I’ve been doing these best-of columns for several years now. In addition to highlighting interesting and innovative brands, experiences, and hoteliers, it serves as a barometer for the industry as a whole.
In contrast to the pandemic doldrums, luxury is now on fire, ambition is high, and new products are coming into the market. This can be dangerous when teams chase the temporary dopamine hit of reader’s choice awards and red-line their rates.
Rather than participate in the hype cycle (you’ll find no Beyoncé Dubai opening party mentions here), I want to slow down and focus on things done with care and craft and that are being built in lockstep with what customers actually want and that solve real friction points.
Best Aviation Experience (ground)
PS started out with a private terminal experience at LAX, and it has proven the business model successful with new openings on the way in Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami. In a summer of chaotic travel and immigration queues, the value proposition is clear: friction-free departures and arrivals into airports. The service is tight, and there’s a large market of people who are flying at the front of the plane but aren’t yet splurging on private travel.
Reliable Mark of Quality
When I was younger, I used Tablet Hotels as a barometer of interesting boutique hotels in any given city. It still works well. But for more hotel and culinary experiences, I’ve been really impressed by the standards set by Relais and Chateaux, a collection of gourmet restaurants, boutique hotels, resorts, and villas. It’s not easy to make the cut, and I love seeing a guaranteed mark of quality in a sea of overpriced experiences as travel surges. Congrats on Cape Town’s Fyn for recently earning their badge on the front door.
Most Inspired Openings
I’ve been paying attention to the evolution of the family-owned brand Banyan Tree, particularly their experimental property in Bali, Buahan. It diverges from their other concepts: there are no walls, no doors, and it is a discerning adult refugee in a sea of Bali’s hedonism.
In addition, from the founders of the Finca Cortesin in Spain comes one of the year’s best openings, Grand Hotel Son Net, which is having the same “wow” effect as Como’s Passalaqua a few years back. Crafted under the eye of hotelier René Zimmer, it’s a country house in Mallorca that has carved out a different position with interiors from Lorenzo Castillo. Service is pitch-perfect, and it has raised the bar for the island. [For context, see Skift’s story.]
Most Inspired Design
Xigera in Botswana was the most inspired design I’ve seen so far this year. In designing the Botswana-based camp, they did away with the usual safari tropes of yesteryear, instead focusing on bleeding-edge African design, art, and furniture. It felt hypermodern and representative of the youth and creativity that makes Africa so inspiring in the world right now.
I was inspired by what General Manager Tiago Sarmento has done to elevate Mount Nelson in Cape Town. Owned by Belmond, the hotel has been an icon, but Sarmento has tightened the service with a warm, incredible team spanning all of Africa and beyond. And there is a friendly house cat, Nellie. Service was subtle and thoughtful.
Elsewhere, I was impressed by the team at the recently opened Conrad Los Angeles, which serves a much-needed cultural niche, close to museums and pockets of the revitalized downtown scene. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Conrad’s U.S. efforts, but every touch point and human interaction was considered and thoughtful.
Brand to Watch
Peninsula zigs when others zag. Most of the high-end hospitality industry is on a blitz scaling tear, with countless new openings in primary and secondary markets. On the other hand, Peninsula is slow, thoughtful, and deliberate in finding the most interesting locations and also crafting something new and thoughtful amidst the luxury surge. They’ve always been obsessive about location (think their Kowloon perch in Hong Kong and the Imperial Palace adjacent spot in Tokyo), and their new properties have the same obsession.
Their opening in Istanbul is pitch-perfect, and I’m paying close attention to their upcoming London opening at the intersection of Grosvenor Place and Grosvenor Crescent, on the edge of Belgravia. With interiors from Peter Marino and branded residences, it will be an interesting entrant into the competitive highest levels of London hospitality.
Best First Impression
Sadly great doormen seem to be a dying breed. But the Fairmont Century Plaza in Century City proves there’s still pride in being an ambassador of first impressions. The team is in impeccable formal garb and offers a gracious welcome to guests or visitors for lunch. Over-investing in this touchpoint yields so much in terms of visitor impressions and emotional connection. More people need to follow suit.
Best Cultural Integration
I’ve loved Etihad as a brand for a long time and have been patiently waiting for the opening of their new Midfield terminal in Abu Dhabi. It was a pleasure to see how smart the integration was with the latest Mission Impossible flick: the new terminal plays an outsized, action-packed role, with just a subtle amount of branding to position the airline in an interesting, hyper-contemporary way. Bonus points for their collaboration with Armani Casa on some of the inflight amenities.
Best Subtle Touch
The Raffles Doha is running for the highest end of Qatari luxury, but when I stopped in, I also saw a subtle cultural touch. The brand has worked with Artlink to select around 40,000 books for both the neighboring Fairmont and Raffles Towers.
Seven thousand of the world’s classic masterpieces and one thousand spy and detective books rest on the shelves of the Raffles Blue Cigar Lounge and the Secret Library. There are a lot of first editions, and guests are welcome to browse (with care, of course). I thought this was a strong statement of intent and thoughtful cultural integration amidst the glitz and glam of Doha.
