- Emily Goldfischer
5 Wellness Trends in Luxury Hotel Operations with Liv Gussing Burgess
After graduating from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Liv Gussing Burgess began her hospitality career as a butler in the historic St. Regis Hotel in New York. From there she broadened her experience and expertise in luxury service by heading to Asia, where Liv was instrumental in expanding and structuring the legendary Aman brand and culture around the globe.
Liv is now a sought-out expert on luxury travel operations, founder of the Luxury Hospitality Consulting firm based in London, where she provides the guidance and inspiration to transform hotel brand visions into successful realities across innovation, strategy, and operational excellence. Her clients span from the Six Senses Shaharut in Israel’s Negev desert set to open in August, The Coach House Spa at the historic Beaverbrook resort in the rolling Surrey Hills outside of London, and working with iconic luxury brand Airelles, that has just opened a 14-suite hotel inside Versailles Palace.
We chatted with Liv about what should be on our radar with all the changes taking shape in hotel operations in a post-pandemic world.
Before we get into wellness and luxury trends, tell me about your first job as a butler in the St. Regis in New York City?
While I was at Cornell, my desire was to move to the Far East after college because of the reputation of the legendary service there. I changed my plan when an opportunity to join the inaugural class of butlers at the legendary St. Regis in New York City came up. The hotel was just re-opening after a massive renovation and the operators at the time, ITT/Sheraton, had sent their senior management team to Asia for training. There were just 30 butlers hired from all over the world, and as a new graduate, I was one of the youngest.
Wow, that is so cool. How did they train you, what did you learn and how long were you a butler? Any crazy stories?
We were trained by the legendary Ivor Spencer, a master butler from England, and learned practical things like how to welcome a guest, packing, and unpacking, running a bath, how to properly address people, and respect their private space. There’s a lot of fascinating etiquette around all these processes. We also learned a lot about in-room food service, proper tea service, and every step of the way we worked very closely with housekeeping. It was the perfect training in understanding exceptional hotel service in the most intimate of settings.
While I was only a butler for a year, this training imbued my strong belief that what we do all boils down to caring for people – however, they might need it. It certainly informed the way I later ran hotels and has made sure I always feel empathy for every role throughout a hotel’s operation.
No crazy stories, but I did stand in for a guest who wanted to practice proposing marriage to his girlfriend. Suffice to say, I have been proposed to a lot!
From there you moved to Asia, first with Dusit Hotels & Resorts and then Aman?
Yes, I spent three years with Dusit in Corporate Operations and then joined Aman as a Front Office Manager at The Strand Hotel in Myanmar (Burma) in 1996. Strangely, on the same day, I received two offers: to join The Strand and graduate school at Harvard. The choice was easy…. Aman offered me the opportunity to explore the world, and I’ve never looked back.
Aman was the first hotel brand to offer an informal style of luxury and the company was growing rapidly at the time. From The Strand, I was tasked with assisting in many openings – I went to Indonesia, Wyoming, Tahiti, and Morocco – staying at each for up to six months to get the properties up and running. Then, in 2000, I went to Amanpuri in Phuket and oversaw the opening of the first Aman spa. From there, I became the General Manager of the Amandari in Bali, Indonesia where I stayed for seven years. I loved the personal nature of Aman and would sometimes even welcome guests with my daughter in my arms!
The range of Aman projects gave me a fantastic education in how to deliver an incredible brand at all guest touchpoints, and I became really passionate about imbuing wellness into every aspect of the hotel experience for guests. This is something I still love doing today – looking at a hotel as a whole and seeing how the brand and the operations can combine to become something utterly amazing. I’ve recently been working with the French hospitality company, Airelles, and they’re doing an incredible job of carving a real niche for their brand that delivers a complete experience for every guest.
Tell me about the future of wellness in the luxury hotel experience?
Our personal lifestyles have evolved to a point where our well-being cannot be disregarded by brands. A focus on wellness must reach beyond the spa to integrate with design, technology, and sustainability - as well as operations and food and beverage. And hotels now have the ability to not only keep pace with this momentum but also to introduce guests to new ways of looking after themselves in every moment of the day. Hotels can be a place of education and experience in feeling better about ourselves that lasts way beyond a lovely massage or a fresh smoothie.
Beyond the pandemic, what trends do you see taking shape?
Design will play a larger role in the overall experience. Those incorporating holistic wellness into their lives are aware of creating spaces that add to the ability to feel well. We’ve spent so much of this past year in our homes, and become hyper-aware of what elements make us feel good, from lighting and fabrics to air purification and even furniture layout. Sensory experiences will come more to the fore; art, light, color and even the soundscapes of a place. An example of this was a recent project for Beaverbrook, where we created a stunning, color-filled spa by using the incredible stained-glass art of Brian Clarke. The space is now an absolute feast for the senses and acts as a tangible part of the spa experience.
Technology is going to allow us to personalize wellness in mind-blowing new ways. This is an area I find particularly exciting and can see huge developments on the horizon. (Watch this space!) Through personalized metrics, people can make lifelong changes to their daily habits. For example, in the past, guests might book into a retreat to quickly lose a few kilos, but then go home and revert to their old ways. Now we can extend any such experiences by utilizing technology. Technology will not only improve guests’ immediate experience but will also sustain those bonds that nurture valuable loyalty and advocacy.
Bringing nature indoors. I relied heavily on daily walks for my sanity during the past year. Nature, greenery, and abundant freshness are so important to us, and I see more of these elements being incorporated into the fundamental design of hotels now, creating areas where the boundaries are blurring - courtyards are featuring heavy planting, and living walls are bringing freshness and vivid aroma wherever it's needed. Pop-up spaces will offer such opportunities too.
Sustainability. COVID taught us that we don’t live in isolation. If something happens in one place, it will affect other parts of the world. As an industry, we must be more proactive in creating, designing, and building hotels that support a sustainable future both for ourselves and for our guests - who are demanding the change. There are now ways of making sustainability simple and brilliant, take for example, bottled water. Why don’t more hotels have their own bottling plants? This and several other initiatives have all been incorporated at Six Senses Shaharut, a project I worked on for four years. Six Senses are championing a commitment to change and I think we all need to step up, be responsible and tackle the issues that come out of tourism. Our guests will reward us, and our future depends on it.
Spa treatments that are more than skin deep. Today, there is more interest in immune boosters, vitamin shots, and treatments such as lymphatic drainage which all impact our ability to stay well and fight infection. However, guests are also addressing ‘bigger’ areas – sleep, gut health, and overall resilience. As David Attenborough emphasized in “A Life on Our Planet,” resilience is built through a diverse eco-system and, in our own case, I refer to emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental health and the gut. The gut contains seventy percent of our immune cells so digestive problems cannot be ignored when struggling with allergies, arthritis, mood disorders, and cancer to name a few. In a post-pandemic environment where resisting infection will remain top of mind, guests also want a more holistic approach to wellness. We want to support beauty and health on every level.
Any final thoughts?
As ever, I find myself coming back to the same thought...the one thing that will never go out of fashion in the hotel business is caring for people. That’s what we do. Whether you’re a butler or a general manager, if your enduring purpose is to give your guests the most fantastic time imaginable, then you’re doing great. As an industry, we need to be wary of trying to promote fads and over-market to consumers. Humans need proper nutrition, exercise, sleep, and to feel cared for, and we already do all of this pretty well. For me, the only next stage that I think matters is to find ways to do it all better; to personalize the care for each guest, to help each person feel and stay well. What more could anyone want?