Over the course of his career, Laurent Delporte has visited over 400 4-star and 5-star hotels around the world, earning him a reputation as an expert ‘decoder’ of the luxury hotel industry. A graduate of HEC Paris, Delporte regularly lectures at top hospitality schools and provides consulting services to hotels around the world. He also brings together and leads an international community of over 75,000 followers around the online magazine www.luxury-hotel-expert.com. In our interview, Delporte digs deep into the heart of luxury and explains how one of the most traditional industries can adapt to a changing future while retaining its core essence.

LM: As younger generations develop different views of luxury, do you think there is now an increased emphasis on creating luxurious spaces rather than providing all the traditional personal services?

LD: Well for me, 4-stars means less and less now. Younger generations now sometimes prefer to stay in 3-star hotels because they’re specific to the city, or because the hotel offers a specific experience and sometimes they prefer to stay in 5-star hotels because of the ritual. They move easily between the star levels and the rankings don’t mean that much to them.

Of course, it’s not only new generations that want to have something specific, to feel the spirit of the city and the culture. Decor should always be nice, but it’s not enough. It’s about, ‘How can I meet people? How can I create a link between the locals and me and my friends or family when I travel?’ This is more and more important. How do you personalize the services? Not only the services, but how do you personalize something very specific for the person?

LM: What is the ultimate personalized service? Is it integrating with a client’s life as much as possible, providing services and amenities that fit fluidly around what they’re used to in their daily life, or is it something else?

LD: For me personalization is not only about wishing someone a happy birthday, the point is to understand where the person has come from.

Imagine, you are arriving at Plaza Athénée [in Paris], and you are Parisian, when you arrive and ask the receptionist something such as, where is the bar, she has to understand that I am a Parisian and I know Paris and I should know the hotel. It’s completely different than if a man comes from Sydney and arrives from the airport. The receptionist, being great at luxury service, has to think, ‘Maybe this guest is Australian, and has travelled for two days to arrive in Paris. It’s 10 o’clock now so maybe he arrived at 6 o’clock in the morning and then took a driver to the hotel, so he should be tired, he should be jet-lagged, he should be anxious and he will need his room as soon as possible.’

So the question now, is to understand when the guest arrives, what is the spirit and mood of the person? This is quite difficult for hotels, to understand each culture and not just that, but imagine if the Australian has already been in Europe for ten days, it’s a different situation and he won’t have jetlag. This is why when you meet someone you have to empathize with them and this is very important.

“So the question now, is to understand when the guest arrives, what is the spirit and mood of the person?”

Every time we think about personalization and we think about their birthday or things they like to eat, such as green pepper but not red pepper, or that they like sparkling water… okay, these things are nice, but the most important thing is for me to understand the feelings of your customers in order to create the right services.

To have this information you need to prepare for the arrivals of your customers. It’s about knowing there are three people from America and three from Australia and so on. You need to prepare, not just say ‘Hi, how are you?’ It takes a lot of time and preparation.

You also need to know the difference in cultural tastes. Imagine your guest is American and you know Americans like to have croissants in France. Say the man arrived at 2pm, well don’t wait until breakfast to offer a croissant. Maybe you can bring it to the room because it’s a way to personalize the wishes of your customer and the different perceptions of the culture. The pillow could be the same for everybody or maybe you know that in China they use a smaller pillow than in America so you adapt the room for Chinese guests. The challenge is to prepare all this before the customer arrives.

LM: What about the challenges in finding out this information and relaying it to the right team members?

LD: At a luxury level, if you welcome the CEO of a company you can call the assistant and ask them for information that will help you prepare. He might tell you that he likes sparkling water, or likes equipment so he can work out early in the morning, or that he likes to mediate and he prefers the first level – there are many things. If he has kids, maybe the assistant can send a photo and we will put that on his desk for when he arrives. This is a new way to work. You can find some information on Facebook, but I’m not sure at the luxury level you will find much information about the CEO, so sometimes it’s important to call the right person. If they’ve used a travel agent, you have to call the travel agency and the agency will be happy about that because they can see that you want you to give their customer a great experience. You can send an email, not fifty questions, but maybe you send five or ten yes-or-no questions through email or Whatsapp to your customer and if they want to answer then it’s ok.

