I often talk of the “Prayer of the General Manager,” where every morning she or he gets down on their knees, head bowed, and says to whatever higher-power in which they may believe, “Please, dear one: don’t let the hotel go down in flames today. Amen.” Every single moment of every single day in the life of a hotel executive is madness – and that’s the best case scenario. This ranges from your basic Motel Six to the luxurious Alfond Inn to The Inn at Little Washington where, having been decorated with so many diamonds and stars, one could be blinded upon arrival, missing the excellent service from their glimmering awards (just kidding on being blinded, of course)! But being in the lap of hotel luxury, specifically in America, started in 1895 with a once-famous, now nearly-forgotten property called The Tremont Hotel in Boston. From there, the fire kindles.
There are plenty of articles available to read that focus on the history of the hotel industry, going back to antiquity and up to modern times. There are also several that focus on the industry’s rise in the United States. What is severely lacking, in my opinion, is when did a hotel move from simply just a clean bed and a shower to a true experience from the moment you were greeted at the front door? When did the term “luxury hotel” creep into our everyday vernacular? Before diving into this, let’s get one thing out of the way.
I hate categorizing things, especially people, and even more so by the title on their business card. For instance: does your title sound something like, “Chief of Awesome,” “Innovation Revolutionary,” or – and this one especially – is the term “Guru” anywhere on your business card? If so, remove it because, unless you’re The Dalai Lama, no, you’re not a “Guru.”
The term “luxury” is one I also hate to characterize, especially in my given profession of luxury hospitality, which today is widely accepted as an umbrella term covering a broad swath of hotels, and not just those flashing diamonds or stars. Today, “luxury hospitality” covers “boutique hotels,” “casino resorts,” “lifestyle hotels,” “spa resorts,” “golf resorts,” “historical hotels,” “art hotels,” and the list goes on and on and on, growing every day as the world desperately tries to cater to the millennial of now (of which I could be labeled), rather than focus on what happens when that millennial grows up, the generation behind it rises, and what they too will want.
So, after a verbose introduction, I posit: Where did luxury hotels begin in the United States, and what is expected of the hotels of today over those that began the true rise of high-end, modern, luxury travel?
The Tremont House – often referred to as The Tremont Hotel – opened its doors in Boston, Massachusetts in 1829 and, while there’s no consensus, it is widely considered the first luxury hotel in the United States. Four stories, it was granite faced, employing a consistent, neoclassical style. During its existence through 1895, it was located at an intersection still considered a prime spot: Tremont and Beacon Streets, the main entrance facing Tremont. In its glory, the property that sat there was unlike anything your average American had ever seen or experienced before, and it hosted guests the likes of Davy Crockett and Charles Dickens.
Truly the first stateside hotel christened “luxury,” it offered fine, decadent amenities that the wealthy and elite would have desired at the time, most of which were the first of their kind. After all, the architect for the property was Isaiah Rogers and, as fate would have it, he was also a masterful engineer. So impressed by his own plumbing achievements for The Tremont Hotel, he transferred his own revolutionary designs to the Astor House in New York City in 1836, as the demand for fine properties began to grow (especially in major cities), applying innovations to his original, marvel of engineering.
The plumbing system inside the hotel furnished fine, hot-water baths, and the basins were handcrafted from tin or copper, then heated with local gas for comfort (sorry, shower takers – you were in the cold). All eight (yes, eight!) toilets were on the ground floor (translation: not in your guestroom), and there was even running water to both the kitchen and laundry. But the pièce de résistance? An indoor pool that harmoniously worked with the plumbing system, which was one of the first of its kind, and definitively the first in the history of hospitality in the United States.
Other luxurious amenities never offered before The Tremont Hotel included locked doors for the guest (quite fancy!), a full reception area, a bellman to assist with your luggage, needs or otherwise, and my personal favorite… free soap!
While a bit comical, just think: at the time of its opening, nothing like this existed within the 24 United States of America. It was the definitive gold standard for any major city that desired a luxury hotel, the most notable being Rogers’ next creation, the aforementioned Astor House, which sparked a trend for luxury accommodations.
Fast forward a few centuries, and we’re well into the 21st. In the Western World especially, pouring out of every orifice is luxury hospitality, with brands and independents quick to slap a label on their “type” of property (see list above), one can often get lost in the hyperbole and, thus, a guest doesn’t know what to expect.
