When Does Being Authentic Become Inauthentic?

.... and do we create that authentic, or incredible, or comfortable experience for the guest that is memorable?

By Joel Villalon President, Brayton Hughes | November 26, 2017

When Does Being Authentic Become Inauthentic?

I pulled out my phone from my day bag and took a photo of the Sacred Valley in Peru on my way to Machu Picchu through the roof as we slowly meandered past that cliff. The three capsules attached near the side of a cliff looked alien, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Friends had stayed in the capsule only a month before. They scaled the cliff up a ladder with guides, and they arrived to a 300 degree view from the glass room. Sleeping up to eight people, the capsule was 8’ tall, 8’ wide, and 24’ long. The unit was ventilated, lit at night, had an ecological toilet and sink, but had no shower. A delicious Peruvian meal was served with a bottle of wine, and breakfast was brought to you the following morning.

The room décor design was not particularly sophisticated nor was it decorated with any nod to the beautiful textiles and handicrafts that are particular to Peru, but there you were, suspended in air, surrounded by cliff and sky in your eagle’s nest. Do you truly need the exquisite Peruvian textiles and handicrafts to remind you of where you are, or is this particular experience without any of the cultural cues the purest form of experiencing Peru and its nature from that vantage point?

When I finally arrived at Machu Picchu, I checked into the hotel at the entrance to the Inca site. The original hotel was constructed as a lodge in the early 1900’s that catered to the wealthy and to researchers. Although the room rate was more than I typically spend on a room, I chose to stay here because of this: when the last buses of tourists leave at 3pm in the afternoon, the hotel guests practically have Machu Picchu to themselves for two hours before the park closes. Likewise, the following morning, hotel guests can enter the park at 6 am to watch the sun rise, a full hour before the first tourist bus from Agua Calientes arrives.

The interiors of the lodge did loosely nod to a lodge aesthetic with a few wood beams and stone columns in some areas, but again, there were very few references that you were staying in a hotel in Peru directly adjacent to the most iconic architectural symbol of the country. The interiors of the hotel could be placed almost anywhere: nondescript carpet patterns, the small limestone bathroom, drapes and bedding fabrics that you might find in any American hotel. If a gesture to Peruvian culture, art and architecture were to be placed anywhere, I thought this would be the one hotel that should celebrate that fact, even if only in a subtle, abstract and elegant manner.

Mild controversies arise in design when people feel a line has been crossed between reflecting the local/regional culture and appropriating a culture. Marfa, Texas, a town of 1,800 inhabitants, is located a little over two hours east of El Paso in the Chihuahua Desert. At one time, it was mostly known as the place to view the Marfa Lights, but in the 70’s, the artist Donald Judd bought several structures to help create his and other artists’ art. For the past few decades, artists, writers, and actors have moved to Marfa to help invigorate the local economy by creating an artistic destination for people from around the world.

Bunkhouse, the hotel operator that operates and owns several boutique hotels, such as the Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia, created El Cosmico, a rambling collection of trailer homes and tents located in the outskirts of Marfa. The motor homes are refurbished and outfitted as hospitality units. The tents vary in size and style, replete with campfires, and are decorated in an eclectic variety of textiles and furniture from around the world. Some of the tent structures are tepees, and these structures have upset some people who feel that the hotel has appropriated the Native American culture. Are these concerns warranted? Does the fact that a guest relaxes and sleeps in a tepee, and for perhaps the first time, recognize that West Texas was once inhabited only by Native Americans? In this vast landscape, does the guest, for the first time, experience and admire the architectural structure and spatial volume of the tepee? Does the guest enjoy a connectedness to the earth that comes from this camping experience?

El Cosmico, a rambling collection of trailer homes and tents located in the outskirts of Marfa, TX
Guests enjoying the facilities at El Cosmico
Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, Machu Picchu
A standard room at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, Machu Picchu
A not-so-ordinary view from your glass pod atop the Sacred Valley of Peru
/ SLIDES

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Coming up in February 2018...

Social Media: Engagement is Key

There are currently 2.3 billion active users of social media networks and savvy hotel operators have incorporated social media into their marketing mix. There are a few Goliath channels on which one must have a presence (Facebook & Twitter) but there are also several newer upstart channels (Instagram, Snapchat &WeChat, for example) that merit consideration. With its 1.86 billion users, Facebook is a dominant platform where operators can drive brand awareness, facilitate bookings, offer incentives and collect sought-after reviews. Twitter's 284 million users generate 500 million tweets per day, and operators can use its platform for lead generation, building loyalty, and guest interaction. Instagram was originally a small photo-sharing site but it has blown up into a massive photo and video channel. The site can be used to post photos of the hotel property, as well as creating Instagram Stories - personal videos that disappear from the channel after 24 hours. In this regard, Instagram and Snapchat are now in direct competition. WeChat is a Chinese company whose aim is to be the App for Everything - instant messaging, social media, shopping and payment services - all in a single platform. In addition to these channels, blogging continues to be a popular method to establish leadership, enhance reputations, and engage with customers in a direct and personal way. The key to effective use of all social media is to find out where your customers are and then, to the fullest extent possible, engage with them on a personal level. This engagement is what creates a personal connection and sustains brand loyalty. The February Hotel Business Review will explore these issues and examine how some hotels are successfully integrating social media into their operations.