Paris can make quite the argument for being the world’s sports capital right now. The French Open is in the midst of another unforgettable run. The FIFA Women’s World Cup runs across the City of Light and eight other France destinations from June 7 to July 7. And the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of racing’s most grueling events, takes place on June 15 and 16 in a town only 115 miles from the Eiffel Tower. Hang around the country this month and you could easily check off half of your sports bucket list.
With the latter event, an unprecedented partnership with Waldorf Astoria and Aston Martin promises to take the racing experience into another gear. The U.K. car brand is setting up an extravagant hospitality suite filled with elegant cuisine, spa services and Waldorf Astoria-approved beanbags. Not to be outdone, the celebrated hotel company is outfitting glamping tents minutes from the track with deluxe bedding, monogrammed robes and eye masks for fans who want to see the action but have their Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries within arm’s reach.
Forbes Travel Guide recently spoke to Dino Michael, Waldorf Astoria’s global brand head and one of the masterminds behind this high-octane opportunity. In addition to talking about the one-of-a-kind overnight outing, Michael discussed the company’s other initiatives with Aston Martin, its goal to pace the industry in service and the other exciting projects that Waldorf Astoria is looking forward to down the road.
How was this partnership conceived with 24 Hours of Le Mans?
We were looking at partners and how guests’ expectations have kind of evolved. I’d rather partner with someone who does something at the very top of their game rather than us try to do something as imitators. And Aston, for us, is a very natural relationship.
We’ve got a bit of a common story. Both of our brands started around the turn of the early 1900s. Both brands are really well known for one icon. For a very long period, we’ve had the Waldorf Astoria New York. And Aston Martin became very famous for the DB5. If you think about how both brands evolved, they’re pioneers in their industry. They’ve got this deep heritage yet they’ve moved forward to keep pace with modern preferences. We think it’s a very natural fit to work together.
You mention having a deep heritage yet keep moving forward. How difficult is it to keep that balance?
It’s something we think about constantly. I don’t think we ever stand still. We’re very mindful that we don’t lose sight of who we are. The name has been around for over a hundred years, but you’ve got to make sure you’re keeping pace with what consumers want. You think about the way that experiences have come to the forefront of what people want from their travel and their visit, but you don’t want to lose sight of where you come from. New York is the original. It’s where many great events have happened. But be mindful of how we present ourselves in the future. Where are we with our new properties? How are we meeting our growing demand for service?
Luxury has become a very crowded space. How do you set yourself apart from everybody else? I think we do that through service, No. 1. I think that is what will keep your guests loyal and coming back. I think making sure your respect for location and heritage [shows is important].
When someone walks into one of our Waldorf Astorias, I really want that first sentiment and emotion to be around their sense of geography and location. The second emotion should be that they’re in a Waldorf Astoria. If we get it the other way around, we probably miss the mark. For me, we really make sure we’re present in that location and embellish that within the design, the service attitude and everything else.
How are you bringing the Waldorf Astoria experience to the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
This is the first year that we’re collaborating on the accommodations side, with the glamping component. Let’s start with the bed. The notion of luxury when you’re camping is different than luxury in a hotel, so I think the bed has to be No. 1. We’ve got great bedding. We’ve got our own high-thread-count cotton bedding, monogrammed robes, slippers and throw blankets.
We have charging stations. Power when you’re camping is a massive luxury. We have eye masks and earplugs for those who want a little respite from the event. We have a spa suite where we’re offering complimentary massages to glamping guests and we’ll have a Aston Martin hospitality suite where guests can receive complimentary Waldorf Astoria massages, if you really want to get away and refuel.
We’ll offer great food and beverage in the hospitality suite and have some screening areas to watch the race while you relax in one of our custom beanbags. It’s fun and casual but we’re adding that level of sophistication and real luxury to your camping.
What else can you tell us about the Aston Martin partnership?
There are a few components to the partnership. I think one of them is our Waldorf Astoria Driving Experiences at select locations. For this year, we’ve got events in Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah, Las Vegas and Atlanta.
But this isn’t just about having cars on a closed course. It’s really about having the guests understand the car with one of the Aston Martin professional drivers. You’ll get to know the car intimately, and they’ll plot a route around the city. You’ll get to see some iconic landmarks and really get to open the car a little bit and understand it.
What we felt was really important for the partnership was to make sure that it allows guests to understand both brands. We’ve got exclusive access to events like the motor shows in Geneva and Shanghai, which are two of the biggest. In the U.S., we’ve got the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach. Over in the U.K., we’ve got the Goodwood Festival of Speed. It really allows our guests to see the cars in environments that really make sense. These will be once-in-a-lifetime experiences done with our service philosophy and Aston Martin’s service philosophy.
You’ve talked about Waldorf Astoria’s service standards a few times. What is it exactly that separates your brand from others in the high-end travel space?
We look at that a few ways, actually. Service is obviously key. As part of our true Waldorf service philosophy, you have a personal concierge. From the moment you book to the moment you depart and beyond, there is an individual that’s attached to you, that really focuses on your stay, your needs and is really there to help you make the most of your visit — whether it’s on or off property.
Some of our hotels run very unique experiential offers that are not identical across the portfolio. We wanted our team members and leadership team to come up with experiences that went back to that sense of geography, that sense of location.
For example, in Rome, we can get a vintage car and arrange a route for you to see all the sights. Or, if it’s the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, we’ll charter you a yacht so you can revisit the beauty of the California coastline. Or [set up] a sunrise spa and breakfast on the Dead Sea with the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem. It’s really about curation of experiential offers that are unique to each location.
Like I said earlier, I think it’s our sense of location through design and service [that separates us]. We want to put that local detail on that component. I want you to really feel as if you’re in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Beverly Hills or Bangkok so you really embrace your sense of place.
Speaking of Atlanta, why was the city such an important one to enter recently?
I love Atlanta. Think about the massive cultural shift it has had in recent years — music, film. The population, I believe, is set to double in the next 20 years. The Buckhead neighborhood, in particular, has sophisticated retail and dining and drinking options. It’s an area, and a city, we’ve been looking at for a while. And when the opportunity came up, we literally jumped at it.
Are there any upcoming openings that you’re excited about?
We’ve had a busy year. Between this year and last, we’ve had [hotel openings in] Bangkok, Las Vegas and Atlanta. In a few weeks, I’ll be off to the Maldives. I’m really looking forward to celebrating that opening. We open on the first of July in the Maldives with an all-villa property [with 121 units]. It’s stunning.
A little while after that we’ll welcome our second property in Dubai at the International Finance Centre.
And looking a bit further ahead, exciting for me as a Brit, we’ve got Waldorf Astoria London Admiralty Arch coming in the next few years. It’s an iconic building facing Trafalgar Square to the north and Buckingham Palace to the south.
Some other [future] landmarks for us include [hotels in] San Francisco, Miami, Bali and the Caribbean with Antigua. And then, over in the Middle East, we have [properties coming to] Kuwait and Doha. It’s a really busy time for us. I’m really excited.
You have a lot on your plate.
Even though Waldorf Astoria New York has been around since the 1800s, the point where we went from more than one hotel has only been just over a decade ago [when The Waldorf Astoria Collection started in 2006]. In real terms, we’re still a very young, nimble luxury company.
We’ve got a very positive attitude and we’re all keen to get moving. We have just over 30 hotels with just over 20 more in the pipeline. We’ve still got lots of places we’d like to be.