But, you have to be very good if you ask questions. If I say I like sparkling water and when I arrive, I have mineral water in my room, I’m going to say, ok, I lost ten minutes to answer the questions and I don’t have the sparkling water I requested. So you have to be very well organized, and when you prepare the room you have to be sure that it reflects the person’s requests.

LM: What do you think is the greatest competitive edge that hotels have over alternative accommodation providers?

LD: There is more and more competition. In cities like Shanghai or Dubai, there are so many options. When you stay there you will decide by the location. If you have your meetings in the old part of Shanghai, you will stay in the old part because you don’t want to make an error on your way to the meeting. But there are many brands close to each other there, so you have to have a strong brand.

The Park Hyatt is a good example because there is a strong spirit with Park Hyatt. Every Park Hyatt is not the same but the spirit is the same, and you like it or you don’t like it, but as soon as you have a strong brand you help the customer tell the difference.

Other hotels might be nice but different every time, so sometimes you will like it and sometimes you won’t. That’s why it’s very important to have something very specific about your style. It’s not possible for everyone to like you, but the most important thing is to be very particular and to think about your customer and to create a hotel for them, because you can’t appeal to everyone. If you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one.

Now, hotels may look the same, so it’s not a question of wall colour, it’s about how can you make something specific in terms of the cultural experience. If I go to Sydney, I want to discover the life there. I might look at the Four Seasons, but if it’s not specific to Australia, and I see an article about another hotel and the designer is Australian and the food is very Australian then maybe I’ll prefer to stay in that hotel because I will discover the culture of Sydney. It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a five-star hotel and I’m luxurious’. What is your difference? And I need to see it and read about it.

“It’s not possible for everyone to like you, but the most important thing is to be very particular and to think about your customer and to create a hotel for them.”

LM: What do you think is the best way for hotels to assess whether a new technology should be adopted? How can it know whether it will provide real value, rather than be just a novel gimmick?

LD: This is a very big topic. I need to come back to the Ritz in Paris. When César Ritz decided to create the hotel, he had this idea to create a bathroom and toilets. It was not technology but it was the first time you had the bath and the toilet contained in a room. Now this is our model everywhere. At the same time he decided to have a phone in the room to speak with the hotel team. But it was the beginning of the phone so he thought soon everyone would have a phone. The bathroom turned out to be an excellent idea – it was very innovative – but with the phone, he lost a lot of money, because customers were not ready. So, it’s an investment, like with Wi-Fi. Around 2000, many hotels decided to install Wi-Fi but some said no. The first hotel had to invest a lot in cables and installation and for this reason they wanted customers to pay. If you waited two or three years, there was new technology and you just had to install a box in each corridor – it was cheaper and quicker to install.

It’s quite difficult every time, to know in advance which technology will be good and which won’t. At the same time, in luxury you have to be different and innovative so you need to take a risk. This is the deal. It’s amazing in Europe for example, we had SMS technology in 1999, in 2000 we had it, in 2001 we still had it, but nobody used it and it’s only at the end of 2002 that many French began using SMS. So it’s interesting to see you can have the right technology but maybe no one will use it in the beginning. The customer has to be ready.

“It’s quite difficult every time, to know in advance which technology will be good and which won’t. At the same time, in luxury you have to be different and innovative so you need to take a risk.”

It’s important to try to innovate and to offer your customers a taste. It’s like with César Ritz, you can be the first and you take a risk, or are you just a follower? What is your brand, what is your attitude? Do you want to be the first? Or do you prefer to follow?

LM: Technology has sped everything up, along with client expectations. We all expect to see improvements and updates almost immediately. How can hotels meet or manage expectation in an increasingly impatient society?

