News & Reviews News Enshittification of luxury hotel brands

Perhaps I’m late to the party, but after reading this epic article on the Financial Times a few weeks ago, I was enlightened with the knowledge of Enshittification. The American Dialect Society made it Word of the Year for 2023. And we all know being featured in the American Dialect Society is the only thing we want for our kids.

The author uses Facebook to define the word. We can all agree that anything with Facebook close to the word “shit” is self-explanatory, but I shall summarise for you beyond that common sense approach you have already taken. A company starts off offering a valuable service – say, keeping in touch with friends – but over time, it degrades to the point no one wins except shareholders. Facebook’s strategy is to shrink user content to a whisper, flood feeds with ads, hike ad prices, ease up on fraud checks, and strong-arm publishers into feed-only posts. Now, it’s all about milking every cent for shareholders, teetering on making users and businesses too miserable to stay but just hooked enough not to leave – a perilous balance between reluctant loyalty and the overdue realisation to ditch the platform.

Well, this is a luxury travel blog, so I’m sure you know where this is going. Yes, I’m going to talk about model train sets. Ok, for once, I will stay on topic and focus on luxury hotels.

Here’s how I see that applied to luxury travel: Hotel Group A, once lauded for its unique offerings, begins to blend into the sea of competitors, raising prices without enhancing value and diluting the very essence that once made it extraordinary. Their growth and pursuit of profits over guest experience slowly but surely scrub away all its charm and uniqueness before they become a corporate behemoth, caring more about expansion than the quality of the product. Service takes the biggest hit, as training and the original company ethos are impossible to maintain. The property owners feel compelled to go with the big brands, as who else could bring in the return on their investment? Mo properties mo problems, as different owners demand different things that dilute the brand even further. Competition is driven away, as they cannot compete with the big brands, thus reducing the marketplace further and making everything the same, ultimately leading to pissed-off customers and decreased profits as they look into different areas. The once underdog suddenly betrays you, and it’s like watching your favourite NFL player sell out and start doing crypto commercials.

Who?

I’m a staunch advocate for the little guy, the smaller property, the same owner and management team – they tend to be the best properties in the world. However, I acknowledge there’s a role for the big hotel chains; it’s all about figuring out where they fit in. Their Achilles’ heel is a lack of consistency. This inconsistency seems to stem from where they started, often with humble beginnings, to their current empires, where more is seen as better than greatness. Most luxury brands can talk about their ethos all they want, but once they reach a certain size, it’s mostly like whispering words into a hurricane. It’s hard to understand what most luxury hotel chains even mean, so let’s look at two of the best-known, Aman and Four Seasons, which have strayed so far from their origins that they are unrecognisable.

Without going into a boring history lesson, Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman, certainly did not envision an Aman New York. The brand name literally translates to “peace”, which in New York only occurs in the movies after zombies have wiped everyone out. Even then, Will Smith is running around singing Bob Marley.

Between decade-long battles of ownership, it’s now ended up as a lifestyle brand with a skincare line, interior design service, and predominantly focused on urban areas. A company that began offering highly personalised villa-like service in remote locations has become a hotel chain that will soon welcome Bangkok, Miami and Beverly Hills. Whether you like this change of direction is down to your own preferences, but some of the key aspects of this growth have seen a decrease in service, an increase in rates and the merry-go-round of GMs. The GMs used to be a staple of Aman, often being seen as part of the product, but many were pushed out, perhaps because they wanted to continue to focus on service at all costs. Aman used to be proud of their low occupancy and high service levels, whereas now you’re more likely to see an influencer fondling the wildlife than an empty room. That’s not to say all was well in paradise before some of the ownership changes because properties like Amangani and Amangalla were not exactly the kingdom of heaven.

Then there’s Four Seasons.

When you grow at the pace that Four Seasons has, some turds inevitably end up in their portfolio. Four Seasons new openings are not such the problem, although they do sometimes blend so much into each other that they are indistinguishable.  Their issue is in the size of their portfolio, the inconsistency and not knowing what might greet you on the other side of the door.  Sure, the George V in Paris and Geneva’s offerings are exceptional, and Cap Ferrat and Florence are stunners. But Park Lane is not even one of London’s top 10 best hotels. Bora Bora is awful, Sydney is an abomination, Johannesburg is pitiful, and luckily, their truly dreadful Vancouver property is no more. Tanzania offers one of the worst properties you could ever hope to avoid, whilst Philadelphia could only be a Four Seasons in that it’s both stunning and depressing at the same time. And in the Maldives, their resorts have been easily surpassed by the Waldorf Astoria. Yes, a Waldorf Astoria. Europe holds most of their crown jewels, where the odds of finding excellence over mediocrity are better, but even there, Hampshire and the gigantic Athens leave me puzzled.

Aman has a small enough portfolio and high enough success rate that it’s not yet reached the Enshittification stage – although some may disagree. Four Seasons, on the other hand, feels like it’s on the way. Its transformed from humble beginnings in Canada to one of the world’s best luxury chains to sometimes being indistinguishable from a Ritz-Carlton, which ironically used to be what Four Seasons aspired to be until they Enshittified the bed. Initially, Four Seasons distinguished itself by delivering unparalleled, highly personalised experiences in unique buildings, forging connections that felt more familial than transactional. It was this focus on the exceptional that set them apart, garnering loyalty and admiration. However, since rapid expansion has become the focus, the overall quality has become inconsistent. There are still gems, but your chances of finding them are rarer and it’s now hard to understand what a Four Seasons property means.

Despite this, there’s still something reassuring about Four Seasons. That’s why this year I’ve been to two of them, and in some cases, they are the best option, but often, it is due to a lack of competition or my lack of imagination. They have clearly decided that quantity outweighs quality going forward.

How it happens

In the end, the plucky underdog becomes the company it was taking on in the first place. The groups offer something truly unique, something exceptional, and then Enshittification happens. Even the smallest groups, like Chable, started with the superb Yutucan before they created the feeble Maroma. The superb becomes the bland, which then becomes the norm.

First, they expand so fast that service and standards cannot keep up. They need to open as quickly as possible before the cash is drained, so they can’t hire or train the best.   Then they start selling you everything possible, which further stretches their resources and dilutes their brand, then prices get hiked even though there’s nothing unique offered anymore, and finally, they become so standard that you can’t tell any of them apart.

Too many luxury hotel chains start with distinctive designs in undiscovered areas, offering exceptional and highly bespoke service that creates a feeling of being at home. Over time, they shift towards standardised designs, diminishing service, and ubiquitous urban retreats, blurring into sameness. And then, if Enshitification is right after they only care about the shareholders and the clients start to flee the sinking ship, they die.

Probably my favourite hotel brand, Airelles, is opening its first property outside of France next year in Venice. Please, guys, don’t screw this up.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 29th Feb '24

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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