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What makes a hotel iconic?

Updated: May 28, 2020

(Originally published in 2015 with permission of Williamson Travel LLC)

The unassuming lobby at San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, CA.


The answer, I believe, is inevitably a subjective one.

For many, it is a question of the memories and associations a great hotel inspires.  I return to hotels in the same way that avid readers return to re-read a beloved title.  Hotels grab you, and keep you, when the stories they tell resonate with you, in ways which entice you to repeat the experience.

A former business associate of mine used to repeat the adage “Retail is Theatre”.  It follows then that the luxury hotel business is also theatre, because hotels are the luxury retailers of lodging. Now that consumers “converse” and purchase hotels via the digital world, the most successful hoteliers succeed because they understand, nurture, and fine-tune the narrative of their retail product, which equates to one’s hotel stay experience.

With the exhausting availability of detailed information regarding today’s multitude of international hotel options, successful luxury hoteliers must understand what uniquely distinguishes their property’s personality. This consistency, in turn, brings their repeat clientele back, despite the plethora of alternative options they could find on the internet.

We do not have one word which encapsulates this professional management art in English, but the French call it “hotellerie”.

My freelance work as a travel writer happily brings me into contact with many hotels which I would classify into the “iconic” category.  Three hotel sojourns which occurred within one calendar month in 2015 gave me a data set encompassing three iconic options. Interestingly, the three properties were all five-star properties, but I will elaborate later in this article as to why this designation does not, for me, always necessarily convey singular merit.

I find that all three of these hotels achieve an iconic character because they capture, and successfully maintain and procure, a rarity of atmosphere in their respective locales which draws guests back to them, repeatedly, over time.  

The hotels are:  the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, The Peninsula Beverly Hills, and The San Ysidro Ranch.  The first property is suburban, the second centrally urban, and the third falls into the category of a “resort” or natural “retreat”.  Despite the diversity of their physical location category types, they share a commonality of purpose and focus.

It may not be politically correct to articulate, but the universal formula for an iconic hotel’s success always includes a healthy dose of seclusion.  The dictionary defines seclusion as the “state of being private and away from other people”. To acknowledge seclusion’s importance in the formula is not to suggest that every guest seeking residence at these hotels is a hermit.

The sole requirement is rather that the seclusion and comfort are there, upon demand, for the guest.  Many trendier properties can fall short of this requirement while striving to create a hotel “scene” that continually draws a crowd.  In the end, if a hotel accommodation offers “atmosphere” at the expense of privacy and individualized service, it has only accomplished a fraction of its potential appeal.

Ritz-Carlton Buckhead

The bar fireplace in the former Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

The Ritz-Carlton is, for many travelers, was the only choice for an Atlanta hotel.  Not only did it attract repeat guests from consecutive generations of guest families, but it drew local Atlanta residents for libation in the bar, meals and event venues.  Many of the hotel employees were veterans of long-standing, and their attention to detail and respect for their guests was ubiquitous, without being intrusive.  The hotel embodied Southern values of hospitality and tradition in an unabashed and honest manner.  The rooms were elegant, but understatedly tasteful, immaculately clean, well-tended and inviting.  The scale of the event business at the hotel was huge, but its guests never had to forgo the character of service for which the hotel is known.  

Ritz-Carlton Buckhead even boasted a separate spa floor for those guests who wished to reside adjacent to the excellent spa without ever having to leave their respective floor.

My prior corporate affiliate Brownell held its annual meeting at Ritz-Carlton Buckhead the first week of November in 2015.  I had stayed at the hotel since I was a child visiting Atlanta with my parents from my hometown of Savannah, Georgia.  The venue continued to provides the perfect balance of quiet comfort in the rooms with large event capability and accessibility to cutting-edge meeting rooms and services. A hotel’s comfort capacity is truly tested when one conducts business and meetings for twelve hours per day, within the same building where one sleeps.  This Buckhead icon passed with flying colors.

Note: Sadly, since the time of my first publishing this article in 2015, the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead had changed hands and is now The Whately. I say sadly, only because many of us committed devotees found it difficult to relinquish the original icon. Work and family no longer take me regularly to Atlanta, but I hope one day to have occasion to visit the new Whately, and view the hotel's current reincarnation!

