Opinion / Why luxury hotels and restaurants fail to deliver memorable experiences: million-dollar real estate and Michelin-starred food don’t make up for generic customer service

Who doesn’t love a luxury hotel breakfast? Photo:

This article is part of STYLE’s Inside Luxury column

A recent brand strategy workshop with a luxury brand in a five star luxury hotel opened the eyes of my client on what luxury really is. Our first reaction was a combination of quality, craftsmanship, creativity and a refined ambience or design. But the hotel itself presented an excellent learning opportunity as well.

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Emirates Palace, a seven-star hotel designed by renowned architect John Elliott, is located in Abu Dhabi. Photo:

We decided to start the workshop with an early working lunch. The hotel was breathtakingly beautiful. The lobby pristine. The front desk staff friendly. We went to the restaurant area and, not surprisingly, it was nicely designed too. I would not be surprised if the hotel operator invested tens of millions of dollars into real estate and interior design.

A banquet table at a luxury hotel. Photo:

The food was good, albeit not excellent. More importantly, when the meal was over and we moved to the meeting area, I asked the other meeting participants what was special about the service for them. The answer was unanimous: “nothing”. The waitress was very friendly and efficient. However, many other places also have very friendly and efficient waiters. Hence, what we experienced was a “category experience” – something any decent place will offer.

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When I asked if there was anything truly outstanding, magical or simply unique to the place, something that from a service experience would create a lasting memory, the answer was “no”. I was not surprised. After analysing hundreds, if not thousands, of service experiences from brands that try to compete for the luxury customer, I see a repeating pattern: luxury is confused with great aesthetics and friendly service. While this is part of it, it’s by no means sufficient.

Luxury restaurants need to provide more than just good food and ambience. Photo: Pexels
Instead, to become a true luxury experience, a brand needs to provide something within the customer journey that is unique to the brand; a target emotion that a customer cannot get anywhere else and that provides something very tangible and personal for the guest. I often compare it to a theatre play. The waitress in the restaurant was just providing a very solid, friendly service, but she did not create a specific atmosphere that sets the place apart. She was just a waitress doing the best she could – but not a trained “actor”, providing an act that is specific to the brand.
Hotel restaurant staff should ideally be like “cast members” in a play, all with a different role in telling the brand story. Photo: Pexels

This is likely because she wasn’t told about the target emotion or her role in the total script of the brand experience. The hotel or restaurant itself probably does not have these objectives defined clearly and specifically enough. In countless experience audits, I find again and again that brands are too vague when they describe the service experience. They demand world-class service from their staff but fail to curate the experience. They don’t create clarity on the role that each individual “cast member” has. If a theatre or opera director just told the actors and singers that they should be friendly and provide a world-class play, the result would be a disaster. Yet this is what happens to many luxury hospitality brands in the real world.

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World-class, friendly service isn’t enough for a truly memorable dining experience. Photo: Pexels
Most brands fail to generate enough clarity on what experience the staff is expected to provide and what emotion the guest should feel at which part of the interaction. Like in a play with no clear script, the result that many hospitality brands generate is also a disaster – acceptable for an entry-level brand but not in luxury. A customer who expects to be wowed through a very specific luxury experience gets only a random, interchangeable category experience that does not create any memory.
What can hotel restaurants do to make the dining experience memorable? Photo: Pexel

And when there is no memory, there is no value. It’s that simple. Instead of creating extreme value, the brands create very basic category value that will not support any premium. As a result, it triggers a lack of loyalty, enthusiasm and desirability. Furthermore, it does not give customers any reason to pay premium prices.

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Despite these brands’ massive real estate investments, their customers don’t feel that they are treated in a luxurious way. And without added value, guests may come back because of convenience, loyalty programmes or deals, but not because they truly crave the experience.

The magnitude of the service shortcomings becomes clear when we reflect that often the quality of the core delivery may be even outstanding – a restaurant may provide amazing food, a hotel offers breathtaking views and rooms. But when the service becomes nothing more than a category experience and not an experience that feels special in all aspects, then the quality of the food or the size and beauty of the room don’t matter.

A romantic beach getaway in a luxury hotel. Photo: Shutterstock

If you think this is the exception, think again. Unfortunately, countless hospitality experiences, from hotels to restaurants, are underwhelming category experiences. And in luxury, a category experience is no experience. It’s one of luxury’s greatest misunderstandings.

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  • Luxury brand audits reveal hospitality groups rarely go beyond ‘category experiences’ – providing world-class service that isn’t unique enough for customers to return
  • The best fine dining can be likened to a theatre play, with each ‘actor’ playing a role to create a ‘target emotion’ in the brand story that can’t be found anywhere else