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Meet the luxury travel expert: Caroline Klein of Preferred Hotels and Resorts

By Ina Yulo on 11th March 2020

“What does luxury mean to you?” I thought about whether I should ask this question or not when interviewing Caroline Klein, executive vice president of corporate communications and public relations at Preferred Hotels and Resorts. With over 750 member hotels around the world that continue to raise the bar in luxury hospitality, Klein no doubt gets asked this a lot. But still, I was curious to hear the views of a woman who was at the forefront of this ever-evolving industry.

“Luxury to me changes in definition based on my lifestyle choice at that specific moment,” she explains. “While it’s unlikely that I would ever turn down an invitation to enjoy a conventional luxury experience…in my opinion, luxury is also [about] finding an extra hour to catch up with a friend on a walk, losing myself in a good book, or discovering the best street food in a new city. To me, true luxury is the opportunity to pursue the most adventurous, creative, peaceful, pampered, or inspired version of myself through experiences that are personal and satisfying and exactly what I am seeking in the moment.”

From top tips on flight essentials to 2020 travel trends, Caroline opens up to luxury travel writer Ina Yulo on the reasons she loves her job and why making connections and creating experiences whilst travelling will never go out of style.

Caroline is executive vice president of corporate communications and public relations at Preferred Hotels and Resorts

You first joined Preferred Hotels and Resorts in 2012. How have things evolved since then? 

Over its 52-year history, the Preferred brand has continuously evolved to uphold its position as the champion of the independent hotel space, and it was this ethos, the company’s resilience, and the brand’s distinct positioning — not to mention its wanderlust-worthy portfolio — that attracted me to the opportunity from the start. Over the past seven years, it has been so inspiring to see all of the opportunities the company has tackled to ensure that its business model remains ahead of the curve, whilst staying true to its core, by launching innovations across the branding, loyalty, technology, and residences spaces, and expanding its business model to impact the travel industry beyond just hotels.

On March 4, 2015, we transitioned from a house of six brands under Preferred Hotel Group to a consumer-facing branded house under Preferred Hotels and Resorts, with each hotel thoughtfully placed into one of five distinct collections, each offering a unique type of luxury ranging from immersive to casual. This movement involved a year-long corporate communications campaign and global media drive, during which I got to personally introduce our company’s new positioning alongside our CEO in 10 different markets. It was the largest year of professional growth for me, and, during a time when the majority of the major brands were going in the opposite direction with their portfolios, it was quite a ballsy move that paid off in positioning Preferred for another generation of success.

Other important advancements have come in the form of the evolution of our I Prefer Hotel Rewards programme from an amenity-based model to becoming the world’s largest global points-based loyalty programme for independent hotels in 2013; the debut of Preferred Residences, a collection of best-in-class transient lodging experiences that marry the best features of a home with the security, amenities, and services of a luxury hotel; the launch of Preferred Hotels and Resorts’ sister division, PHG Consulting, which is our in-house agency that crafts fully-integrated sales, marketing, and distribution solutions to connect destinations, tourism bureaux, hospitality companies, and independent hotels to key markets worldwide; and, most recently, the introduction of the Preferred brand promise, Believe in Travel, and the supporting company ideology.

Caroline’s job leads to some interesting travel encounters!

What are some of the key characteristics Preferred Hotels and Resorts looks for before accepting a property into the group? 

Due to the unique nature and independent status of each member hotel, there is no one-size-fits-all model. Instead, we choose to partner with luxury properties that demonstrate a true connection to their surroundings and local communities, whether that’s through history, food, design, sustainability, or art. What unites our member hotels is an enthusiasm for sharing the unique aspects of their local culture as part of the overall guest experience. Whilst this is central to our brand identity, there are other more conventional ways that we assess prospect hotels. Before a property is accepted into membership, it is inspected over a period of time to ensure that it meets our brand standards of excellence, looking at a set of carefully formulated criteria to identify which of our five collections best matches its offering. Based on the expected level of luxury and the different requirements for each collection, we scrutinise physical assets such as guestrooms and public spaces, and amenities such as food and beverage outlets, wellness, and curation of art, in addition to less tangible assets, which include market position, level of service, and efficiency.

