Hiding engagement rings in sand castles – and other requests from super-rich hotel guests

A few years ago, I stayed at a five-star luxury hotel in Miami where a delightfully indiscreet concierge told the truth about the lengths his team went to when a British band with rock royalty status came to stay. The guitarist had specifically requested a shepherd’s pie via room service (cue a confused Google search of a Florida chef), while the lead singer demanded, the concierge complained, “Complete blackout of the suite to help him sleep. He didn’t want to see a SINGLE BEAM OF LIGHT peeking through the curtains.”

But in a competitive luxury hospitality market, it’s not just celebrities who are demanding that their every need be met. By 2024, major hotel brands will engage in a deathmatch of concierge excellence, touting personalization of everything from a hotel room’s arrival temperature and room scent to pillows and installed artwork, including photos of guests’ families and pets, while smaller hoteliers say hotel brands risk a looming crisis in concierge and housekeeping workloads.

It’s the wealthiest guests who give even the most famous celebrities a run for their money, says Katherine Scott, a private travel consultant based in Harrogate. In recent years, Scott has organized a private tour of the Vatican to suit the “preferred breakfast time” of a discerning guest; a private “rendezvous with monkeys” in Japan, followed by “a private origami session”; and for a discerning male guest, a series of hotel stays with wood-fired pizza ovens on site – “wood-fired was non-negotiable” – requiring the guest’s hotel minibar to be cleared of beer and gin miniatures and completely stacked with cans of “full-fat” coca- coke.

Emerald Collection Faarufushi

Requests for off-menu room service and replacing minibars with specific drinks are just a few examples of guest requests in luxury hotels today – felixhug

“The demographic we’re talking about here is high-net-worth, but low-time,” explains Scott, who regularly receives calls from her international clients in the wee hours. “Of course they also have a very low patience level. They want what they want, and they want it now.”

Scott’s most memorable job was arranging a trip for a group of well-to-do women on a girls’ weekend getaway, who wanted to be towed around Paris by a fleet of Mercedes cars so they wouldn’t have to walk in their sky-high heels for more than five minutes at a time. These Sex and the City wannabes posed a challenge, Scott admits, when it came to irritable Parisian gendarmes. “The Mercs couldn’t park or drive next to them all the time: it was a bloody nightmare to organise,” she laughs.

Srikanth Devarapalli, the GM of the five-star The Emerald Maldives Resort and Spa, explained that one of the guests in their thatched-roof luxury villas – which feature pools and Jacuzzis and views of the surrounding powdery sands of the Raa Atoll – remarked to his private butler that he “missed his Ferrari back home” and asked if he could drive around the island resort in one. “The villa host responded by putting a Ferrari logo on the golf cart, which he was absolutely delighted with,” Devarapalli said.

Rémi Delpech, the director of the luxury riad IZZA in Marrakech, once had the initials of a famous footballer engraved on a leather-covered coffee maker. “4,000 euros,” he laughs, “at least he took it home with him!”

Meanwhile, the hip W hotel Ibiza made an aspiring father DJ’s dream come true by letting him spin poolside for an evening.

Baros MaldivesBaros Maldives

Baros Maldives, which has gone all out to support guests’ proposals – including an underwater proposal – Emerald Collection Faarufushi

Unsurprisingly, these are bespoke proposals, often involving the most extreme requests. At Milaidhoo, a thatched-roof boutique in Baa Atoll, also in the Maldives, concierges arranged an “underwater proposal” for one guest, complete with full scuba gear, a professional underwater photographer and a proposal message “revealed on a coral reef”; and staff at the luxury Baros resort tucked rings into sandcastles to propose to guests, and into glass bottles on the ends of fishing rods.

In Britain, hyper-personalization often has a more whimsical slant. Zoë Cunliffe, the manager-owner of The Gilpin, a luxury lodge boutique in the Lake District, explained that hyper-personalization is “all about anticipating guests’ needs”.

“During a recent outage, our team noticed cold and flu medications in one of our guests’ bedrooms,” she recalls, “so we quickly purchased local honey, fresh ginger, and some lemon slices and placed them on the bedside table alongside a small note with instructions on how to make a soothing tea and wished them a speedy recovery.”

Philip Steiner, General Manager of the Bankside Hotel in London, says that when he discovered that the children of one of his guests loved Harry Potter, his team transformed the family’s room into a Potter paradise, “with a replica Hogwarts door and personalized Hogwarts letters”. Steiner believes these kinds of details “make every guest feel truly recognized and appreciated.”

Sharon Brown, hotel manager at The Resident Liverpool, said the boutique recently fulfilled a guest’s bizarre request for “a photo of a toad sitting under a mushroom in the rain, framed on the bedside table”.

Several apps and platforms have now emerged to help hoteliers personalize the guest experience, including Duve’s “guest communications platform” and Canary Technologies’ “guest experience platform,” which promises to “maximize guest satisfaction.” Marriott, Hilton and IHG all have apps that allow guests to personalize their stay and make “special requests” to the hotel before they arrive.

But not everyone is a fan of the hyper-personalization trend. Holidaymaker Abby Knight, 59, from Essex, says she finds pre-hotel questionnaires “stressful”. “It’s just more things to think about, right?” she says. “To be honest, it feels like an extra job at the start of your holiday.” Knight says she prefers to leave things like pillow firmness and room scent to the hotel professionals.

Higher expectations can also be tough for smaller hoteliers, says Vicky Saynor, owner of independent boutique Bethnal & Bec in Hertfordshire. “What we find really tough as a small business is the amount of requests we get – ‘can you do something special for my partner’s birthday’, for example – where these extras are expected for free.” When Saynor suggests that guests source these extras themselves from outside providers, such as florists and caterers, she is invariably “met with dissatisfaction and disdain”.

Still, with the five-star bar – and the price of a suite – continuing to climb, the hyper-personalization trend shows no signs of slowing down. With brands occupying the upper echelons of luxury travel in a constant battle to outdo each other, and guests’ expectations ever-increasing, things like Ferrari-style golf carts and shepherd’s pie may soon seem tame.

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