By Dean Minett
It seems like there's a TED Talk for just about everything these days, so I was excited (though not exactly surprised) to come across Mark Harmon's speech about "the soul of a hotel." Harmon is the founder of Auberge Resorts, a chain of luxury boutique properties with locations throughout North and Central America. In 2017, it was rated the world's third best hotel brand by Travel + Leisure Magazine.
If you watch Harmon's speech while looking at the properties in the Auberge collection, it's fairly easy to see his ideas and philosophies in action. He says that a successful hotel needs to have a life "beyond its physical walls".
Harmon lays out four tenets for creating a soulful hotel, starting with great design. The design of a soulful hotel can be big or small, he says. It can be flashy or simple, as long as it fits in with the landscape and community.
Indeed, this sense of seamlessness and belonging is one of the hallmarks of great hotel design. It's also intangible. (Harmon used the analogy that door handles are the handshake of a building. How many of us really think of that detail when designing a hotel?) I doubt there's been a case where investors deliberately set out to design a bad hotel – but failing to achieve a threshold of qualities that add up to great design is all too common. We've all stayed in a hotel that somehow tried to be something it wasn't. Maybe it stuck out of its natural or urban setting like a sore thumb. Maybe it aspired to five-star but the staff hadn't been told. Maybe it failed to evoke a human or inspiring quality, and therefore felt soulless.
Harmon's second tenet of a soulful hotel is a sense of place. Has your hotel managed to become synonymous with the region or city in which it's located? If so, congratulations – your hotel is well on its way to having a soul.
Of course, it's absurd to think that every hotel can become as iconic and recognizable as the Plaza in New York, or the Raffles in Singapore. However, those household names have evoked a sense of place that any and every property can strive for in smaller (but no less meaningful) measures. Thanks in no small part to AirBnb, hotels have begun to accentuate their role as curators of a not only a guest experience, but a destination experience. This can be as true for a two-night stay in Tokyo as it can be for a family vacation to Bali. Without that sense of place, what hotel can realize its full potential?
Now we move on to the third tenet: Connection to community. A hotel can be well designed, and it can succeed in evoking a strong sense of place – but if it isn't "woven into the social fabric" of the community, it still cannot fully find its soul. A soulful hotel should be dynamic and alive. It should be a gathering place not only for outsiders, but for members of the community. It should natural draw people and ideas unto itself. According to Harmon, in an era of disconnectedness, Hotels offer an opportunity to connect us all. If it can do this, the guest will feel as though they've stepped into a vibrant community hub – rather than a sterile echo chamber for weary travelers.
The fourth tenet described by Mr. Harmon is arguably (some might say undoubtedly) the most important of them all: that the hotel inspires great affection or love through and for the people working there ie the hotel staff. In order to possess and convey a sense of soulfulness, a hotel must be run by staff who feel a kind of inspired affection for the property itself, and whose actions inspire guests to share in this feeling. Auberge create a culture of possibility for the staff that work in their hotels. It's a wonderful idea, and it can't be faked. Artwork, design, and so many other things can help – but the soul of the hotel is ultimately found in the guest experience, and interactions with people are still the most important driver of that experience. Being warm, generous, genuine and hospitable surely are the cornerstones of of hospitality.
There's no doubt that some properties just seem to "have it," while others do not. But if you ask me, a foolproof roadmap to creating a soulful hotel cannot really exist. If it did, everyone would use it and every hotel would feel soulful. On the other hand, if we accept that a soul is a reflection of something higher, then perhaps the hotel's soul is the reflection of the person in charge, which is highly individual and can explain why sometimes even three star hotels "have it" whilst some five stars suffer.
Successful managers study the guest experience in greater and greater detail which allow them to form philosophical sensibilities (such as the tenets discussed by Mr. Harmon) that allow hoteliers to evoke soulfulness with greater success.