The first surprise came within moments of dipping into the 60th Street entrance of New York's Mandarin Oriental hotel. Angela Alleyne, director of guest relations (tall, gracious, and bedecked in a silk Chinese jacket of iridescent gold and tangerine), greeted my wife and me by name, and inquired about our trip from Boston. They don't treat you like that at the Marriott.
With stomach-melting speed, the elevator whisked us from the foyer to the 35th floor. The door glided open, and pow!—an Imax-sized vista of Central Park. Welcome to the cloud-draped summit of business (and leisure) travel.
The Mandarin is a world reserved for finicky, well-heeled vacationers and globe-trotting executives. By focusing exclusively on the luxury-travel market, it has expanded to 21 five-star properties worldwide (10 more are in the pipeline) and racked up 22% annual revenue growth last year. The secret? It's no secret, really, says Wolfgang Hultner, chief executive of Mandarin Americas. "This business is very simple," he says. "No service, no profit."
Mandarin-style service consists of a "thousand little details," as Hultner puts it, delivered through a combination of high tech and high pamper. When I booked our room, I filled out an online form indicating our time of arrival and other particulars, so the staff could customize the service. Thus the room's thermostat was preset to our preferred temperature (68 degrees), the color touch screen on the telephone displayed the weather forecast for my home zip code, and the flat-panel HDTV featured a personalized text-message display.
The best benefits were the negatives: None of the blare of traffic swirling around Columbus Circle infiltrated our 53rd-floor room. No condensation from a steamy shower blanketed the bathroom mirror, because a concealed heating element warmed it. And not once did my cell phone drop a signal, even next to the elevator, because a distributed antenna system runs up the building's core.
The Mandarin also leverages technology behind the scenes, to help its staff deliver personalized service and rebound from snafus. When room service failed to send up a "welcome tray" of green tea, the equivalent of an all-points bulletin went out over the hotel's rapid-response communication system. Alleyne fired off a text message, and within minutes we got a call from a manager. The tea, accompanied by a gratis serving of figs, strawberries, and fancy cookies, quickly followed.
When it makes a mistake, the Mandarin's recovery strategy is to overcompensate, sometimes heroically. Mandarin lore is full of stories like the one in which the San Francisco staff misplaced a guest's luggage, then flew a bellhop to Los Angeles to reunite the wayward bag with its owner. For the Mandarin, where a room can exceed $1,200 a night during peak travel weeks, an airline ticket is a small price to pay to retain a guest.
The Mandarin's service ethos is driven by 11 LQEs (legendary quality experiences), which create a framework for delivering elegant yet natural service, while simultaneously empowering staffers to think for themselves. So, for example, the grammatically inelegant "we will proactively offer guests assistance in public areas" means that if you're looking for the spa, an employee will accompany (not point) you to its front door. And the better his service, the better his pay. Mandarin ranks each hotel's service monthly and annually. The year-end ranking contributes to the size of employees' annual bonus.
Those "thousand little details"—like the Spiegelau stemware that's polished to a high-gloss finish and the ability to display podcasts on the TV—can seem absurdly trivial. And yet all of those things add up to a particular experience, which is the only thing that any guest takes from a hotel. When we descended from our eagle's-nest room and returned to the hurly-burly of 60th Street, even the bellhop knew who we were and wished us a safe journey home. It's better to be fawned over than forgotten.
- 1,900 | Number of customized spa treatments given each month across Mandarin hotels
- 13,000 | Number of complimentary bottles of Fiji water placed in Mandarin Oriental New York guest rooms per month
- 1,500 | Number of special-request alerts sent each day in Mandarin's U.S. hotels via its rapid-response communication system
- 2,976 | Number of complimentary books given away per month in Mandarin Oriental New York's Bedside Reading program
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.