp, well known in Singapore’s cultural circles, gives it that extra insider’s feel.

Exceptional locations

Sometimes the location itself is the experience. Rather than choosing downtown San Diego when it opened a new California location three years ago, Alila Hotels and Resorts went 28 miles north to Encinitas, California. “It’s this little beach town that’s always been known as a surf destination, always been known as laid-back and friendly,” said Emily Teachout, director of marketing for the 130-room Alia Marea Beach resort. Through Fulcrum Surf, a top-tier surf school, guests can take a one-hour lesson ($200) on the resort’s beach. Or they can opt for a private coastal tour ($925) to scope out the best breaks, take in the local scene and get an extended lesson on different surfboards.

Other resorts make the most out of their natural environment. When Jon Borschow, 72, and his wife, Galina, 68, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, arrived at Amanpulo resort on the private Pamalican Island in the Philippines, they noticed a lot of birds. Being amateur birders, they inquired about them and were offered a tour with the resident naturalist. “I would say we saw at least 30 different species,” said Jon Borschow, including Thai imperial pigeons and a Philippine megapode.

Personalization. Personalization. Personalization.

“Travelers really just want to be taken care of by hotels and have them provide and arrange everything,” Hall, of Raffles Singapore, said. Responding to that desire, Raffles offers a personalized shopping extravaganza, in which guests consult with a personal shopper before arrival, and then enjoy a chauffeured four-hour trip to some of Singapore’s best boutiques (from 3,900 Singapore dollars, or about $2,860, which includes two nights in a suite and breakfast).

Hotels also seize opportunities to deliver a personal touch.

When David Anderson, 78, of St. Louis, took his extended family on a trip to the Clayoquot lodge, he emailed Cruse, the general manager, in advance, sharing a bit on each of the nine family members.

“She guided us toward taking a family hike,” said Anderson, acknowledging they had been inclined to split up and do different activities. “She knew that we were working on communication as a family. We were going to pass on the hike. She really pushed us,” he said about the outing with experienced guides.

A year and a half later, Anderson still feels the effects on his family. “I can honestly say after that trip, our communication has gone to a higher level.”

What’s next

Hotel experts say that the arms race for bigger, bolder, more creative experiences will continue. “Guests are starved for something new because everything around them has been turned into an algorithm,” said Gills, who is constantly digging deeper to come up with the novel.

So, if hotels want to stay competitive, it seems that no experience is too “out there.” Not even a mountaintop chat with the gods.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2024 The New York Times Company

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