The power of hotel amenities….

Most of the time, when I travel, my hotel room is more than a box to sleep in for the night. Travel carries its own stresses, especially travel to new places where you might not speak the language or know the culture. For me, the days of a hostel dorm room or staying with 10 friends in a two-bedroom condo are long gone; having a comfortable room as a home base is starting to weigh more heavily when I plan my trips. That got me thinking – what exactly is it that gives a hotel that extra special touch?

Sure, there is no lack of over the top amenities out there, like the Viennese waltzes piped in underwater for swimmers at the Ritz-Carlton, Vienna, or the complimentary Porsche for a day (choose from a 911 convertible, Panamera Hybrid or a Cayenne GTs, as long as you return it the same day) at San Diego’s Rancho Valencia.

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But the best amenities don’t necessarily have to cost a fortune to make guests feel like a million bucks. Sometimes it’s the unexpected, like a complimentary mini-bar which I experienced at the boutique Ansara Hotel in Vientiane (Laos). I’m sure I didn’t consume more than a few dollars’ worth of products and it was certainly built into the room cost, but I totally didn’t care. It was a welcome surprise, considering I had spent the previous night at the AirAsia budget hotel in Kuala Lumpur, where guests are literally nickel-and-dimed: everything was available for purchase, from a towel and toiletries to 12 hours of air-conditioning and 24 hours worth of TV. I completely understand the pricing model – only paying for what you use and not subsidizing other people’s preferences. But every now and then, it’s nice to be pampered and surprised. Take room 2808 at the Four Seasons Resorts Lanai, Manele Bay in Hawaii. It may look like a normal room, but sprinkled throughout are complimentary amenities for sharp-eyed guests, like a koa putter that can be exchanged for a round of golf at the Back Nine along with two complimentary drinks or the ukulele which when carried down to the Beach Hut on Hulopo’e Bay, unlocks musical entertainment or even a lesson.

I’m also a sucker for nice lotions and bath products and will usually load up on as much as I can get (as as much as can fit in my suitcase). Not only are they practical to have around when house guests forget to bring a toothbrush or a comb, but bringing out a nice branded shampoo from my cache months after coming home from a trip has the ability to instantly whisk me back to some exotic locale. Some people remember where they were the day JFK got shot or when man first stepped foot on the moon. Me? I remember when I last used that bottle of Pecksniff’s calming hand lotion (the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel) or that L’Occitane Verbena vegetable soap (the Four Seasons Lanai, Hawaii). And I’m definitely not the only one. Suzanne Wolko, a business manager from Philadelphia (USA) says: “I love the Firmdale hotels in London. The amenities are Miller Harris and at each stay the room has a new gift like a spa nail polish set or aromatherapy sleep spray. I bring it all home and relive London with each use.”

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In writing this column, I polled some frequent travelers on what amenities impressed them the most. Some found pleasure in simple things. “I love it when a hotel has a bathrobe; just a little thing but feels very luxurious!” said Stephanie Raley. “I also love when hotels have really good in-room coffee. No, not old school pots with tired coffee, but Keurig’s and Nespresso’s. Hotel Le Germain in Toronto wins the day with an espresso machine!” added travel writer Christina Saull. Upgraded versions of the expected also scored big. “The shower at the Shangri-La Resort we stayed at in Penang Malaysia had three different sets of heads/jets and a party of 12 could have fit easily into it,” said Mike Hinshaw. “Instead of a standard shower, I had a private outdoor lava rock shower at the Four Seasons Hualalai. It was great but I did find teeth marks on my soap so not sure who else enjoyed the shower,” said Kristin Francis, an attorney from New York City.

Raiding the Maid’s Cart

While some hotels look at the price of amenities as a cost, others view it as an investment. Khuc Khai Hoan, Executive Housekeeper at the New World Saigon Hotel, says that in order to stand out, “the hotel monitors feedback and quality of amenities to ensure they are consumed with enjoyment. New World Saigon Hotel prides itself on offering a home away from home so it’s really crucial that we offer the best amenities to ensure our guests can rest and relax in comfort.” Those amenities include Elemis toiletries, a leading luxury British spa and skincare brand.

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Personalized keepsakes also top my list of memorable amenities, like the high quality luggage tag that was once left on my suitcase at An Lam Villas Ninh Van Bay, prefilled out with all my details. Not only did it help my bag get to my room, but in a clever but useful marketing ploy, I still use it today. Repeat visitors to the Six Senses properties in Vietnam get initialed name tags on their bicycles. Each resort also has an extensive pillow and scent menu, offering a unique assortment of essential oils distilled on-site using lemongrass and/or kumquat clippings grown throughout the resort. The resort is in the process of creating a salt soak and seaweed soap in association with Spa Pure, using seaweed harvested in bays throughout Vietnam and formulated in conjunction with a local ‘seaweed doctor’.

But according to Monica Majors of Six Senses in Vietnam, “it isn’t the tangible gifts or amenities, per se, that play a role. Rather, it is the constant attention to details throughout a guest’s stay. Take, for example, personalized service next to the pool: sunglasses cleaning; homemade atomizer spray; fresh fruit juices or skewers every 90 minutes. Or, random fresh fruit and healthy snack deliveries into the children’s club during the day. A welcome or departure gift can definitely leverage memories after the guest leaves the hotel. Hopefully they are unique enough to create conversation later. The personalized bike tag sitting on someone’s desk will surely initiate a conversation about a vacation. We all know that word-of-mouth is the best endorsement.”

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Can amenities sometimes be too good, though, tempting guests to raid the maid’s cart or take what maybe they shouldn’t take? Cassie Kifer who works in web communications in San Jose, California admitted: “I [once] took a pair of socks from a Japanese ryokan hotel. They were provided in the room with the traditional robe. They have a split big toe so you can wear them with flip flops ― genius! I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to bring them home, but I did. I can’t imagine they would wash them for reuse but maybe they do.” For me, I’m partial to nice laundry bags, like the embroidered linen one from La Veranda Resort Phu Quoc. Not only are they great to separate dirty laundry from clean while on holiday, I like to use them after I come home to store all sorts of things from plastic bags to clothes waiting to be sent to the cleaner’s.

Stéphane Eloit, founder of Natural Rendez-Vous which supplies exclusive bathroom amenities to high-end hotels in Vietnam and beyond, adds that the challenge of hotel amenities is they “must be special enough that people go ‘wow!’ but also must be acceptable by all: by French, by Japanese, by old, young, men and women.

“When it comes to amenities, the big challenge for many hoteliers is they see it as a cost, something to minimize or avoid. They say: ‘I’ve got to spend, so I’ll put out the cheapest thing I can’. But it’s something they’d never use personally. What about the rest of your hotel? Do you drink the coffee there or bring your own coffee from home? That’s the message you’re sending here. But I have to warn them that if they move to higher quality products, not only does the cost go up, but guests will start using them more, leading to an increase in price per unit and quantity. [However], other hoteliers understand that it’s a very special part of the property. There are three things that touch the customers’ skin ― sheets, towels and amenities. It’s the one product you can take away and remember. They see it not as a cost but as an investment.”

Images by James Pham

Having visited nearly 60 countries as a travel writer and award-winning photographer, James Pham blogs about his adventures at FlyicarusFly.com.