INTERVIEW: DANIEL LUDDINGTON, VP OF DEVELOPMENT, SMALL LUXURY HOTELS OF THE WORLD
With a passion for travel and true understanding of guest experience, Daniel Luddington tells Sophie Harper why luxury isn’t all about star ratings and thread-count as he reveals what makes a small luxury hotel.
In the mid-nineties, a teenage Daniel Luddington picked up a book that would ultimately carve the path of his career, not that he knew it at the time. “It was when the Brit pop scene really exploded. I happened to pick up a book by Alex Garland called The Beach and it just struck a chord, every page – it made my heart sing. It was all about finding this idyllic strip of beach untouched by tourism, a hidden paradise, and it was set against this brilliant pop culture, which just really appealed to me.”
In ’97 Daniel went to Bournemouth University to study Tourism Management and, by his own admission, blew his student loan on interrailing across Europe and trekking through Kenya. “I wanted to travel, to explore, find my own treasure island,” he says. A sandwich course that included a year’s internship, a lot of his peers went to travel agents but Daniel wanted to do something different, so when Disney visited the university to interview a few students, he leapt at the opportunity. “It was more of an audition than an interview really. I managed to get a year’s internship at Disneyworld Florida, which was an incredible learning experience,” he tells me. “As well as being really exciting – it’s quite something being part of such a major tourist attraction in a different country when you’re that young – but equally Disney as a brand takes the visitor experience really seriously, it’s such an important factor to the business. I quickly learnt that hospitality was about creating excitement and memories.”
Daniel tells me more about his time at Disney and his enthusiasm and animation in doing so is infectious. It was this experience that really formed his views on hospitality and engagement with guests, which helped set him up for his first job out of uni at Kuoni, organising tailor-made luxury holidays to the Far East. “I sensed then that customers were seeking a sense of adventure but with assured luxury and away from the masses and the smaller, more private hideaways in Sri Lanka and Thailand were most popular. Many of these smaller hideaways were members of this organisation that I kept seeing used as a USP – Small Luxury Hotels. So, I applied for a position there and the rest is history.”
Starting on the operational side, Daniel worked for SLH’s sister company at the time, Luxury Hotel Apartments, in sales and marketing. “We had around 350 to 400 hotels and there was a real drive to grow the brand. There were many destinations we weren’t covering so there was a job in development to look after the European territory… I’ve been in that development role for around 12 years now, starting off in Europe and then building up a team to help curate the portfolio worldwide.”
A dream job for many, Daniel’s role involves plenty of travel, visiting luxury hotels to suss out whether or not they’d be a good fit for the brand. Daniel tells me how they seek out and find some of the coolest, chicest boutique hotels on the planet. “We have an organic strategy when it comes to signing new hotels. We have around 500 members and many of those really are brand ambassadors and they often recommend new hotels to us. We have good relationships with a lot of hotel management companies, development companies, hotel owners, PR companies, photographers, all of whom make recommendations for properties that people think should be SLH hotels and we get thousands of applications every year. I’d say on average only around five percent make it through to the list for a visit, so a lot of my time is spent looking through applications and doing my research before deciding which hotels we should consider visiting.”
After whittling down an enviable list of unique hotels, Daniel and his team have to verify each and every hotel prior to sign-up. “We do an initial visit and meet the owners and make sure the hotel is a good fit for us. There’s then a board of directors elected by the membership to look after the interests of all of the members and the quality. I come back from each hotel visit and present my findings to them and tell them why specific properties are suitable candidates for SLH, then there’s an approval process.” Daniel explains that although there’s no tick-box criteria, there are certain expectations and if a signed hotel slips in these standards, there’s a two-strike process and if the hotel fails on both occasions then the affiliation ends. “We have around 75 mystery inspectors who are out evaluating existing members and those inspectors will feed us recommendations as well as tell us which hotels no longer make the cut. It’s all about quality for us, which far outweighs the need for quantity,” says Daniel. “We’ve removed around 10 percent of the portfolio in the last two years – I think it’s important for the integrity and the trust that we’re building.”