Most Welcome Trend
While there is nothing better than Qatar’s Al Safwa check-in and straight-line into their lounge, I am pleased to see Delta One upping the game in the States. Their new entrance (on the arrivals level of LAX), allows paying passengers a private entrance, quick security, and an entrance into the lounge.
This will be better when more dedicated Delta One lounges come online. It’s a smart play to separate the high-paying customers from those with lounge access, given the crowded state of every lounge post-pandemic.
Best Business Class Innovation
Finnair has innovated with its new business class seat. There are no moving parts to break, and the resulting configuration has allowed the aircraft to cut weight from their planes, leading to better fuel efficiency and lower costs on long haul. The new interiors are sharp, as well. It’s not a closed-door suite, but it is private, spacious, and an incredibly smart business idea.
Best Technology Upgrade
I’ve been a fan of JSX for some time, as it offers passengers a semi-private experience and not to have to use normal terminals. They’ve supercharged their WIFI, offering passengers free Starlink connections which, in my experience, blew other airline internet away. It’s nice to see them constantly improving the passenger experience in one of the most important ways.
Most Inspired Hotel Experience
I was blown away by the detail and execution of the Ned Doha. It’s built in an old, architecturally stunning former Ministry of the Interior building. The design is pitch-perfect, there are multiple food and beverage outlets and a private members club with views of the Corniche and downtown Doha.
The gym was the best I’ve found in the past six months of travel, and their burger at Electric Diner lingers in my memory. It is a statement of ambition, design, and culture and has upped the ante nicely in Doha post-World Cup. On a recent visit, the ground floor was an elegant blend of Qataris and ex-pats and felt like the place to be.
Best Destination Marketing Campaign
I’ve been a longtime visitor to Japan, and a lot of travel coverage only hits a few notes. I’m impressed by the thoughtful marketing campaign that has gone into Kyushu, the third-largest of Japan’s five islands and a cultural and culinary hub. Instead of flashy ads and social blitzes, there has been a very thoughtful range of well-crafted articles by good writers in publications that still value journalism. It is the harder, long-game approach to building a destination, but is the right one — and one that reflects the depth of the place.
Best Spa Experience
Nihi gets a lot of rightful accolades for its “edge of wildness” approach to hospitality in Sumba. But a lesser-known element of the place might just be the most distinctive. Nihi offers a spa safari in a remote part of the property. Guests can hike in through dense foliage or take an olive green Hilux safari vehicle. Then, based on a half-day or full-day experience, they can pick whatever experience they want: perched on a cliffside villa. There’s no Wi-Fi, it feels remote, and one of the better hospitality experiences I’ve seen this year.
The re-fit of the spa at Heckfield Place in Hampshire, UK, also inspires me. It’s a subtle, beautiful Georgian family home, and the newly retooled gym and spa, The Bothy, fits right in. Imagine leather punching bags, beautiful wood floors, and an emphasis on the slow and steady when it comes to health and wellness. There aren’t a lot of fads here, which is the point. The design and intention of the entire experience are world-class.
Best Brand Re-Boot
While The Ritz-Carlton has a storied history, for a while, I felt the brand was deprioritized and flailing in the U.S. I am impressed with the new Ritz-Carlton Nomad in New York from a design standpoint and was impressed with my conversation with Marie Browne, GM of the upcoming Ritz-Carlton Portland. The new property has a vision, is nicely integrated with the values, aesthetics, and vibe of its new city, and has a clear need in the market. I’m excited to see what progresses.
Conservation to Watch
I’ve focused a lot of my writing on African conservation and the role hospitality plays. Moving further into Southeast Asia, I am impressed with what Shinta Mani Wild is doing in terms of ecology and conservation, even going as far as to invite guests on anti-poaching missions, moving them from passive to active participants in the mission. The GM, David Steyn, is a South African Singita alum, and this project, combined with promising political changes in the country’s leadership, make me feel optimistic.
An intriguing new opening
Paris has no shortage of superb palace experiences, but I am most excited about a more boutique play: La Fantaisie on Rue Cadet in Paris’s Ninth. I have an affinity for the neighborhood as I used to have an office nearby, and the design, garden, and vibe are promising.
Following are hoteliers who have impressed me, from the top-leadership levels all the way down to people embarking on their careers: The power team of Werner Azinger and Benjamin Ackhurst of Mandarin Oriental Dubai. The hotel has been great since opening, but these two are obsessively making it better with every passing day.
The aforementioned Tiago Sarmento is proving to be one of the bright stars of Belmond. Ibu Sarni Ina at Nihi Sumba, as well as Mohamed Salah Bayouri and Oussama Errajy from Raffles, were hoteliers who really stood out in terms of craft and passion.
Money is pumping back into hospitality, and things are frothy. But as I’ve long argued, those who focus relentlessly on the customer, solve for friction points, and are constantly evolving will always be relevant in the market. The long-game approach wins over time.