The Peninsula Beverly Hills

The Club Bar at the Peninsula Beverly Hills in Los Angeles

In a city where modernity and minimalism often hold sway, The Peninsula in Beverly Hills stands for traditional comfort and old-world glamour.  The fact that it does so with great success is a testament to its commitment to principles of hotel management that harken back to a time before the expediency and immediacy of utilitarian lodging, and the pressure for a hotel to reflect the latest design trends.  

The grace and professionalism of the Peninsula staff immediately set it apart from the greeting one finds at most Los Angeles hotels.  As a first-time guest, one is aware of a strong service culture which permeates the entire staff.  When you pass hotel staff in the hallways, they stop and step aside, while greeting you and making eye contact, in order to allow you to pass first, and unencumbered.  Such etiquette is so rare in our daily experience, as to make it seem somewhat unctuous at first encounter.  As it repeats throughout one’s stay, however, it becomes an appreciated nicety, which delivers the intended result: the guest feels respected and valued.

Like the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, the Peninsula excels at creating a seamless flow of appealing common areas which are discreetly distinct from the residential floors. One can have afternoon tea in the salon by the fireplace next to reception, or stop into the clubby enclave of the bar, where the energy of Beverly Hills' locals together with out-of-town guests, melds, and lingers.

The service from the bellman to reception to housekeeping, is prompt, genuine and detail-oriented, resulting in an atmosphere of sophistication and confidence without ever being stuffy or overbearing.  The housekeeping staff cares for each room as though they are in no hurry, and as if their primary concern is keeping the guest’s private environment impeccably ordered. This quality is also often under-appreciated in the world of price-driven hotel selection.  

Pampering and hospitality should, and do, go hand-in-hand in finer hotels, and this mantra is deemed self-evident at the Peninsula.  The small, but wonderful, spa has a cocoon-like intimacy that envelops you in luxurious regeneration and rest.

The San Ysidro Ranch

Perched on a hillside in Montecito, San Ysidro Ranch provides the consummate urban antidote.

The scale of the resort is modest, but the aesthetic is sublime with an emphasis upon celebrating the transforming beauty of the Montecito seaside through simple cottages designed for contemplative comfort.  Both the architectural and interior design styles have not changed significantly since Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy honeymooned here in 1953.  Some situations stand the test of time and trends, and this property’s location and ambience do just that.

The simple elegance of the property reinforces the indisputable fact that it is the geography of this place which makes it uniquely exquisite.  There is indeed a fairy-tale-like quality to the cottages’ architecture which reminds me of the idyllic 'Shire' in "The Hobbit".  

The photo memorabilia of its glamorous past Hollywood clientele which decorate the walls of the lobby and sitting rooms, together with the soundtrack playing Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, anchor San Ysidro Ranch as an immutable outcropping of American history and legend.

The understated attention to every detail and comfort for guests within their bungalows nestled throughout the ranch cements this as a desired escape. The Stonehouse restaurant and its downstairs complement, The Plow and Angel, are charming and inviting without being overly busy with activity.

This quiet approach is mirrored in the various outdoor pursuits including horseshoes, hiking trails, and a hilltop pool area with a small, but well-designed fitness center. All suggest that satisfaction here lies in quiet recreation, rather than being seen and mingling in common areas.  Frankly, sitting on one of the many benches in the hotel's flower and chef’s gardens, admiring the spectacular coastal views for an afternoon, could brighten and impress the most seasoned of travelers.

In summary, I would like to address the mention I made earlier of the 5-star designation.

There is no question that a 5-star property has ticked all of the boxes when it comes to the codified requirements of hotellerie.  The three hotels discussed in this article do not limit themselves, however, to simply ticking the boxes required for the luxury facilities du jour.

The management of these properties perceive the hotel’s featured amenities as a means to an end.  The amenities only matter if they assist in achieving the character of experience which the guest craves.  Often regulars at these three hotels may have many of the hotels’ attributes available to them at home.  They do not come to these hotels for these services per se, but instead for the “tapestry” of hotel "theatre", which is attained only through seasoned expertise and implementation. These properties do the difficult work of weaving it all into the experience of their guests.

The outcome seems to be that whilst there, you do not feel you are in a hotel at all. The ability to create this illusion is what separates an icon from a bed for the night.


JFK and his bride Jacqueline Bouvier on their honeymoon at San Ysidro Ranch.

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