Three powerhouse Asian cities captured their first Forbes Travel Guide Five-Stars as we unveiled our 2015 Star Ratings on February 11. Bangkok, Guangzhou and Tokyo each made the 57th list as part of Forbes Travel Guide’s international expansion. We talked to the trailblazing winners to find out how they achieved the honor, why you should travel to their cities and why service trumps all.
It seems fitting that the storied Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok nabbed the city’s first Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel award. The gorgeous riverside property debuted as Thailand’s first hotel in 1876, and it put the “Oriental” in the Mandarin Oriental brand’s name. “Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok and The Oriental, as the hotel was formerly known, have been at the forefront of innovation for nearly 140 years as the first hotel in Siam, the first hotel spa and the first cooking school in Bangkok and many more, all making this accolade so much more special for us,” says Amanda Hyndman, general manager of the hotel.
Despite the hotel’s rich history and accolades—the must-visit spa also earned a Five-Star rating—consistently pulling off Five-Star service isn’t easy. “The world around us is changing very quickly and we have to keep up with the times in order to meet the changing needs of our sophisticated clientele, constantly making things even better, whilst at the same time maintaining a sense of place and a home from home for both first-time guests as well as our loyal guests who return time and time again,” Hyndman says.
Plus, Thailand has its own service nuances, she says. “The Thai approach to hospitality is signified by compassion and kindness and, especially for ‘the Oriental family,’ a profound pride in showcasing the very best of our hotel, of Bangkok, of Thailand and all that the kingdom and Thai culture have to offer.”
Thailand hit a tourism slump in May 2014 when a military coup seized control of the government, but it has rebounded. “None of the hype about Bangkok is misplaced,” Hyndman says. “Bangkok still offers unique experiences and great value for money—from the Grand Palace, temples, markets, gems, silk and shopping to the burgeoning culinary scene with everything from street food to world-class temples of gastronomy. As guests used to arrive in the Kingdom of Siam by boat before the days of air travel, so the majestic Chao Phraya River is firmly back in vogue as businesses, leisure and entertainment are returning to its banks with an array of multibillion baht landmark developments.”
As China’s third-largest city, Guangzhou gets overshadowed by places like Shanghai and Beijing. But Guangzhou is one of the country’s best-kept secrets—it’s the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine; it boasts the Canton Tower, a nearly 2,000-foot-tall lattice TV tower that’s one of the tallest in the world; and it’s home to an up-and-coming arts scene. The manufacturing hub finally steals the spotlight with two new Five-Star hotels, Four Seasons Hotel Guangzhou and The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou.
Opened in 2008, The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou sits in the Zhujiang New Town area of the Tianhe district along the Pearl River. “The Canton Tower, the world-class opera house, [Guangzhou] Museum and library are all located at the footstep of our hotel,” says Andrew C. Rogers, hotel general manager. “If you love exploring traditional and historical spots, visit the Chen Clan Academy, Shamian Island or Sun Yat-sen temple to gain some insight into Guangzhou’s past.”
But the hotel is worth a visit as well, with its design that blends European elegance and Chinese glamour, a heated rooftop pool lined with columns and Cantonese fine dining at Lai Heen. “We have a beautiful hotel with distinctive facilities that create a warm and refined ambience, but what makes it special is the personalized service and genuine care,” Rogers says.
Fellow Five-Star Four Seasons Hotel Guangzhou goes for an ultramodern aesthetic. Set on the 74th to 98th floors of the 103-story Guangzhou IFC building, it boasts bold design (like the 70th-floor lounge, which has a dramatic 30-floor-high atrium above it and a double-helix staircase), a sculpture-heavy contemporary art collection, an infinity-edge pool that seems to disappear into the sky on the 69th floor, and fantastic views of the river and city. But the commitment to service is the same. “Since the day Four Seasons Hotel Guangzhou opened in 2012, it has been the unwavering commitment by each member of our staff in delivering outstanding service and quality to our guests [that helped us win the Five-Star],” says Bahram Sepahi, regional vice president and general manager. “Five-Star service demands consistency and quality in product and service that is unparalleled and at a very personal level.”
As Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo marks its 10th anniversary this year, it has another reason to celebrate: It became Tokyo’s first Five-Star hotel. Despite its age, the sexy, chic hotel continually stays fresh—it just wrapped up a very popular pop-up restaurant from boundary-pushing Noma in Copenhagen, its own restaurants (from Sushi Sora, which serves Edo-mae sushi—a traditional style with simple, elegant preparation—to Tapas Molecular Bar, which experiments with intriguing molecular bites) are hot spots for locals, and the newly minted Five-Star spa wows with spacious suites that have floor-to-ceiling views of the city.
But all of it comes secondary to assisting guests. “As a brand, we place a great focus on service. It is what we are about. We work hard to deliver a consistent bespoke service wherever we can,” says Anthony Costa, general manager. “Our director of quality works daily with division and department heads to review guest comments, suggestions and we listen to our colleagues on how they feel we can improve. It is just a continual process of refinement and evolution.”
“Service here in Tokyo is exceptionally warm and genuine,” Costa says. “The Japanese are naturally service-minded, and I believe they enjoy delighting guests.” The staff at the Nihonbashi business district hotel illustrates his point well. “They are so proud, being the first [Five-Star] hotel means so much to them, but what I truly appreciated was how many of them said they need to work even harder to retain it. They know they can deliver the service, but they recognize the importance of keeping it and improving each year.”