As seekers of luxury hotels, I ask Daniel exactly what constitutes a luxury offering and interestingly he tells me it has very little to do with star ratings or awards. “We’re looking for hotels that are different but that have that consistent quality. We’re seeking the world’s most individual, most intense, most intimate hotel experience. There are lots of different touchpoints we’re looking at; it’s not just about the thread count of the sheets or whether a hotel does turndown service or whether there are umbrellas in the room, it’s far more than that. We’re looking for hotels that are anti-chain, anti-sales, anti-corporate, obviously it needs to be small – we believe small is beautiful, small is cared for, small is nurtured and personal – and small hotels lend themselves to that feeling of home and that’s what we want for guests.” He adds: “We’re looking for stylish and special places too – it has to look good, has to make you feel good – the architecture the interior design, the attention to detail, all of these things – do they reflect the personality of the owners? We’re not just trying to welcome bricks and mortar into the brand, we’re building a community of independently minded owners as well. We want to see their character, their passion, hear their stories. There’s a lot of love behind some of these hotels and that’s what we’re trying to convey and celebrate.”
Daniel describes luxury as being an experience that takes away the stresses and pressures of modern life, helping you to recharge and almost feel child-like in the sense of bringing joy and curiosity with the freedom of not having to worry about anything, which, to date, is one of my favourite descriptions of what luxury is. “Luxury isn’t something that’s reserved for the rich and it’s not reserved for five-star hotels – I think you can find it in many different places,” he says. “The key is experience, and that has to be anticipated, orchestrated even; it has to be managed with care and attention to detail and love and all of those things I believe stand for quality.”
Despite the impact the pandemic has had on the industry this year, Daniel tells me SLH is in a good place for signing new hotel partnerships. “Usually we sign up 50 to 60 hotels a year and I think we’re pretty much on track to hit the same numbers this year,” he says. “We’ve already signed 33 hotels this year and there are a lot more in the pipeline. Of course the pandemic has affected the industry on an astronomical scale, but we’re a brand that’s actually pretty useful at this time for a small independent hotel that wants to demonstrate that it’s safe, that it’s clean, that it’s small and quality-checked – and we stand for all of those things. I think one of the motivations for hotels joining this year is the want to be affiliated with a brand that speaks their language,” he adds. “Having that quality stamp, and not just to confirm that a hotel is a luxury hotel but that it’s also a clean hotel, a safe hotel, particularly when we have a partnership with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC), reassures guests. You can search all you like online on the likes of TripAdvsior or hotel websites but when there’s an umbrella organisation saying we’re taking this really seriously and verifying every single hotel it’s pretty powerful stuff and I think hotels understand that.”
Looking to the future, Daniel admits it’s tricky to determine what the industry will look like on a global scale, but that smaller hotels might well be the winners going forward. “I think people will favour off-grid locations and smaller hotels, they’ll be mindful of wellness not just for themselves but for the environment too. There’s certainly still that thirst for travel, but I think we’ll all be travelling more consciously in future.” And there are certainly some beautiful and unique small hotels to get excited about. Daniel tells me about some of his favourite SLH properties, from Ett Hem in Stockholm to the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds. He knows each of the hotels he talks about intricately, and the details and emotive notions he describes conjure such vivid images, it takes an almighty effort not to book a stay at each and every one of them! Ones to watch out for include Forestis in South Tyrol in Italy; Q92 in Sicily; Brick Hotel in Mexico City; Sowaka in Kyoto; Hotel Crillon le Brave in France; The Cellars, The Marine, and The Plettenberg in South Africa; Lou Pinet in St Tropez; and Dar Ahlam in Morocco to name but a few.
“I get to see a lot of hotel developments that are hugely exciting before they’ve opened, before anyone else gets to see them and there’s that sense of adventure and anticipation ahead of a new hotel opening, and I feel a huge amount of privilege in that,” Daniel tells me. “We’re living in a world now where we’re putting up barriers, even before COVID, whether that’s politically, economically, and actually when you are living and breathing hospitality, you realise these barriers are utter nonsense. Hospitality is one of the few industries that, joyfully, brings people together. You go to a restaurant to meet up with friends or to go on a date, you go on holiday to spend time with your family and you meet other cultures and other people with different stories, different beliefs – it’s an industry that opens your mind and that’s so important right now.”