At your service
It isn't easy, running luxury hotels these days. Aside from the general economic malaise and its effects on the travel industry, there's also the need to keep up with the Joneses - Joneses who are getting posher by the minute. For this is the era of the ultraluxe hotel offering - facilities, services, packages and extras that go way beyond what used to be considered five-star service.
They're doing it partly because it has become so hard for high-end hotels to mark themselves out from the crowd, says hotel consultant Ricci Obertelli, former director of the Dorchester Group. 'Clients these days are much more sophisticated. They understand more about how hotels work, and their expectations are a lot greater. So much more thought goes into how we make something different or unique, and adapt the product to clients' needs.'
The challenge for the hotelier is keeping up with the high-tech, high-maintenance environments of our homes, says Ian Graham, principal of hotel consultant network Hotel Solutions Partnership. 'I have 3D television, Blu-Ray and comprehensive home automation. I search out food that meets my dietary requirements and will buy fair trade and organic if I can. I carry my favourite music, new podcasts and films on my iPad. It's rare that I get anything like my physical home experience in even the most luxurious hotel. And it's rare for a hotel menu to reassure me of the sourcing of its food.'
If hotels struggle to keep up on the home comforts front, what they can definitely do is dazzle. A lot of their more imaginative offerings fall into a category that might best be described as Letting Guests Buy Crazy Stuff. The ne plus ultra of these is the Hudson New York, with its luxury 'Semi-Automatic Vending Machine'. Built into the wall of the hotel lobby, it's stocked with some pretty improbable items, prices ranging from US$4 to US$10,000. Paul Smith toothbrushes; retro Ouija boards; jewellery designer Pamela Love's Dagger rosary bracelets; black, sequined miniskirts by Haute Hippie; a personal portrait shoot with photographer Ben Watts; a luxury Malin & Goetz travel kit; 24-carat gold handcuffs by Kiki De Montparnasse; a red Ferrari 599 GTB for rent; and even copies of Catcher in the Rye.
And they're far from the most expensive items hotels are offering for sale. Guests in the recently opened Royal Suite of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London - where a night's stay alone will set you back from HK$139,000 - can buy the art works on display there, provided by the Halcyon Gallery. When you consider that they include works by Renoir, Matisse, Moore, Chagall, Rembrandt, Degas and Warhol, they're unlikely to come cheap.
If you turn up with nothing to wear for dinner, you'd better hope you're staying at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, where the HK$88,000 Presidential Style package includes complete outfits from Alfred Dunhill and Chlo?, as well as two nights in the Presidential Suite.
If that's not enough stuff for you to buy, you could always rent the entire hotel. Increasingly, even the most elevated destinations are offering the option of buying out the entire property for the exclusive - albeit temporary - use of you and your guests. Unsurprisingly, it's a particularly popular offering among resorts: Langham Place Samui at Lamai Beach in Thailand, for instance, has an 'Own Me!' package - for HK$700,000, you get a day's exclusive use of the 77-room resort including dinner and a DJ party for 150 guests.
Saudi royalty are among those who have hired the 87 sq km Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa near Abu Dhabi, and if you want an entire Maldivian island to yourself, your cup runneth over: choose, among others, from W Maldives' Gaathafushi island, which can accommodate 164 guests, the 142-villa Shangri-La's Villingili Resort & Spa, the 19-villa Anantara Naladhu, and the six-villa Banyan Tree Madivaru. Buyouts aren't restricted to sun-kissed spots, however; for about US$670,000 a night, the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo can be yours.
In the search for something unique, hoteliers are also investing in personalised tie-ups with experts. At the Mandarin Oriental Jakarta, guests are offered one-on-one sessions with leading local fashion designer Oka Diputra for a custom-made outfit, while Cambodia's Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor Heavenly Memories Valentine's Experience includes a custom-fitted gown by award-winning designer Eric Raisina. At the new Town Hall Hotel in London, acclaimed Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes, who has worked at foodie favourite El Bulli, will cook for guests privately in their rooms.
Even getting to some properties has become an event in itself. The Grand Hyatt Hong Kong offers airport transfers on Grand Cru, its own 150ft, six-stateroom luxury yacht, while guests can reach the Banyan Tree Madivaru in The Maldives on the Banyan Velaa, a traditional Turkish gulet sailboat. Equally romantic if potentially slightly less comfortable is the camel transfer offered by Banyan Tree Al Wadi in the United Arab Emirates. Also in the UAE, Anantara Desert Islands Resort is reached by a two-hour seaplane ride from Abu Dhabi. Anantara also happens to have its own fleet of four private jets to fly guests between its various properties around the world.
Even the luxury package, the well-established high-end staple of many hotels, is getting more and more opulent. Inevitably, romantic occasions loom large: Shangri-La Maldives' Once in a Lifetime honeymoon package, for example, includes a dolphin-spotting cruise and gourmet dinner on the resort's luxury yacht, a blessing ceremony on the beach and just about every pampering extra you can imagine, while Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor's Heavenly Memories Valentine's Experience features a hot air balloon ride and the chance to live out your Indiana Jones fantasies on a sightseeing trip in a 1950s jeep.
Another elevated view is on offer at La Mamounia Marrakech, where the Morocco from the Air Experience includes a helicopter ride around the Atlas mountains and a balloon ride over Marrakech, while guests at the Amansara Siem Reap can avail themselves of The Khmer Experience, with its helicopter tour of Angkor, including the option of landing at some remote temples. Aman at Summer Palace in Beijing, meanwhile, invites guests to Spend a Day Like the Empress Dowager, which includes lunch on a private dragon boat cruise on the Kunming Lake - plus dinner overlooking the city at the top of the Wencheng Tower - while Shangri-La Guilin offers private lunch cruises on the Li River.
It all adds up to a whole lot of effort being expended. 'It's difficult for a hotel to keep up to date with the rapidly changing world of the high-end consumer, but if the brand and hotel management don't try, then they deserve to die,' says Graham.
And in the end, what sets a hotel or resort apart from the crowd can't be measured out in the extravagance of its offers. 'The old-fashioned values haven't changed: they're about delivery of service and friendliness and warmth,' says Obertelli.
A big challenge for hotel owners to differentiate themselves it may be, then - but all this going-the-extra-mile can only be good news for those wanting it all.