The group has some amazing women in leadership positions. In your opinion, what makes a great leader? 

I am lucky to have always had strong female role models in my life and my colleagues at Preferred are no exception. That said, a lot of attention is given to females inspiring females, and I think a great leader is one with guiding principles that take influence from everyone who surrounds them across all genders, cultures, and ages to gain a truly well-rounded perspective. The diversity of Preferred’s executive team – which, yes, is a balance of male and female but also spans an age gap of more than 40 years and contains multiple nationalities– has been so inspiring and has taught me many important leadership lessons. What I’ve learned is that the best leaders are so much more than the results they achieve. The most successful leaders see every employee as a job in itself, proactively identifying ways to keep each individual motivated in different ways and tap into their strongest attributes.

Budapest is just one of the historic European capitals that is a must visit destination

If you could be fluent in any language, what would it be and why? 

Mandarin – in the spoken and written language, and also the cultural language. More than one billion people worldwide speak it already, and many of these people do not speak English, so your options many times are a translator or Google Translate. From a business perspective and as a global citizen, being fluent in Mandarin would enable me to connect with Chinese colleagues and clients in a more personal way, streamlining business dialogues when everyone can say what they really think, and opening up so many more professional opportunities. From a personal viewpoint, it would allow for more seamless travel across a country that fascinates me.

You are currently based in Newport Beach. What are your favourite things to do in the neighbourhood? 

What I’ve enjoyed most about living in Southern California since moving here in 2017 is the ability to be active outdoors 365 days a year. My favourite things to do around my home in Newport’s Corona Del Mar neighbourhood are taking walks along the Pacific Ocean – it’s only five minutes from my house-going for long hikes, taking a Pilates class, having brunch with friends, riding bikes to grab lunch and people watch on Lido Island, and then spending the rest of the day reading or relaxing at home before either testing out a new recipe that was inspired by a dish I enjoyed during a recent trip abroad or going out for dinner. I am on the road so often that when I have the chance to enjoy a weekend at home, I really dig in to the relaxing, homebody vibe and spend the time reconnecting with myself and friends.

Caroline tries to add at least one day of leisure to international business trips, especially in unique locations

Travelling can be exhausting. What are your key tips for planning a stress-free trip? 

Expect delays and disruptions. Nearly everything with the exception of getting yourself from place to place with the things you need–is out of your control, so there is no point fighting it. Just have a good laugh, carry a book to pass the time and have the number of your airline’s frequent flier hotline or travel agent at the ready…also, take time for yourself, and with this, I try to live by the three S’s: sweat every day, sleep as much as your schedule will allow, and sip lots of water.

Because I work for a global company, my colleagues are working around the clock based on their time zone. I used to work the second I woke up and had my laptop in bed until I fell asleep at night, trying to make sure that everyone got a timely response and that I would wake up with a manageable inbox. It took me a few years to realise how unhealthy that was and that, whilst I thought I was being productive, I wasn’t sleeping enough to be my best after two to three days. Now, I try to wake up at 5.30am every day to go for a walk around the city I’m in to get to know it or do a Pilates app workout in my room, and then at night I set a time limit for turning off my computer. I also try to schedule extra time in the city I’m in or somewhere close by so I can spend a day or two exploring alone so I don’t feel like it was all work. For example, last year, I went to Oman for three nights to hike the mountainous landscape of Jebel Akhdar solo before heading to Dubai on a business trip.

We’re sitting next to you on the plane. What are you wearing and which travel essentials are in your purse? 

I like to be comfortable and warm on flights and definitely have a travel uniform: a pair of black Old Navy jogger pants, a black or grey long-sleeve Rag and Bone t-shirt, a pair of Nike Air Max for comfort and a pop of colour, an infinity scarf, and, if I’m headed somewhere cold, I’ll also have my grey leather jacket. Beyond my iPhone, laptop, relevant chargers, and passport, here are a few essentials that are always in my purse: at least one litre of water for every three hours I’m flying; multiple face and eye masks to save my skin during long flights and long travel days (Travelmate face masks, Wander Beauty Baggage Claim eye masks, and Skyn Hydro Cooling Gel eye masks are a few favourites); Fresh Sugar Lip Balm; Beats headphones; a variety of snacks (typically beef jerky, dark chocolate, nuts, and cheese bites, depending on flight duration); and 8Greens tablets help me get my greens in between all of the snacks.

