Barnett on Business Travel



June 3, 2004 -- In steamer-trunk days, Mr. Corporate Bigwig traveled with an entourage of secretaries, assistants, confidantes, private chefs, personal doctors and nurses. Grand hotels greeted and treated him like royalty with lots of bowing and fawning. Today, only egomaniacal celebrities, oil sheiks and absolute rulers of obscure nations travel with platoons of supplicants.

Powerhouse business travelers--titans whose utterances can rattle a stock market or shut down a plant--usually travel solo or with one colleague and don't want obsequious servitude. A longtime general manager of five-star hotels who fancies himself as a personal butler to corporate decisionmakers says the top brass today make one demand: They want everything now.

"A few years ago, I'd describe our service as gracious, accurate, accommodating," explains Stan Bromley, general manger of the Mobil five-star-ranked Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. "Now I describe it as swift and streamlined. A guest who's in charge of a big organization takes comfort, cleanliness and friendly, attentive service for granted as nothing special.

"Today, their most valuable asset is their time," he insists. "They want speed and flawless service and nothing less."

Bromley, a hotelier for 35 years who ran the Four Seasons in Washington for a decade, tells his 420-person staff that the chain's new service standards for the traveler on business can be summed up in a single word: "Urgent."

Urgent? Sounds like a hospital ER. Almost, says Bromley.

"We get the guest to the room right away so they can log on or get on the phone immediately. Plug into the Internet access and it works. Call down to room service and exactly what you ordered is there when you want it. Suits and shirts are pressed and back in an hour. You get a table in any restaurant in town at the time you want it. You get a car service with a driver who knows the fastest way around the city. You get a personal trainer at three in the morning if you want it. Anything in the world that isn't illegal or immoral, you've got it. Your schedule changes 17 times, not a problem. We'll take care of it. That's what the upscale business traveler wants. And no excuses, either."

Bromley sounds like a drill sergeant, but regulars at the 270-room Four Seasons think of him as kindly Uncle Stan, a guy who likes to put quirky gifts in guestrooms, like scattering 200 Hershey kisses or bags of Twizzlers on a bed. Word has it he once filled a bathtub with Evian for a guest at the Four Seasons in Washington. But he says it was not on the house. "The guest ordered it and paid for it."

Like Bromley, other carriage-trade hoteliers go the extra mile to really impress guests, not just pamper them. Luis Fernandez, managing director of the 61-suite Los Ventanas in Los Cabos, Mexico, says the trick is to make you feel as if "you're the only guest in the resort." For example, pool butlers clean your sunglasses and offer wicker baskets filled with best-sellers.

"All the managers review every single guest's needs and preferences daily," says Fernandez. "Whether they're drinking Chateau Margeaux or fresh lemonade, we arrange it." On vacation, but need to check E-mail? A Dell laptop computer with a wireless high-speed Internet connection is brought to your room. The cordless Voyager telephone in your room has a 30-mile range so you can take it into town and use it. Check in and someone analyzes the colors of your clothes to make sure the threads in your sewing kit match. Sit down at dinner and you get a cloth napkin color-coordinated to what you're wearing.

Do the super-rich, who spring for an average $1,100 a night at the Rosewood-managed resort, really give a hoot about color-coordinated napkins? Apparently. Fernandez, who's managed business and luxury hotels in Rio De Janeiro and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, argues that his guests "have so much money, this extravagance is a necessity for them. They don't want to be pampered. They want to be absorbed into the experience."

In Cannes, Sylvain Ercoli, managing director of the 420-room Hotel Martinez, coddles his finicky guests before they arrive. They include notoriously narcissistic actors and global film industry folk who flock here for the famed film festival. Staffers call in advance to find out favorite (and hated) colors, flowers, foods, drinks, cigar brands, room views, bed sizes and the precise time they want their morning espresso.

"We anticipate every detail so the guest knows you are looking after him or her or them," says Ercoli. And he does mean detail. If a guest wants a phone on the left nightstand instead of the right, it's plugged in correctly.

Absolute discretion--and billing accuracy--is also an important perk at the Martinez, where 50 percent of the guests are repeat customers. "A guest may come one time with Miss So and So and the next time with Mrs. So and So," Ercoli says. "Genuine hospitality is total confidentiality and keeping secrets."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.