The Tremont Hotel Effect: Mixed Messages in Modernity
To protect the innocent, there are at least two hotels that come to mind on the east coast that bill themselves as “boutique hotels,” but… they have nearly 300-rooms! When I think of a boutique hotel, I think of Chip Conley, the Founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality. In 1987, as a bright-eyed 26-year-old, Conley had grandiose plans of taking over The Phoenix which was, at the time, could politely be described as an eclectic motel in the rough Tenderloin District of San Francisco. He wanted it to be the premiere destination for visiting bands to rest their heads… and perhaps even party a bit. But this required a host of things, not the least of which was to risk everything and completely terminate their most profitable part of the business: the pay-by-the-hour option. But through a host of challenges, hard work, and a bit of luck, The Phoenix became a true, boutique hotel: personable, friendly, and an intimate hotel, right around a cozy 45 rooms. The Phoenix now offers a host of amenities, not the least of which is cold AND hot water in all areas, I’m sure, bathrooms in every individual accommodation, etc. But they also offer a host of bath amenities, not just soap, a 24-hour front desk, same-day laundry and valet-service, just to name a few. It goes without saying that what certainly qualifies as a nice, upscale hotel, would have been perceived as far beyond ultra-luxury at the time of The Tremont Hotel, if guests could wrap their minds around the amenities and services to begin with.
The latest buzzy thing to talk about is “lifestyle hotels.” My reaction when first hearing it was, “Huh?” So, I went to Google for its almighty answer:
“A lifestyle brand is a company that markets its products or services to embody the interests, attitudes, and opinions of a group or a culture. Lifestyle brands seek to inspire, guide, and motivate people, with the goal of their products contributing to the definition of the consumer’s way of life. They often operate off an ideology, hoping to attract a relatively high number of people and ultimately becoming a recognized social phenomenon.”
Having worked in luxury hospitality for the last dozen or so years, while I’ve heard the terms “lifestyle hotel” and “lifestyle brand” thrown around like Frisbees, not once has a group asked me to help them become a “recognized social phenomenon.” If I were asked, I’d want to know the answers to some very basic questions:
“What group or culture’s interests, attitudes, and opinions have you objectively identified from which we can build your hotel brand?”
“What metrics did you use to identify that these are the preeminent interests, attitudes, and opinions of said group or culture? What can we bring to the table that will provide the guest you describe what they need now, what they’ll need in the future, while always driving revenue?”
“All this adds up to you becoming a ‘recognized global phenomenon,’ like the iPhone, the Abercrombie & Fitch of the 1990s that rebelled so heavily against the social norm their profits weren’t only breathtaking, but so was the adoption rate of their otherwise average clothing. These are ‘recognized global phenomenons.’ How are we going to get there, and what’s the goal of becoming said phenomenon? In other words, what benefit do you offer over and above beyond just a boutique hotel, or one of their larger and more luxurious counterparts, and how does this relate to the presumed increase in revenue you will generate against an already aggressive comp set?”
Labels complicate things and, and with the internet constantly in our back pockets, we can book a Motel 6 to catch a few winks on the way to see Mom and Dad, hit a boutique hotel next weekend to explore the city, go to Las Vegas and stay at the tallest building on the strip, The Trump International Las Vegas, or ask the man or woman of your eye to spend a romantic getaway with you at the Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five-Diamond Montage Laguna Beach? Except for the first, all could be considered “luxury” in their own way, which shows not just how massive the luxury hospitality industry has become, but how easily we deem a hotel worthy to fall under this umbrella.
…The term “recognized global phenomenon” keeps itching at me, and Joie de Vivre Hospitality comes to mind. I’ve had hoteliers recently ask me if they should be “worried” about Airbnb. “No, not at all. Airbnb’s Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy (Chip Conley) is the same man who invented the concept of the boutique hotel. I wouldn’t give it a single worry. I would be prepared for the competition.”
If you work in this business, you know: the only thing you can always count on is everything changing. We’ve come a long way since The Tremont Hotel in Boston, and the world of luxury hospitality continues to evolve right before our eyes: day by day, moment by moment, second by second…
Are the guests happy? Check. Are the employees happy? Check. Is the hotel still in one piece? Check. – Now go figure out if you’re a boutique or lifestyle hotel…