In the final article of our series of pieces on luxury hospitality based on interviews with leading hoteliers in Paris, Suzanne Godfrey argues that luxury has always been about innovation.
True luxury has always been at the forefront of innovation. It doesn’t depend on the wants or needs of “consumers”, nor is it limited by the traditional concept of utilitarian value and competitiveness that can stifle creativity. Luxury brands are leaders, not followers. They deliver the ultimate in craftsmanship and innovative design, at the leading edge of creativity and technological innovation. Luxury seeks to give pleasure and create status and symbolic value through innovation. It provides uniqueness, exclusivity and differentiation, free from normal cost-based product pricing and cost-value ratios. Luxury aims to be extraordinary rather than ordinary. It contributes to the “wow!” effect, the prestige and symbolic value that is conferred on its users – and inspires the dream.
Luxury inspires innovation and provides a benchmark for other industries. From product to service design, craftsmanship to technology, real to virtual experiences, innovation is exemplified by luxury brands. From the invention of the automobile (replacing the horse and carriage) to luxury car brands from Rolls-Royce to Aston Martin to Ferrari; from the use of digital in creating value and delivering experiences to unique, personalized one-on-one engagement; in the development of sustainable products and concepts, whether in cars, timepieces, jewelry (see the Green Carpet Collection) or hotels (see Six Senses, examples of eco-tourism) or the Hermès launch of Petit h, whose business model is based on recycling – reusing and redesigning leftovers into fun, innovative luxurious products.
Innovation is crucial as luxury brands seek to remain contemporary and relevant to today’s changing luxury “consumer”, whether in China or the United States, among the traditionally rich or newly moneyed, from the Baby Boomer generation to Gen Y and Japan’s teens. For LVMH, innovation is a core value for the French luxury goods group and a pillar of their business model. Kering, another French luxury group, is pushing at the boundaries of innovative, sustainable solutions and sourcing, challenging the luxury companies within the group to disrupt and create the future of luxury that is sustainable and socially responsible.
What of innovation in hospitality?
The hospitality industry is not exempt from the need to innovate. The product, in terms of the hotel and the services it offers, has to be innovative. It can’t become a museum piece: a hotel or restaurant located in a historic building. It has to remain contemporary and relevant, while looking to the future and continuing to inspire a “wow!” effect.
This is epitomized by the redesign and development of many of the Palace hotels in Paris but also in their bars and restaurants, which provide more opportunities for ongoing innovation and are ideal vehicles for communicating the hotel’s luxury credentials.
A hotel’s food and beverage outlets provide an opportunity to reach a broader audience, creating awareness and helping to build the hotels’ reputation – not only among their clientele but also among local residents. F&B helps create aspiration and build “the distance”, which is essential in luxury for it to maintain its symbolic value, as well as inspire and proliferate “the dream”.
This is helped by showcasing Michelin-star chefs such as Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée, Paris, and Le Meurice. Or developing young talent such as Cédric Golet – who is gaining a reputation and following in France as the pastry chef at Le Meurice – a now sought-after destination for afternoon tea, which is part of a special “mother/daughter getaway” package that includes spa treatment. According to Frank Schuetzendorf, a senior lecturer at EHL who was previously the F&B Director at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, three-star Michelin restaurants are often referred to as the Formula 1 of F&B, as they set the benchmarks in product, service and design innovation. Ideas then get spun off and introduced and embedded into other restaurant concepts.
Innovation exists in the design of the restaurant, the food experience, and in the ambience.
Consider the Alain Ducasse restaurant at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, Paris. He took the bold decision to serve dinner without the classic, white tablecloth – in fact without any tablecloths. The restaurant is transformed in the evening to create an atmosphere more appropriate for a dining experience. Its entrance is no longer closed off, but has glass doors visible from the lobby as if to entice you into the fairyland beyond. The opulence of sparkling chandeliers, silver combined with glass, natural wood and white. The introduction of subtle elegance and small modern design features such as umbrella-style handbag stools. Small touches that are discreet, yet introduce innovation and bring modernity to your eyes.
