“Europe is full of culture and amazing experiences, but in general we’ve missed the opportunity to formulate a hospitality experience around it,” Aethos Hotels co-founder and CEO Benjamin Habbel told me.
“Finding an authentic hotel experience often feels like you have to get lucky. You travel to Tuscany and it might be the most pathetic vacation of your lifetime, or it could be the most special and fulfilling trip you’ve ever taken. You just don’t know.”
Habbel and his team are building and operating a new lifestyle brand, Aethos Hotels, to capitalize on this opportunity. The brand has 8 hotels and their latest, Aethos Ericeira, is opening this summer in Portugal. And as founder and CEO of both Aethos and Limestone Capital, a private equity investment firm, he can speak from a unique perspective.
Habbel’s path to owning and operating hotels is somewhat unusual. After working as chief of staff for Marissa Mayer at Google, Habbel started Voyat, an e-commerce company serving the hospitality industry. “Working with 200+ operators and owners, we had a good perspective of what was going on across various parts of the market – from Asia to Europe, and the U.S., from large scale operators to small boutiques and everything in between,” he said.
As he was building Voyat in New York City, Habbel saw brands emerging throughout the 2010s that were design and experience-centric, such as Sweetgreen, a fast-casual restaurant concept focused on fresh salads, and 1 Hotels, a brand that told a story around sustainable luxury.
“Whether you think they did this authentically or not, they really captured this idea of wellbeing, sustainability, and making a positive impact on communities – and they formed hospitality brands around that.”
In Habbel’s view, Europe had a lot of culture and incredible experiences but fewer brands built a clear hospitality experience around it. There was an opportunity for what he calls “inspirational arbitrage.”
Serving experiential travelers
Habbel and his team saw an opportunity to build a brand for younger travelers that wanted a mindful, purposeful travel experience. People that had limited time and wanted the reliability of certain standards to make sure they got what they were looking for.
“They want to make sure that there are simple things like amazing coffee, a yoga class, or a great cocktail. None of these things are very complicated, but when it came to experiencing these at family-run European boutique hotels, it was often hit or miss.”
The highly-fragmented ownership of European hotels meant inconsistent brand standards and low adoption of technology. “We thought we could build a new brand that would provide mindful hospitality, and do this through quality design and reliable service in a way that appealed to affluent millennials that are going to be the highest spending group of travelers in the next 10-20 years.”
A brand standard of no standards
The Aethos brand has brand standards, but they look different than most other brands. “One of our standards is that no assets should look alike,” Habbel said. The benefit for the traveler is that every property is different and authentic to the location.
“In Umbria, we bought a property in an ancient 13th-century village and transformed it into a boutique hotel. I guarantee you the standards there – from the room sizes to the water pressure – will be different than if it were in the city center of Lisbon,” Habbel said. “It just is, and it always will be unless you knock down the village and you put a box on top, which is not something that is authentic to us.”
Key to exceptional hospitality
“There are a lot of regions in the world, the United States and the Middle East in particular, where there’s this mantra of the bigger the better. Everything is about offering more and more and more. I think exceptional hospitality has actually nothing to do with that.”
For Habbel, exceptional hospitality comes from connecting with the guest. “Exceptional hospitality is being able to move your customer, being able to leave an impact, an impression, a memory that lasts well beyond the Instagram post. Something people will talk about for a while.”
Amenities that drive the guest experience
Part of being able to move the guest and create lasting memories is offering amenities that enable that. The Aethos team gets creative here.
“In Ericeira we will have a dedicated surf concierge and a surf school. They will do daily research on things such as the tides and wind and where the best waves are. They will help you plan your day dedicated to surfing. You can take classes if you’re still a beginner or an intermediate, but also receive expert-level instruction.”
The Aethos spa offers treatments that cater to an active lifestyle. “If you go mountain biking or hiking, you come back and experience our hydro pool and massages that will relax you after a long, active day.”
Food and beverage offerings also play a big role. “In Milan, we have one of the best-known cocktail bars – it’s been shortlisted as one of the top 50 bars in the world.”
“We want to cater to everything our guests want from their travel experience – both looking after themselves with healthy, active living – and being able to enjoy a good glass of natural wine or a cocktail in the evening. Our guests absolutely love this.”
A concierge approach to experience-driven hospitality
Enabling experience-driven hospitality is more than simply thinking of cool activities to do in the area. It requires designing and delivering a service operation around them.
“Helping our guests plan their experiences is incredibly important,” Habbel said. He shared the example of yoga retreats they offer where everything is planned and managed for multiple days. “You don’t have to think about anything, you just arrive and take classes, enjoy great food, and see cultural attractions. We have everything organized, from the pickup to the drop off.”
The Aethos team provides service through the channels guests prefer. For many, that’s Whatsapp – so Whatsapp is the channel of communication between the guests and the staff. “We reserve restaurants for you, we plan boat rides for you, and provide suggestions of cool spots to check out each day.” The goal? A no-stress experience where you feel continually inspired – whether you’re on property or not.
Sometimes enabling the best travel experiences requires pushing guests outside of their comfort zone. “Sometimes we encourage you to try something new. Sometimes it’s great to chill by the pool, but maybe there’s more you could do. We want you to be aware of that. We want you to experience all you want to experience. This really defines our brand.”
Creating a culture of hosting well
Being able to offer this type of experience depends on the people that work at each property. Habbel and his team aim to enable that by building a unique culture.
“We don’t think of our team as hotel staff that just have stiffly defined tasks like a waiter or a bartender. We are training people to be generalist hosts and we encourage them to think of the property as their own home – from checking in a guest and serving coffee to scheduling experiences.”
For example, Delfina, their chef in Saragano, often takes guests on a guided walk through their gardens or invites them to the kitchen to help cook an authentic Umbrian meal. She does that because she is empowered to create an experience that goes beyond just being a chef.
The goal is that the guest sees this and feels like they’re visiting the home of a good friend, even though they’re on the property for the first time. “This is a truly exceptional experience that brands with all the money in the world struggle to do.”
Opportunities for group travel
The type of hospitality Aethos provides through its properties appeals to individual travelers but increasingly, groups as well.
“Experiential hotels are very attractive for teams and certain types of groups. We have started an initiative catering specifically to this, offering great packages for off-sites, team retreats, and board meetings. These groups don’t want to go to a Sheraton and have a traditional meeting experience, but would rather do something like olive picking in Saragano, yoga in Corsica, or take a surf glass. These experiences are much better for team bonding and much more productive than sitting in a sterile conference room at an airport.”
Aethos has seen an incredible amount of demand for this offering. After experiencing a retreat at one of their properties, a group client told them, “It’s as if COVID never happened for us.”
Building for yourself and those around you
With Aethos, Habbel is enjoying the creative process because it feels like he’s been building his dream lifestyle brand.
“Creating an experience you know will be meaningful for you and your friends and family – something you are proud to share – is a great way to build a high-impact brand.”