If you travel, you almost always end up spending a reasonable amount of time in a hotel or lodging of some sort. Your room and property typically plays a key role in your experience, especially if it’s a special trip or one to a new part of the world you’ve been dreaming of for a long time. You’ve likely had a hotel experience that you still remember due to a few special touches and you’d go back in a flash if you were there again. And you’ve likely also stayed somewhere that was a bust and tainted your overall memories of a destination. On this episode we’ll go beyond the throw pillows and welcome drink to think about what makes a great hotel experience, with Jason Friedman, a longtime luxury hotelier specializing in Asia.

Trevor and Scott give a quick overview of the elements they think comes together to create a great hotel experience: Scott: Food, decor, location, service, ambience, thoughtfulness (like washing your sunglasses by the pool), little surprises, not having everyone in the hotel say “hello” every time you walk by. Anticipation of things you might want. Knowing where to go for a good run (non-typical questions).

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Bathroom at The Siam, Bangkok; courtesy Jason Friedman

Trevor: Obviously I love a private pool and an all-you-can-eat ice-cream bar as much as the next guy, but for hotels of any range, my most important things are:

  1. Bed and pillows – not too soft, not too hard, pillows not too big or flat…
  2. A clean bathroom that smells clean too.
  3. Breakfast – I like the buffet a la carte mix – a Bloody Mary bar is plus but you can get great breakfasts at budget hotels too (the rice soup at Lub D in Siem Reap is awesome)
  4. Location (near what i want to be near and not too loud)
  5. Friendly – so important – it’s called hospitality for a reason – and this one I put on the GM 

Once when I was staying at the Sovena Kiri on Koh Kood I was running late for dinner with the GM and I had to get from the beach to my villa to change and I pulled my buggy up to the villa parking and ran down to the villa to change, passing a staff member who had just turned down my room along the way. When I got back to my buggy she had turned it around so it was facing out! I was so impressed and then I realized that staff only do things like that when they work with a manager who really instills in them the value of service and taking the initiative to make your guest’s stay special. At dinner I told the GM that I thought his job was much like the director of a movie “auteurism” in the film industry. That a different GM at that hotel would have resulted in a different experience for the guest. Eric Hallen, who I first met at the Six Senses Koh Samui is a great auteur as well. But this works in both directions:

I’ve done at least a thousand hotel inspections over the years and sometimes it’s hard to properly evaluate a hotel from just a quick inspection. But there is one place on Samui I went back to do inspections at every 3 or 4 years, and every time they were so unfriendly. They just have that culture from their management I assume.

So I think just as important as the room quality, whether they make their ice cream, or if the swimming pool water is salinated as opposed to chlorinated is the culture created by great management. 

Scott mentions some memorable hotel experiences he’s had and why he found them high value:

Dwarika’s: Kathmandu, Nepal: Wooden door window frames, courtyard, all furniture and decorations tied together in a luxury Himalayan theme. Thoughtfully designed, the smells were the same, great food and sitting common spaces.

Knai Bang Chatt: Kep, Cambodia: About 14 rooms but felt like a home, very private feeling, with a lawn and grounds, no one asked you anything unless you indicated, food was very good, great cocktails, the setting made you think of the beach but wasn’t . The design, location, privacy and food made it.

Gumby House: Fang, Thailand: Country setting, simple rooms but clean with a bit of color, give you space and privacy to enjoy, authentic couple, they ask you what you want for meals, homecooking, true country setting.

The point here is a great hotel experience doesn’t have to be expensive. 

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Rosewood Luang Prabang; courtesy Jason Friedman

Trevor: I’m trying to think of memorable places where I went on vacation as opposed to work… At the super luxury level, again Soneva Kiri was epic but more recently the Shinta Mani Wild was amazing. Again, the GM (now former GM unfortunately) Sangjay has clearly created a great culture there: my butler went swimming in the river with me every day: the staff wasn’t just friendly, they were my friends! Shout out to the Shinta Mani properties in Siem Reap as well. Another friend who stayed there mentioned how wonderful the staff at those properties was to her too.

One place I go back to often is Kelly’s Warung in Bingin, Bali just because it’s ON the beach at one of the best surf spots in the world, it’s super cheap, it’s clean and comfortable without a lot of fancy details like private bathrooms, and their food is great! The service is OK. This is a good one where a great concept and great location trump service, which isn’t bad, it’s just indifferent, which is fine with me because i can get up at dawn and check the surf from my room.

Another memorable one that I visited as a tourist was The Standard East Village in New York. Such a cool place and super friendly staff. Actually both the East Village and The Standard Highline were awesome, though I liked the East Village better, especially the view from my room. The hotels are incredibly hip and stylish (they have phone booth outside the Highline that you can use to call your congressman and tell them to support certain legislation), and most of the staff really treated me like I was an old friend. My waiter at the highline cafe struck up a conversation about my Cambodian-made espadrilles. 

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Intercontinental Khao Yai, Thailand; courtesy Jason Friedman

Guest Intro: Jason Friedman

Our guest is New Yorker Jason Friedman. He’s spent the past 2 decades in the hospitality industry working across Asia with brands such as Four Seasons, Raffles and Amanresorts as well as many independent properties. He and his hotels have received many accolades including Best General Manager Worldwide 2015 by Gallivanter’s Guide and Best Hotel Manager Worldwide 2013 by Andrew Harper – The Hideaway Report. In 2016 he formed the hospitality and tourism consulting firm J.M. Friedman&Co, which specializes in the conceptualization, development, opening and operations of experience driven, luxury resorts. He joins us today from Chiang Rai, Thailand. Thanks Jason and welcome. 

Listen to Episode 110: Making a Great Hotel Experience with Jason Friedman to hear Jason answer the following questions:

  • For our listeners that aren’t familiar with you yet Jason, when did you first come to Asia and why?
  • Have you always worked in hotels here in Asia?
  • What excites you about the business?
  • How has what excites you about the hotel business changed over your two decades?
  • Tell us a bit bit about your key career moments and how you started running your own Tailored Hospitality agency?
  • Your website offers quite a few services around the luxury hotel space, but can you break down for us what elements come together to create a great hotel experience, whether low cost or high-end luxury?
  • Our your site you mention CONCEPTUAL, HOTEL PROGRAMMING, GUEST EXPERIENCE, GUEST SERVICES, HOTEL DESIGN and also OPERATIONS AND MANAGEMENT. Wondering which ones have to come first and if there are some that are more important than others?
  • Have guests’ expectations changed over the years and how so?
  • How should people approach booking a hotel for their big dream trip to make sure it’s what they will enjoy?
  • Many of the properties you’ve been a part of were designed by Bill Bensley, are you still working together and tell us about that relationship?
  • Tell us about some of your personal favorite hotel experiences as a traveler.
  • What’s next in the hotel business?
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Aquablue luxury yacht; courtesy Jason Friedman

If you enjoy listening to Talk Travel Asia, please sponsor our show. You can sponsor anywhere from $1/month upwards. These funds will help us cover costs of keeping the show going. Visit PATREON TO DONATE TO THE SHOW or the link from the left-side of our website, or search Talk Travel Asia Patreon. Thanks in advance for your support.

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