Defining Luxury in the Hotel Space: in conversation with Pennyhill Park

Treacle sat down with Rachael Stevens to discuss the shape of luxury hospitality and the future of the luxury experience. Rachael won the prestigious Acorn Award in 2021 and was a finalist for GM of the Future in 2022. Currently, Rooms Division Manager at Pennyhill Park, a luxury hotel in the Surrey countryside, Rachael is an exciting, inquisitive and refined voice in the hospitality industry.

What inspired you to go into hospitality?

My hospitality career spans 10 years now, both studying and working in the industry. Prior to this, I was a lifeguard and swimming teacher. But ultimately I knew I was destined for a career in hospitality when, investigating various university study options, my father stopped at the International Hospitality Management degree course and said, “I think you’ll do alright in this Rach.” I genuinely haven’t looked back since!

What is your role at Pennyhill Park & what is your favourite thing about it?

I’m Rooms Division Manager, part of the senior leadership team at Pennyhill Park, responsible for the Housekeeping and Front of House departments for a multi-million-pound annual rooms operation. I take huge amounts of pride in the product we have at Pennyhill Park and our offering across the Exclusive Collection, but my favourite part about my role is nurturing our talent. As I’ve progressed, I see my role now in facilitating an environment whereby my teams can excel in what they do, and that, by far, is the most rewarding part. You can have a great product, but the people set you apart from the rest. I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career, and I love being able to do the same and help others just starting out in the industry.

Luxury means different things to different people. How do you define luxury in the hotel sphere?

I feel the concept of luxury is changing, and so is our industry. In the past, luxury was very much defined by ‘gold’ and ‘the outside’ with more tangible elements to service. Historically when you looked at luxury, it was all about polluting, being excessive and, quite honestly, just not caring. Now luxury in the hotel sphere is defined by sustainability, elegance, purity of the food, local values and creating extraordinary authentic and exciting experiences. When this is being delivered with love, personalisation, and genuine and authentic service, that’s a formidable combination!

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“Luxury in the hotel sphere is now defined by sustainability, elegance, purity of the food, local values and creating extraordinary authentic and exciting experiences.”


– Rachael Stevens, Rooms Division Manager at Pennyhill Park

How do you and your team deliver personalised experiences to today’s luxury travellers?

Through passion, attention to detail and staying true to our core values. I also believe an empowered team is the best way to deliver luxury personalised experiences. I always encourage individuality in my team. Nobody wants robots! It’s a well-known fact that happy staff, who are recognised for their good work, are better at customer service. If you are confident in yourself and your craft, naturally you will have the confidence to deliver over and above excellence in the hospitality industry.

What are the foundations of successful customer service?

For me, it’s about setting expectations, surprising, and delighting. Utilising your PMS and CRM platforms in capturing key information, demonstrating proactivity in your provision of service throughout, shifting guest interactions to suit the needs of the individuals concerned, continually analysing guest feedback, and adapting. Adopting a flexible approach and mindset is essential as there’s no one size fits all approach, and the traveller mindset is ever-changing. Each customer has different needs and requirements, and it’s down to us to identify and fulfil these.

How important are the small things when winning over customers?

Vitally important. For me, luxury service is not just about going beyond the call of duty to wow a customer. It could just be simple ideas that go a long way in making a big difference in how your customers perceive you. If you combine several of these ideas; you will create something so special that your competition will find it difficult to replicate. It could be something as simple as a smile, being considerate or, in fact, just doing what you say you will do for your guests. Start focusing on doing the little things well, and you are already on your way. The secret is not in the knowing; it is in the doing.

As the luxury market continues to evolve alongside a new generation of customers, how necessary is tailoring customer service towards these new demographics? 

Vitally important. I’d stress that there’s no one size fits all approach; you have the basic standards of customer service to be met, but how these are then tailored to the individual and delivered to your evolving demographic will set you apart from the rest. It’s safe to say Millennials and Gen Z are looking for authentic experiences and demonstrate a huge commitment to sustainability; conscious consumerism is more than just a buzzword. So when we talk about tailoring customer service, it’s also about evolving the tangible elements. With this in mind, luxury hotels are continuing to redefine themselves.

We have a fantastic example of this at Exclusive Collection as we’ve successfully embarked on a journey to become the first UK hotel group to become B Corp accredited, recognising that success in business is as much about people and the planet as it is about profit. This focus on sustainability, elegance, purity of the food, local values, community, and creating individual and extraordinary experiences, which you will encounter at each of our properties, keeps people returning. 

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