Friday, February 10, 2017
How High-End Hotels Are Reinventing Airport Lounges
By Charu Suri
Conde Nast Traveler
The new Four Seasons Lanai-branded lounge at Honolulu airport.
These days, killing time before a flight can mean cocktails served by a Savoy-trained butler.
When Henry Ford created the world’s first airport hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, it was to provide a nearby place to relax before or after the tediousness of a flight. Nowadays, luxurious airport lounges do much of the same thing, surprising guests with fine details that will make even the most jaded traveler feel they are entering a buttoned-up residence instead of a souped-up space in an airport.
According to Tyler Dikman, founder of the app Lounge Buddy, which features over 2,900 searchable global lounges, more airports are offering highly exclusive experiences than ever before. “Some have started to open up their VIP spaces to regular travelers looking for a more select environment,” he told Condé Nast Traveler, citing the first class lounge in the London City airport (situated in the private jet terminal) as an example. For a fee of $120 per person, guests get whisked away from the airport curb to the aircraft’s steps, with even tiresome details like checking in luggage handled by the airport staff.
Despite the cost-prohibitive nature of airport real estate, hotels are trying their hand at the lounge game as well, giving guests the option to check-in, experience the brand, and get a key card before they even arrive at their destination. The 1,000-square-foot Four Seasons Resort Lanai branded lounge at Honolulu airport (in the commuter terminal) set the tone for this trend in 2014, and last month debuted a second brand-new lounge at the same airport to keep up with demand. Priding itself on exclusivity (both lounges are reserved for guests of the resort only), there are opportunities to book activities and make dinner reservations ahead of time through the lounge concierge, plus iPads for guests to wile away a few hours on while sipping a cocktail before boarding.
Meanwhile, guests of the Graycliff Hotel departing from Nassau in the Bahamas can relax in a branded lounge following U.S. pre-clearance; there is an irresistible outdoor deck for those who want to get one last fix of sun, as well as bar and dining options for purchase—although an $11 entrance fee applies to actually get in. And at Bradshaw International airport in St. Kitts, Marriott unveiled a recent partnership with the YU Lounge as part of the hotel’s VIP Experience package. Guests get picked up on the tarmac in a Porsche Cayenne, receive expedited immigration processing, and have their baggage taken care of.
These sorts of lounges are predominately cropping up at island destinations, Dikman says—they act as a “comfortable first touch point” for guests—but getting into the lounge game is proving a challenge for many hotels as building branded space in an airport means going through a very long drawn out contract process. “Even if you are approved a lease for the airport space, it lasts for at least 5-10 years,” he says, something which can act as a bit of a barrier for brands.
If you’re fortunate enough to fly the Residence, you get a private lounge-within-a-lounge that comes with access to a Savoy-trained butler, slouchy Poltrona Frau leather armchairs and sofas, and a spacious shower crammed with Acqua di Parma products.
Because of this, some hotels have partnered with existing VIP lounges to offer a personalized experience. The Las Ventanas al Paraíso (Rosewood) in San Jose del Cabo, for example, has a butler who takes guests to the airport and adroitly guides them through the check-in and security process before dropping them off at the VIP lounge for a meal prepared by hotel chefs (the service is free for Signature Villa residents, and $40 for other guests).
But even First and Business class lounges, long considered well-appointed places to perch before a flight, have evolved into something more elaborate, with dining options going well beyond the requisite wine-and-cheese and hotel-like perks.
Etihad Airways’ First and Business Class Lounge at JFK, which launched in May 2016, drew inspiration from upscale hotel experiences: there’s even a way to sample a five-course tasting menu from Mezlai, the restaurant at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi. The lounge has surprising frills and niceties including a gym, a Six Senses spa, cigar lounge, and even a sleek marble prayer room. There is a dedicated kids' zone, too.
And if you’re fortunate enough to fly the Residence, which is basically an apartment in the skies (for $33,000 each way, passengers have a bedroom, leather chairs and even a shower), you get a private lounge-within-a-lounge altogether, as well as access to a Savoy-trained butler, slouchy Poltrona Frau leather armchairs and sofas, and a spacious shower crammed with Acqua di Parma products.
Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific opened a Pier Business Class lounge in Hong Kong in June, crafted with cozy materials like cherry wood, stone and green ceramic tiles designed by Ilse Crawford of StudioIlse; it also has comfortable Solo chairs with built-in reading lamps and individual side tables. In keeping with current wellness trends, guests can also retreat to a quiet space called the Tea House, where healthy brews are served under the guidance of a tea sommelier.
As it stands, the trend for offering travelers hotel-like experiences before they’ve even stepped onto the plane shows no sign of waning as more well-known brands and airline carriers start teaming up together. “When you can associate a well-known brand with a name you can trust, it elevates both brands,” notes Dikman. And if that means less time roaming duty-free, and more spent lounging on a sun deck or sampling exotic teas before boarding, then we're sold.