Mary Gostelow at the global SLH gathering in California

from left: Jerry Inzerillo, CEO Forbes Travel Guide; Mary Gostelow; Filip Boyen, CEO Small Luxury Hotels of the World

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The great and good of the luxury hotel world, and those of independent character, convened at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, USA, 11-13 October 2017, for an impact-filled and fun global meeting of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH). The event stood out for so many reasons. It was entirely apolitical, with no clique-iness or hierarchy, and it was truly international – their were top hoteliers from Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands as well as Kenya, and Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Speakers, who included Forbes Travel Guide’s CEO Jerry Inzerillo and Virtuoso Chairman Matthew Upchurch, there with his colleague Albert Herrera, stayed throughout the whole event.

It always helps, of course, when the weather cooperates. The sun shone throughout, and every break was held outside on a terrace. This was soak-up-the-rays paradise. I do not know what the very few spouses did during the three days of business but, despite the distractions of the locale, the nearly-200 delegates flooded back into the meeting room for a business programme that was more than worthwhile – it was electrifying. Under its current ownership and the leadership of dynamo CEO Filip Boyen, Small Luxury Hotels has re-imagined itself as ‘independently minded’, showing that the 520 hotel members, typical size 49 rooms, can take on the biggies and offer what today’s luxury travellers really want. Small and personal is the key message, as stressed continually by the marketing boss, Tim Davis.

Delightfully-French President of the International Advisory Board Jérôme Tourbier, of Les Sources de Caudalie, Bordeaux, was first speaker, showing how change means increasing distribution support for members, who are integrating more and more into their communities. Filip Boyen said he wants at least one quality hotel in all key destinations, and so far this year 78% of bookings have come via travel advisors, which was music to the ears of the king of that genre, Matthew Upchurch – when it was his turn for the podium, he repeated one of his many current messages, namely that technology is all very well but it is human connection that makes the luxury difference. There is no way, said Tim Davis, that SLH can hope to match the alleged $4.3 billion advertising spend of Priceline this year, but SLH is brave. This is evidenced by its superb quality, advertising-free new 16-page newspaper, The Independent Mind (current articles include what it is like to be a SLH mystery shopper).

But, and this is vital, technology can and must be used to advantage. Virtual reality VR can already give guests an enhanced preview of what they might experience. Richard Wiegmann, who heads Sabre for Europe, Africa and Middle East, looked forward to robots replacing some hotel functions, particularly relevant to the entire hotel industry when there is awareness that the young have not inherited a passion for a lifetime of, say, delivering room service. This feature coincides with what Skift President Carolyn Kremins said, namely that, as consumer guests, the HENRYs, High Earners Not Rich Yet, want to splurge on a good life that follows restaurateur Danny Meyer’s belief that today’s guests walk around with invisible signs that say ‘make me feel important’.

The gathering, by the way, included not only GMs but also a commendable number of owners. In alphabetical order, the words camaraderie, networking, quality and relevance, with sustainability and value also included, came up again and again. Thanks to a main sponsor, Laurent-Perrier, all awards winners went home not only with plaques but with bottles of bubbly – and the winner of Hotel of the Year, Dormy House in England’s Cotswolds, had somehow to carry home a pair of two-bottle cartons.

There were many other surprise moments. Tim Davis showed how the company’s loyalty program works. At top tier, INVITED members might be given a surprise, paid for by the company. Davis delighted 137 Pillars’ Bangkok-based Chris Stafford with a Georg Jensen sword, which he immediately used, in front of all the delegates, to sabre a bottle of Laurent-Perrier.

Extra-curricular events had been carefully planned at this three-day events. The first night was billed as a cocktail at host hotel, The Irvine Company’s Resort at Pelican Hill, but actually the outdoor evening had substantial food, including made-in-Parmesan-rounds risotto, which you personalised by adding your chosen toppings. Evening two was also outside, catered by the hotel at Mission San Capistrano: the food was pan-American, and beverages included a craft beer stand and, among the Californian wines, a memorable Pessimist Red Blend 2014.

The final night was the gala dress-to-impress extravaganza, with unlimited Laurent-Perrier Brut or Rosé outside, to start, before moving inside to an intimate ballroom where someone had done a great job in the seating plan. Every place card was a movie-screening document starring your name. Open this two-fold, and you found the menu, main or vegetarian alternative, with details not only of the wines but also of suppliers: avocado for the starter Maine lobster salad, for instance, came from Alegra Farm here in Irvine, the local community that is named for the Irvine family that first settled the area from 1860 on. The big-band music was enlivened by Rat Pack look-alikes, with ‘Dean Martin’, in particular, showing how strongly he could belt out music that the assembled company really identified with – just as they had when real-life David Hasselhoff, ‘The Hoff’, had made a surprise appearance at the end of the convention’s business sessions.

Looking back, I must say one of the highlights of this gathering of luxury, independently-minded hoteliers was full of the unique. One session featured two one-off operations. Iben Marburger described how she motivates her team at Nimb in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen (Denmark, to be honest, does not generally top any list in service levels). Former Paris-based theatrical and events impressario Thierry Teyssier shared his pop-up hotel concept. An existing eat-anywhere, anytime, anything hotel three hours’ drive from Marrakech will remain, he says, but he is also going to do six-month pop-ups in Cambodia and Italy staffed entirely by migrants. Everything he does adheres to SLH’s quality standards, arguably the highest in the industry – almost 800 points are assessed by mystery shoppers and yet, at the same time, the unique culture stresses individuality, for the ‘independently minded’.

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue,

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