I have been talking and teaching about lifestyle hotels for almost two years. The concept is new, and it will take years for industry professionals to wrap their heads around it. Listen to hotel CEOs, and you will notice that they all have their own understanding of how lifestyle is defined, which further complicates the matter.
So when I took on my very first lifestyle brand, I wanted to understand what it was. Did I get answers? Yes, a million versions of it, leaving me with more questions than before. What are human beings extremely good at when information is scarce? Filling the gap with most likely wrong information, which also happened to us. As the person in charge of people's understanding of their work and environment, I had to figure things out. Below is my understanding of lifestyle, and by no means it's set in stone. It is based on my experience, observation of behaviour and the mistakes we have made along the learning journey. I hope it will help lifestyle hotel brands' employees understand what is expected of them.
Let's start with the greatest misunderstanding. Lifestyle brands don't need SOPs, standards, and policies. FALSE! Everything task-related must have just as solid structure around it as in any highly standardised brand. When employees don't have clear instructions on how to do the job (Specific tasks), their behaviour on the floor will show that, hence, will negatively impact the guest experience that no funky behaviour will compensate for. Imagine you order a coffee, and it arrives in 20 minutes. You wouldn't care about the person's wit and cool persona, would you? The foundation of a great guest experience is expertise, consistency, and personality. If you skip the first two, you will be left with cool but incompetent staff.
Lifestyle brands are all about personality. Come as you are and be who you are. TRUE! But, too much of anything can make you sick or, in this case, unprofessional. This is where lifestyle brands reduced the number of their policies (Around behaviour). We realised that if we wanted people to be themselves, we had to remove most of those policies that govern behaviour and suppress empowerment, masking their personalities. In lifestyle hotels, we don't tell employees how to stand, how to greet guests, script their speech, or how to handle complaints. We rely on their ability to evaluate the appropriate behaviour and action needed based on the person in front of them. It is risky and requires good hiring, as not everybody can do that. Some people must be given a clear guideline on what to say and do. Simply, those people are not for these brands. Lifestyle brands provide freedom, but it comes with great responsibility as no policy will tell you how to behave. Since the lifestyle concept is new, the likelihood that most staff come from standardised backgrounds is high. They are now entering the unchartered territories of being themselves, not too formal, yet still professional. It is not an easy balance; therefore, they will make mistakes, which is ok. Remember, it is the first time they are not being told how to handle a complaint or what to say during a reservation call. The first time they are not using email templates when communicating with guests, and the first time, they have light grooming guidelines to comply with (I will come back to this). Some misunderstand or misuse this freedom and may be too casual with guests. Remember, guests are not your friends! You can be friendly and professional at the same time. You are a hospitality professional never forget that. What I always tell colleagues is not to be boring. If you deal with guests the same way as in other hotels or like others, you are boring, not lifestyle, and not yourself. It starts from answering the phone to booking them a car. If a guest cannot say, "It was a very different experience interacting with you." you are boring.
Let's talk about grooming, as this is one of my biggest pet peeves. In lifestyle hotels, we can dress the way we want. FALSE. Lifestyle is not about looking like a bunch of people brought in from the street to start serving guests. Uniforms are not always provided in lifestyle properties, and name badges are a no-no. Several issues are surfacing around this, and I think we are still trying to figure out the right way of keeping the casual look whilst making it clear to the guest who is actually working in the property. The other day I went to a bar in one of our properties. I love that place! The staff have no uniform or name badge, which is fine. They presented well in terms of their attire, which ticked the box too. A couple of hours and a few drinks later, I told my friends to let's get the last drink in and head home. I turned around, ready to signal the waiter with my hand, only to quickly put my hand back down. Why? Because as the place got busy, I had no idea whom to signal my drink request to. The staff blended into the crowd, and there was no way to distinguish them from the guests. I thought about it there and then, "Is this the guest experience we provide by the lack of guidance around uniforms?" Despite understanding the concept, I was confused, which left me wondering how guests feel about our dress codes. Another area that needs constant supervision is grooming. You tell people, "Be who you are", and suddenly, they turn up for work wearing inappropriate clothing or hair, looking like they just got out of bed. Looking well-groomed doesn't go against the concept of lifestyle, and at the same time, not wearing appropriate clothing doesn't make you lifestyle.
The business model is the same. FALSE. It is entirely different, and that's where the real difference lies. In traditional hotels, revenue distribution between rooms and F&B is 70-30% and sometimes even 90-10%. The mindset is all about sell rooms, sell rooms, sell rooms. You attend meetings where all you hear is how to increase occupancy or revpar etc. That is the old-school traditional hotelier mindset. In lifestyle hotels, the focus is distributed somewhat equally so is the revenue. We aim for 60-40% or even 50-50% rooms and F&B revenue, which requires a whole new mindset, business, and marketing strategy. We cannot afford to focus solely on rooms; maybe we shouldn't actually. We know how to sell rooms, in fact, that's all we know very well. We have fantastic GDS networks connecting us to every single person and agency worldwide. What we are not very good at (Hoteliers in general) is filling up our F&B outlets daily. And we know this because that's why we started buying and copying lifestyle brands. They know how to run F&B, and we need to learn from them, as this is the missing piece in the puzzle. We will crack the lifestyle concept if we figure out how to bring local communities into our cafes, bars & restaurants. The evolution of lifestyle hoteliers as they go through the pain of changing their mindset from focusing on selling rooms to learning about their communities' needs to create trends in their hotels that resonate within the neighbourhood in the next few years will be beautiful to watch. We have never done that and will need help and time to adjust.
Lastly, let's talk about lifestyle brands' required management and leadership styles. There is no difference between lifestyle and traditional hotel management styles. FALSE. Since it is all about unique personalities, empowerment, the ability to think on one's feet, and lesser policies that govern behaviour, it requires a different approach. Firstly, managers and leaders must be comfortable with macro management and trust their teams; otherwise, it won't work. It requires managers and leaders to have the ability to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations giving guidance on behaviour as they can no longer hide behind policies. Since we don't want to over-standardise grooming and speech, those who supervise performance must address undesired behaviour or grooming when it happens. Therefore, the ability to coach rather than train is vital for the management team. Course correcting daily is the foundation of lifestyle, whilst strict policies regulating behaviour are the foundation of traditional hotel service.
I often say that explaining lifestyle is like explaining great leadership. We know it when we see it.