Staying ahead of the curve

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Lionstone Development has spent five decades innovating and improving the guest experience.

Q&A with DIEGO LOWENSTEIN

Today’s Hotelier recently spoke with Diego Lowenstein, CEO of Lionstone Development, about the evolution of luxury properties, how to appeal to female business and leisure travelers, and why it’s essential for hotels to customize the guest experience.

Lionstone Development has been around for more than 50 years. How have luxury hospitality and guest expectations evolved in the past five decades? How do you keep your luxury properties fresh and innovative to meet the changing demands?

Today, luxury has a different meaning than it did in the past, thanks in part to the growing millennial generation and its influence. The old-world, European approach to luxury has given way to a more laid-back style that celebrates properties that deliver luxury – services, amenities, finishes – in an atmosphere of “unbuttoned elegance,” where guests can relax and be comfortable. However, as a hotel owner, it’s important to make sure a property appeals to all age groups, so offering guests the best of both worlds is key.

For example, in 2004, the renovated Ritz-Carlton South Beach opened offering a fabulous, more causal version of luxury than was typically associated with the brand at the time, including a portfolio of contemporary art curated by my mother, Diana. We went through a significant room renovation and redesign in 2012 and, most recently, invested more than $3 million to renovate the spa. This way, we can continue to offer travelers an even more luxurious experience complete with brand new saunas, steam rooms and relaxation areas.

The way to stay fresh and innovative is to constantly evolve and improve. Never rest on your laurels and always look to refresh, reimagine and revitalize common areas, guest rooms and amenities to enhance the guest experience.

Guests, today, want to customize their own experience with the latest technology. How can hotel owners and developers stay on top of technology, particularly with older properties, and how do you strike a balance between tech and maintain human interaction?

We’re living in an increasingly connected and digital world, and guests want the latest and greatest technology available during their hotel stays, so it’s important for owners to ensure their hotel meets those demands. Whether the property is a new build or conversion, owners need to carefully consider the desired tech and plan for the short and long term. Staying ahead of the curve means integrating wireless wherever possible to set your property up for the future and constantly evaluating your systems and vendors to ensure that they will be able to service your property for the long-haul. If your systems and vendors are not easily upgradeable and adaptable, you will not be able to take advantage of innovative technology as it becomes available.

Now, in hospitality, striking a balance between technology and human interaction is an incredibly important aspect of elevating the guest experience. Tech allows for guests to customize their experience and streamline basic functions, but hoteliers should never lose sight of delivering exceptional customer service and a human connection. Case in point, our Virgin Hotel in Chicago offers guests an app that allows them to check in without stopping at the front desk and control everything in their rooms from changing media channels and making room temperature adjustments to ordering new pillows and room service. With basic functions like check-ins being streamlined, it frees up our hotel team to place even more focus on service and exceptional hospitality and cater to the guests’ needs and wants. Those hospitality brands that embrace this balance between technology and human interaction will drive the industry forward. Those that choose to ignore this evolution will invariably fade into the background.

There are many studies that point to an increase in female business and leisure travelers. How does Lionstone appeal to that demographic, and what are female hotel guests looking for when choosing their stay?

Earlier this year, a Skift Megatrends report dubbed 2017 “The Year of the Female Traveler,” causing a number of hospitality brands to start thinking about how to appeal to this new, powerful demographic. In fact, as cited in Skift’s Trends Report: The Rise of Female Business Travelers, women influence 85 percent of all purchasing decisions and account for 58 percent of online sales. Add this to a Mandala Research study cited in Skift’s Megatrends report that found, on average, women take as many leisure trips and a comparable number of business trips as men, and it appears that today’s female travelers are poised make a significant impact on the future of hospitality.

We have focused on catering to female travelers by developing smart designs and in-room features and amenities that appeal to this guest group. As we were creating the Virgin Hotel in Chicago, we focused on subtle changes to the typical room design that would attract the female traveler to the brand without alienating the male traveler. This meant adding spacious glass-topped silver vanities with backlit magnifying mirrors and upholstered chairs, sliding shoe racks, separation of living and dressing spaces, and extra lingerie holders in closets. When it comes to room design, we try to make our female travelers feel more at home and give them the tools they want – like professional hair dryers. We’ve also placed high priority on making our guests feel safe and secure everywhere on the property, including in public spaces, parking areas, and corridors. To that end, we believe lighting and security go hand-in-hand. Our corridors are well-lit, so you can actually see yourself and other guests.

What are your motivations behind creating a unique, innovative product that will appeal to guests and stay relevant?

My motivation behind bringing successful hotels to market and creating a unique experience for guests is the challenge. With any project, there will always be issues and problems that require creative solutions, and acting on those challenges by itself is a motivating factor for me. It’s always fun to start a project or transaction and create how it’s going to look – Erika Boyce
Communications Manager the design elements and branding aspects – and to see that vision come to life. That’s what keeps me going. My other motivation is to create a legacy. Within Lionstone, I am a third-generation owner-developer and, with children of my own who are now in their teens or early adulthood, I want to be able to grow the business and leave it in an even more prosperous way for them.

Looking ahead, what is Lionstone’s growth strategy for another 50 years? How do you choose the type of product and brand that will be successful for years to come?

We’ll always look for opportunities where we can fulfill a pipeline of the world-class brands that we already have great relationships with, but we are also keen on developing our own management structure and independent approach to branding. In the future, Lionstone will continue to expand on transactions with unique brands or startup opportunities that lend themselves to creating brands or new management structures.

The transactions that I find exciting are not cookie-cutter, but truly distinct products that embrace innovation. The brands that really look to elevate guest experiences and innovate – not just from a design and physical perspective, but from a tech, experiential and service standpoint – will stand out and outperform in a crowded marketplace for years to come. ■

What Hotels Owners Need to Know When Renovating

Put significant effort into the evaluation of the building (structure, roofing, mechanicals, etc.) and the estimating phase before diving into a complex renovation of an asset with landmark status or historical bearing. Most mistakes in renovation happen up front with poor certification of the condition of the property, or lack of information about the actual cost and development timeline required to bring it back to life.

Be flexible through the construction process as unforeseen events or conditions will surface that require decision making. Ensure you have a defined process set beforehand so that the schedule doesn’t get impaired.

Determine upfront the vision for the property. Questions such as the following ones need to be answered as they will impact budget, schedule efficiency and overall asset performance. Is the renovation meant to have a useful life of 10 years or go past this? What is the exit strategy for the asset? Are brand standards flexible? Can some of the capital investments be delayed and performed once the property has re-opened?

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