LD: What’s happened in the last ten or fifteen years is that you have regions in the Middle East and Asia that have created new hotels, new buildings and they bring new technology everywhere. If you’re an international traveller staying in luxury hotels in Dubai or China, you will discover hotels with big technology. For example, the lift. If you arrive at the Park Hyatt [in Shanghai], I think in 40 seconds you can arrive at the top of the tower, which is over eighty stories. When you arrive in Paris and you need two minutes to arrive to the sixth floor, you’ll just think it’s crazy. When you experience something nice, you want to have the same experience in other countries and the hotel has to understand that’s quite difficult. If you stay in Europe, it’s important that the hotel understand what’s happening in North America, in the Middle East, and so on. The General Manager should travel a lot and stay in the different hotels to understand the customer’s experience.

Another example, more and more we use Whatsapp, but what hotels use Whatsapp? As a customer, if I accept to have a direct conversation it can be nice. Hotels have to adapt based on suggestions of customers. In Shanghai they use WeChat more, so if you are opening a hotel and are welcoming Chinese guests you should use WeChat to communicate. Everytime you need to know what’s happening in order to stay ahead.

It’s a big challenge for hotels. The teams at the hotel are very operational and don’t have time. As soon as you are a manager, you have to think about your team and their needs. They don’t have time to think about strategy and innovation.

LM: You sometimes say ‘clients like hotels that change everything without changing anything’. Can you please explain this.

LD: Sometimes designers create a room as if it’s a room for them. This is not good thinking. Because the room might be for you, travelling alone, or it might be for me and we are quite different, and tomorrow you might travel with your family, but it’s always the same room. It’s very important that when you arrive in a room you understand everything.

Of course, at home, you might create a new concept for the lights and you need two days to understand your new lights, but that’s ok because you’re at home. If you do the same thing in a hotel, it’s not possible. It has to be very clear, very easy. For example, in my last experience at a hotel, I went to bed, I switched off all the lights, but one light stayed on. So I had to find the light (it was in the desk) and then switch it off. This is stupid, and you have so many examples like that. As soon as the room is easy to understand and use, you feel at home and this is very important.

So when I refer to hotels offering change without changing anything, it’s about this. Everything changes because it’s not your house, but when you arrive it’s like everyday in your life because it’s easy to use.

If you want to work like you do at home, that might be on your sofa, or you might use a laptop pillow, so you can work in your bed. But what hotel offers a specific laptop pillow? There are many small things like that, and if you do it, you will feel at home. It’s not a question of gold and marble, ok decoration is nice, but comfort is important. As soon as the customer feels at home they will come back.

“You’re changing everything because it’s not your house, but when you arrive it’s like everyday in your life because it’s easy to use.”

LM: What are some of the best examples you’ve seen of hotels evolving themselves as a result of client feedback?

LD: The best thing is to speak with your customer and also to consider your team. The baggagiste, I once told my team during a meeting, is a very important job. When I said this, the baggagiste was very proud because it was the first time someone had said that. But why the baggagiste? Because the baggagiste sometimes arrives with the customer, they follow the customer in and sometimes they discuss things.

This is real. It’s instant information and the aim of the hotel is to use instant information because to learn two days after that your customer was not happy, is too late. You can’t do anything. The information you learn during the stay, you have the opportunity to manage. Speaking to customers is very very important and when you spend one hour, or even twenty minutes with somebody, and you speak about their stay, and you do this every day, you will learn a lot of useful information.

“The aim of the hotel is to use instant information because to learn two days after that your customer was not happy, is too late.”

It’s nice to send an email to all of your customers but it’s not so useful. What’s more useful is to say, ok I’m expecting ten customers from China so I should meet two or four Chinese customers per month. If we receive 40 Americans per month then I need to meet ten Americans every month. This is not a question of technology. The way to have feedback is traditional. It’s to speak with your customer. And if you do this every day, you will have a lot of information.