During the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest question mark dangling over the ultra-luxury hotel sector was what the future luxe stay would look like. After a pandemic, would things go back to business as usual, or would guests still want to see more blatant signs of cleaning taking place?
I’m happy to report the ultra-luxury experience today looks pretty similar to how it was in 2019. Housekeeping comes by twice a day. Staff members are (usually) incredibly helpful and hospitable. Rooms are often nicer now than they were, as many hotels used the pandemic to renovate and refresh.
If anything, the biggest change is recognizing everyone might have a different way of operating these days. Otherwise, it’s time to look forward.
“Be aware of your surroundings, and be aware of the threshold that others have,” said Christian Storck, manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Austin. “I think that’s the biggest component that has changed.”
Mask mandates and lockdowns are hopefully a thing of the past, but Storck noted there remains a general awareness some people may prefer to wear a mask and avoid handshakes. Being respectful of others’ preferences is part of training now at the Four Seasons Austin.
During a recent TPG visit to the Austin hotel, there were subtle notices showing cleanliness and health remain important parts of maintaining the property. This is evident by the hotel’s partnership with Ecolab, a Minneapolis-based company that specializes in hygiene and sanitization services. Ecolab also offers an Ecolab Science Certified program that provides seals on various properties to show customers the facility has various health and sanitization initiatives in day-to-day operations.
But the Four Seasons team recognizes it has to do rigorous checks on top of the Ecolab partnership. These are Four Seasons guests, after all.
“At the end of the day, what it comes down to is, yes, it’s the Four Seasons and how we as a luxury brand stand out to our guests,” Storck said. “But it’s also about how we communicate what we do without necessarily having to put a sticker on the door.”
Localization of luxury
The Four Seasons Hotel Austin might be one of the nicest hotels in the city, but it also shied away from the walled-off fortress vibes ultra-luxury hotels can sometimes exude. Instead, the hotel leans into its Austin surroundings.
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Guests can summon a margarita cart to their guest room each afternoon with the push of a button on their in-room telephone. Live Oak, a lobby restaurant, serves Texas-inspired meals and cocktails. I’m told this local push is a development that took place more in recent years compared to the hotel dining lineup of the past.
“We smoke our meat from around the corner from a local provider. We also use a distillery just around the corner,” Storck said. “It’s just so cool to work together with the local community. I think it’s huge.”
The hotel also leverages its location along the shores of Lady Bird Lake with connections to a lakeside walking and bike trail, as well as an active back lawn with yard games, seating areas (pictured above) and even a winter ice skating rink.
Localization at various Four Seasons properties is part of a broader trend in the hotel industry. Luxurious hotel brands like Raffles increasingly lean more into local vibes in building out hotels while the lifestyle hotel movement (think: brands like The Hoxton, Edition and Virgin Hotels) is built upon the idea guests want more of a local experience when it comes to on-site restaurants and bars.
The push to do more with local providers at the Four Seasons also comes amid a greater sustainability push in the luxury sector. It used to be Six Senses was an anomaly among this top tier of hotel brands when it came to sustainable practices like reusable straws and putting soap and shampoo in large, refillable containers instead of using all those miniature single-use bottles. These practices are now pushing into other brands, including at the Four Seasons in Austin.
“As we move further into 2023, [more sustainable practices are] a must-have,” Storck said. “From bulk amenities to no plastic, that’s what the majority of guests expect.”
The customer is always right
There’s an important factor in why a hotel brand like Four Seasons maintains a partnership with a company like Ecolab, even if it’s more fun to talk about localization efforts instead of cleaning and sustainability practices.
“When we looked at some of the most important statistics, we know what some of the top factors are that influenced hotel price, both pre-Covid and post-Covid,” said Greg Cook, executive vice president and general manager of global institutional for Ecolab. “Cleanliness and disinfection were always in the top five, but now they’re almost tied as factors that influence where people stay.”
The expectations of how one lives at home now impact how one travels, whether for business or leisure, Cook said. An Ecolab certification of cleanliness is only one part of the equation for hotels, as the company also provides hotels with an array of cleaning products to assist the new ways people travel — increasingly with pets, for example.
As for how visible some of these various initiatives and cleaning products will be going forward? Don’t expect cleaning seals everywhere, but they’ll still be a hotel mainstay in the future.
“You’ll see it at the elevator bank on every floor, or you’ll see it at the entrance of meeting room spaces or banquet spaces,” Cook said. “That sort of speaks to what we see from consumers. They’re telling us that this is what they wanted.”