The distance between very good and superb is actually quite far and it requires motivated teams, attention to detail, and above all creativity to break out of commodity service delivery. Here are a few brands, ideas, and services that deserve a tip of the hat.
The pace of travel’s resurgence means this recurring column feature feels right to do twice a year, as I have in the past. There has been a lot to take in, and crisis has been a forcing factor for interesting ideas born from constraint. There is also a bit of bad behavior in the market, with price gouging and formerly iconic names still trading on badge value though their service isn’t up to snuff. Still, we opt for a more cheery outlook, giving airtime to the places and spaces that manage to stand out.
After all, the distance between very good, and superb is actually quite far. And it requires motivated teams, attention to detail, and above all creativity to break out of commodity service delivery.
Here are a few brands, ideas, and services that deserve a tip of the hat:
Best Short-Haul Airline Concept
I’ve heard a lot of rumblings about JSX, but just got around to trying it. And I’m a convert. It takes the best part of private travel, the ability to turn up 20 minutes before your flight, and turns it into its brand superpower. They fly retrofitted Embraers which are perfectly nice, but the true appeal of the product is getting to skip the chaos of summer airports completely. Plus, the company is run by someone who knows brand and operations well: Alex Wilcox, who logged time at Virgin and Jetblue. He’s pragmatic, sharp, and the product has been delivering.
Hotel Brand to Watch
I’ve been patiently watching Alila, born in Asia, and now part of Hyatt. The brand is starting to beautifully come together: it is focused on nature-centric experiences (think Big Sur and Oman). It takes awhile for a brand to find its footing, but my experiences with Alila Marea in San Diego as well as the Alila in Southern Oman showed me a brand that is going to be competing with the big players for luxury spend, set in interesting new areas around the globe. They’ve nicely built off of the hospitality and design of the brand’s Asian roots, and are starting to bring all elements together nicely.
Best Super Luxury Brand
If we’re being honest, there are really only a few chains operating at a hyper luxury space in terms of service, vision, consistency and the “wow” effect. Sharing airspace with Oetker, Aman, Nihi, and Soneva is Airelles, who have been on my radar lately thanks to some interesting openings and strong word-of-mouth from connected travelers. They are expanding their portfolio rapidly in France with two properties in Saint-Tropez, following their launch of their Château de Versailles property last year. The brand’s earlier properties, particularly Courchevel, have a cult-like following and it will be interesting to see if they can scale the touch and service as the brand grows. This is the true challenge at the highest level.
Best First Lounge
It gets a lot of airtime among the long haul set, but Qatar’s Al Safwa lounge has been getting better and better. It is museum-like in its tranquility, and service is polished and professional. The sleeping rooms have gotten me through many long layovers at Doha.
Best Brand Culture
It says a lot about a brand to see who they aspire to hire as GMs. I’ve been really inspired by the design and execution of Proper. Their downtown LA opening is manned by Stephane Lacroix, a luxury veteran who has the new property running crisply. Santa Monica is helmed by the superb Julien Laracine, a veteran of Nihi, who co-runs the hotel with his wife Carla Stoffel. Friends I’ve referred his way come back raving with his attention to detail, warmth and overall vibe. The duo also managed to steward the property through the doldrums of Covid back into its thriving self.
Most Exciting Openings
Two openings caught my eye for their sheer ambition: Raffles London at the OWO and Passalacqua in Lake Como. The former, like the original in Singapore is epic in scale and will be a restaurant and bar destination as well as a hotel, transforming Whitehall in the same way the Ned did the financial district in London. It is manned by a superb hotelier, Philippe le Boeuf. Passalacqua, from the owners of Grand Hotel Tremezzo, has an anytime, anywhere approach to service and one of the best views of the lake, with a JJ Martin-designed pool.
The Rooster in Antiparos is labor of love, built within a 30-acre site of hills, ruins, rocks and sand dunes in Greece. The founder, Athanasia Comninos, created a small, perfectly formed property that feels private, unspoiled, and too good to be true. The fact it is a personal project is very apparent, though there are architectural nods to Aman with some of the room layouts, it also feels completely unique. And because of the friction required to get to Antiparos, it is unlikely to be overun by hedonistic hordes. The room design is tranquil, and fits beautifully with its environs. The roosters crowing nearby in the morning give you a clue as to the name’s origins.
I was in Amman, Jordan toward the end of the year, and was absolutely impressed by the recent re-fit of F&B at the Four Seasons Amman. The hotel has long been a place of diplomatic intrique and hushed conversations, which they playfully parlayed into Sirr, a secret bar with dark wood paneling and some of the best bartenders in the city. They were able to recreate one of my favorites from Employees Only, the Billionare, perfectly. Also, La Capitale was an absolute standout brasserie helmed by people who really loved their jobs. I found myself lured back because things were run so well.
Best Hotel Experience This Year
I thought Auberge’s re-fit of the Mauna Lani on the big island of Hawaii was inspired. They did an incredible job with the design, F&B, and notably the experiences: where as I detailed in a longer column, they manage to thread Hawaii’s cultural depth through their experiences, doing something more soulful and meaningful than the stock-standard island hedonism. Everything was considered, including retail (there’s a Goop), as well as NYC-style deli items among the locally roasted Kona coffee. It’s hard to make all elements come together, and they did.
Sanjiv Hulugalle, Pete Alles and Danny Akaka from Auberge lead with vibes, energy, and optimism. Stephanie Pournaras and Yasmin Natheer Al-Sati of Four Seasons are tight on the details and the craft of hospitality on every level. Rubina Gurung from Al Maha in Doha goes above and beyond. And finally, I’m sending best wishes to the ever elegant Petar Krstic of Aman as he is poised to open the new property in New York.
For the longest time, I noticed an elegant signature on the welcome when I’d check into the Park Hyatt Tokyo: Philippe Roux-Dessarps. He’s a legendary hotelier who I only knew by this signature, and by reputation. We got to spend some time at his new post, The Four Seasons Astir Palace on the Athenian Riviera and followed was a wide ranging conversation on Japan, detail, hospitality, and brand. It was a pleasure to spend time and see how he’s bringing an international career to bear with one of the brand’s priority properties. And it was nice to put a signature to a person, finally.