By Valli Herman for Los Angeles Times
Tickets to the Emmys? Tour of La Scala? You have to know the right concierge.
For your next vacation, top hotels would like you to try something extra special, perhaps a VIP table at a hot Hollywood club, seats at a New York fashion show or a behind-the-scenes tour of a world-famous Italian theater.
As they recover from a brutal economy that slashed rates, occupancy and cachet, select luxury hotels are borrowing the messages and methods of tour operators that emphasize travel as not just a destination, but as an indelible experience, all wrapped up as a pre-priced — or even complimentary — service or package.
Savvy, high-end customers aren't always swayed by a free spa treatment or a third-night-free stay, promotions that have been popular during the recession, hoteliers say. Instead, top hotels are looking beyond their property lines for travel ideas. In the process, hotels are expanding the reach of their hospitality, highlighting their corporate muscle or the connections of their concierge teams.
"Consumers are looking [for] experiences" said Gigi Ganatra, a senior director of global public relations for Starwood. In August, the hotel group's Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts partnered with specialty tour operator AuthentEscapes to create Journeys, a series of far-reaching tours that use Luxury Collection hotels as home base (http://www.luxurycollectionjourneys.com).
As part of an 11-day tour of Italy, guests of the Grand Hotel in Florence can float in a hot-air balloon over the Tuscan countryside, stroll with a private guide through historic Florence neighborhoods or attend a wine tasting at the Ferragamo family's country estate, hosted by Salvatore Ferragamo, grandson and namesake of the famous designer. Other Luxury Collection Journeys, which cost from $7,000 to $10,000 on average for a seven-day vacation, tour through India, Argentina, Dubai and Greece.
"We don't intend to be a travel agent or a tour operator, but we can find you a guide who can personalize a tour or create something just for you. Our concierge is very well connected," said Paul James, a senior vice president at Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
"Traditional luxury hotels have frequently had this ability. For customers who haven't asked or didn't know that these kinds of facilities are available to them, we can say, 'Look what we can do.' And it's not reinventing the wheel, because 80% of this was something we already did."
At some hotels, however, these exclusive packages and free services are treated as an insider's secret. You don't need a password, but you may need chutzpah to request VIP treatment. Finding them sometimes requires careful sleuthing through online fact sheets, guest services pages and even pre-reservation chats with the concierge.
Yet in these challenging times, hotels are finding that the way to keep customers coming back is to send them outside.
In October, the Dorchester Collection, which includes such iconic properties as the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan, Italy, and Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, launched a series of bespoke adventures (http://www.dorchestercollection.com/insider_access) that accentuate the talents of their well-connected concierges.
In Milan, the Principe will arrange private tours of the famous opera house, La Scala, a privilege not usually available to the public.
In Paris, couples at Le Meurice can take a chauffeured Bentley to a private yacht that will take them down the Seine at sunset. As the boat passes the Pont des Arts, they will be showered with 1,000 rose petals. Other experiences include a private tour of Harry Winston in New York (thanks to the New York Palace) or a private fashion show courtesy of Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris.
In New York, guests at the downtown or Union Square W hotel can book the Catwalk Package and receive two tickets to a New York Fashion Week runway show or seats at the W-sponsored Fashion Next designer presentation. Prices range from $549 to $989, depending on accommodations.
Of course, these packages may have limited availability, and most come with a steep price. Should you need an extra set of tickets to the Grammy Awards, the Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows can secure tickets to the music awards show or many others, including the Emmy Awards or even the Golden Globe Awards. Expect to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 or more per ticket.
"As far as we know, no one else has access to these secret ticket sources," said Wendy Schnee, director of public relations at the hotel.
Though many of the experiences feel and are priced like exotic tours, some hotels deliver smaller, but still exclusive, services.
At Las Ventanas al Paraíso, a luxury resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, a "Hot Type" program makes advance copies of novels available to hotel guests from six weeks to six months ahead of their release date.
In Hollywood, guests of the recently opened hotel Redbury @ Hollywood and Vine may find information in their rooms that describes the no-cost preferred access to nightclubs, restaurants and other hotels in the corporate family of owner SBE. The perk can include expedited reservations, transportation and VIP service (http://slshotels.com/experience/guest-services).
"We have 17 properties from Malibu to downtown that can capture the feeling of L.A., from the beach to night life," said Sam Nazarian, SBE's chief executive. "That really gives you the feel that you have the keys to the city." Beginning this year, the company is planning to allow hotel guests to charge meals, drinks and services at SBE properties to their hotel bill.
On Jan. 11, MGM Resorts will launch a casino loyalty program that grants customized benefits and special access to 15 of the company's properties nationwide, including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and Detroit, Bellagio, Aria, New York-New York and Vdara. Called M life, the program tracks spending at the company's casinos and uses a proprietary technology to create personalized rewards for program members.
During the recession, luxury hotels learned that although discounts are nice, fulfilling customer expectations is a necessity.
"Service and quality of the product are more important to the luxury customer than the rate," Nazarian said. "The luxury customer changes habits much more infrequently than the business, leisure or rate-conscious customer."
Though not every experiential hotel promotion will have guests roaring down rivers or crawling through the catacombs of an opera house, they will be granted something that's hard to buy — access, the kind that leaves a lasting impression, and hoteliers hope, a loyal customer.