When Randi Friedman walked into her room at Las Alcobas, a boutique hotel in St. Helena, California, she felt like every detail had been planned just for her.
The layout offered unobstructed views of the vineyard outside. The balcony had a gas fire pit and two rocking chairs; the fire could be turned on with the press of a button.
Waiting at the minibar was a French press with a tiny jar of coffee next to it. The grounds were already measured; all she had to do was pour them into the press in the morning.
In her bathroom shower was a bar of handcrafted, grapefruit mimosa soap made locally by Napa Soap, which she could take home as a souvenir.
"I walked away feeling like I was taken care of," said Friedman, a frequent traveler who works for Hearst Magazines in Manhattan, "like this hotel actually cared about me with the extra touches."
Gone are the days when it was enough for a hotel to have rain shower heads and high thread-count sheets. In a world where there are more hotels to choose from than ever, both luxury and business accommodations are focusing on the extras to set their hotels apart from the rest, said Barak Hirschowitz, president of the International Luxury Hotel Association.
"Great luxury hotels since the late 1800s have always focused on innovation and tiny details," Hirschowitz said. "Cesar Ritz, considered by many the grandfather of the modern luxury hotel, was the first to introduce a bathroom in every room in 1893 at the Grand Hotel in Rome. Today, you wouldn't imagine a hotel room without a bathroom, but back then it was a small detail that changed the industry."
These days, he says, it's other things that impress guests — such as floor lighting that activates when the guest steps out of bed to help guide them to the bathroom.
And the more extraordinary, the better. "Today's guests are very discerning," said Toni Stoeckl, global brand leader of lifestyle brands at Marriott International, who oversees the Moxy, AC Hotels, Aloft and Element brands. "They travel a lot, and they want to discover something new when they travel. They want to have a story to tell."
For Michael Schmitt, general manager of the Waldorf Astoria Chengdu, the best special touches are personal. The hotel sends guests detailed questionnaires about the purpose of a trip, he says, so his staff can better anticipate visitors' needs once they arrive.
"For us, innovation revolves around making the guests' experience more comfortable, more pampered and seamless," says Las Alcobas co-owner Samuel Leizorek. "I want to remind my guests that they have arrived."
Some hotels are partnering with lifestyle brands to give visitors an experience to talk about. Guests who book a suite package at Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts receive a lipstick created by French beauty brand La Bouche Rouge. They simply dial zero for the concierge, choose a lip shade from a menu, and it's delivered with a bottle of sparkling wine. The guest's initials are engraved on the lipstick case.
"We want our guests to remember that the French lip is a state of mind," said George Fleck, vice president of global brand marketing and management for the brand. "It's about bringing back the romance of travel."
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Sometimes that means maximizing the impact of the hotel's location. At the Waldorf Astoria Chengdu, in the heart of the Chinese city's high-tech zone, window curtains automatically open as hotel guests step into their room, revealing an impressive view of new skyscrapers.
"When I travel, I want to feel like the hotel is better than my home," said Ann Birns, a retired speech and language pathologist from Potomac, Md., who visited the property in March. "Unlike others who say you only sleep in your room, I love to stay in my room and enjoy it."
Many hotels have special touches that provide guests with a sense of place, such as using certain materials in their design. The lobby reception desk at the Hyatt Regency in Bangkok has panels covered in gold leaf, the same material as seen on Thai Buddha statues. The lobby of the Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort in Panama City incorporates repurposed wood from the Panama Canal.
At the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver, the concierge team offers free beer tokens for guests to use at an eatery across the street that serves a rotating list of handcrafted Colorado beers. The Hoxton Hotel in Brooklyn displays books in its rooms that were donated by local business owners, artists and residents. The donors write local recommendations for the hotel guests inside each book cover. Jupiter Next, a hotel in Portland, Oregon, partners with local businesses to offer special packages highlighting everything from doughnuts to tattoos to cannabis.
Other hotels are winning over guests by leaving presents for them. Each Kimpton Hotel leaves a locally inspired gift in guests' closets. For example, in Palm Springs, Calif., guests receive a nine-inch emerald green statue of a camel. It is a nod to an antiquated California law that makes it illegal to walk a camel down certain streets between the hours of 4 and 6 p.m. At the Bankside Hotel in London, housekeeping leaves a yellow box of Guatemalan worry dolls on pillows. The instructions say that guests are supposed to whisper their anxieties to the dolls before they sleep, transferring them to the dolls and out of their minds.
Then there are the touches that are meant to go unnoticed. In Marriott's headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, Stoeckl has a concept room where he tests every part of a hotel room. "For example, we have many iterations of lighting systems to figure out the easiest way to maneuver them," he said. "We don't want to be one of those hotels where you have to wake up early to spend time figuring out how to turn on the lights.
"At the end of the day in our industry, a lot of the focus is on delivering unique, memorable experiences, and often those are achieved through very small moments."