Or the extravagance and elegance of Le Bar at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. It combines new with old, modernity with tradition, reflecting its “haute couture” positioning with swathes of rich, dark blue fabric covering the ceiling. In the words of François Delahaye, Chief Operating Officer of the Dorchester Collection, this is to attract the next generation “(by) bringing modernity but also the respect for the young people coming, the new comers and the young clientele, and to attract the sons and daughters of my loyal guests.” Yet without alienating them either. It’s also important to show respect to the older clients as well.
Or the Dalí Restaurant at Le Meurice, redesigned by Philippe Starck in 2016 with the help of his daughter Ara, which pays homage to Salvador Dalí, who was a regular at Le Meurice. With the interior updated by French designer Philippe Starck, the restaurant creates links to the past whilst providing a fresh, more modern and fun look and feel to the hotel. Franka Holtmann, the General Manager of Le Meurice, explains: “We wanted to make it more glamorous with touches of humor because it was sad; there was nothing inspiring before.”
The Ritz was always an innovator. Opened in Paris in 1898, it was the first hotel in the city to have lifts, to have electricity and telephones in each room, and en-suite bathrooms. Madame Ritz pioneered shopping with the first retail gallery – the long passage – introduced in 1911. It’s one of the reasons why some are surprised that, after four years of renovation, the Ritz isn’t again at the forefront of innovation. But in its own way it has innovated. As Jean-Pierre Trevisan, Director of Operations, explains: “The Ritz has changed … but nothing has changed at the same time!” They have modernized the technology and innovated by making the changes more or less invisible, so as to retain the style and atmosphere, the glitz and glamor, the heritage that is the Ritz, which is what people want and expect.
“When (guests) arrive you can see their smile, you can see they are reassured because they find their Ritz again. The colors are the same, the smell is the same, the furniture, or the chimney they remember, is still there. They find the same furniture, they find the same staff.”
They have also innovated in their service philosophy. In hiring a new ambitious younger chef, Nicolas Sale, for the main restaurant: La Table de L’Espadon, which has just regained its Michelin status within six months of re-opening – it was awarded two stars earlier this year. Innovation also extends to the new spa: Chanel au Ritz spa, using only Chanel skincare products and customized treatments. So innovation but in subtle, more discreet ways.
Aaron Kaupp, General Manager of Le Royal Monceau Raffles, Paris, explains what innovation means today. “Our clients are looking for more and more “wow!” experiences that start right upon check in. Having your bathrobes or pillow covers monogramed is already a “wow!” factor but being creative goes the extra mile and makes the client feel even more special. The attention and thoughtfulness of having created something very personalized, leaves someone with a feeling of being at the right place and feeling understood.”
He goes on to illustrate his point: “we have a client that was travelling alone. A very romantic person and we knew she missed her fiancé. After she came back from dinner one evening, her bedroom was filled with 100 helium balloons and on every balloon we attached a picture of her fiancé.” Not only did she not feel alone anymore but she left with a feeling of care and being part of a family. Innovating ideas that go beyond the norm is what makes each hotel completely different; it uniquely adds to the experience.
According to Laurence Bloch, Deputy General Manager of the Plaza Athénée, Paris, “innovation helps us to surprise people and make them dream”, which given how people live nowadays is becoming more or more difficult. This was behind their creation of an iconic Barbie room, totally transforming a junior suite for the month of August (2010). The following year, they introduced a Hot Wheels-themed room as well. It’s about innovation and surprising, not just the parents, but also the children. Each year, they look for new, innovative ways to surprise their guests, which in itself is a marketing tool creating word-of-mouth recommendations.
Innovation is one of the core values of the Plaza Athénée, and has now been adopted by the whole group, the Dorchester Collection. Bloch goes on to explain their vision of “Once upon a time … the palace of tomorrow”: “The tomorrow stands for innovation and once upon a time respect to the heritage”; they try to link these to the experiences they create, which are the basis of the dream. “It’s an invitation to leave reality behind and experience something extraordinary,” adds François Delahaye of the Dorchester Collection. And that involves creativity and innovation.
All photographs are courtesy of the respective hotel.
Personal conversations and interviews with hoteliers in Paris, January and February 2017.
Simon, F. (2015). Hôtel Plaza Athénée. The Couture Address in Paris. Assouline Publishing. p122.
Wetlaufer, S. (2001). The Perfect Paradox of Star Brands. An interview with Bernard Arnault of LVMH. Harvard Business Review. October. 117-123