Caroline went to Oman for three nights to hike the mountainous landscape of Jebel Akhdar solo before heading to Dubai on a business trip

Preferred is an international company with individuals based all over the world. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from working with people from different cultures? 

When anyone asks me about my favourite part of my job, the answer is simple: the people. Due to the global nature of our company and the travel industry at large, I get to interact with colleagues who sit all over the world on a daily basis. My colleagues are a major source of inspiration, and the global perspective and lessons I’ve learned from them about business, life, and regional culture and traditions have been invaluable… Working for an international company is both humbling and emboldening in the way that you have to take a backseat when doing business somewhere new – even if you are the most senior person in the room – to avoid making a faux pas or losing face unintentionally, whilst in the same scenario, you walk away with more confidence because you’ve learned a different language of sorts.

Care to share some of the captivating stories from the people behind your member hotels? 

I love this question because I could talk for hours about the inspiring, accomplished, and vibrant teams behind each of our 750 member hotels. That said, I am especially in awe of the incredible female general managers and hotel owners within the Preferred brand portfolio. The hospitality industry is more progressive than others in terms of gender representation, but there are still relatively few women in these positions. Examples of those I admire are Sally Beck, general manager at the iconic Royal Lancaster London, which overlooks Hyde Park and is one of the largest event hotels in the city. A couple of years ago, she skilfully oversaw the hotel’s £85 million renovation while keeping the doors open to guests, maintaining high service standards, and without reducing the size of her more than 400-strong team.

As a result of the successful renovation, Royal Lancaster London is once again one of the city’s foremost luxury properties and Sally was recognised by leading industry publication The Caterer with the 2019 Hotelier of the Year Award. In the United States, the founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, Sheila Johnson, is a true force in luxury hospitality and has grown her brand from one to five ultra-luxurious destination hotels in less than seven years. Preferred works with all of the properties including the recently acquired Half Moon in Jamaica, which has just launched Eclipse at Half Moon, adding 57 high-end accommodations to the property. Prior to launching the brand, Sheila had cut her teeth in broadcasting as a founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and had no hands-on experience in hospitality, which makes her accomplishments in the industry even more impressive.

Singapore is one of Asia’s luxury destinations featured on Preferred Hotels and Resorts website

Which country is currently at the top of your must-visit list? 

Trick question–impossible to choose just one! I dream about travel in terms of the experiences I can gain versus the physical places I can check off my list. The travel experiences at the top of my must-do list are hiking across the Faroe Islands and visiting Bhutan to trek up to Tiger’s Nest, experience a homestay, and taste all of the local delicacies.

What are some of the 2020 travel trends you’re keeping an eye on? 

Two emerging trends in particular have caught my attention at the start of this new decade. First and foremost are micro-cations—defined as leisure trips consisting of less than four nights. In today’s ever-connected society where time seems to be flying by and everyone’s must-see lists are multiplying in size, micro-cations are rising in popularity because they allow travellers to see more destinations in a shorter amount of time. Micro-cations are particularly enticing to time-poor millennials who are motivated to spend more time building their careers, but also crave quick getaways every now and then. As the only millennial senior executive at Preferred Hotels and Resorts, I am a strong advocate for the micro-cation and always try to add at least one day of leisure to international business trips in neighbouring destinations whenever my schedule allows, especially when I’m travelling somewhere that I may never visit again.

Another trend that I believe will continue to thrive is second city travel. Booking.com recently released a survey that found 54% of travellers want to help reduce over-tourism, while 51% would swap their original destination for a similar alternative if it would have a positive environmental or social impact. So many secondary and tertiary destinations have the same, if not more, culture, charm, heritage, and character than their better-known counterparts, and as travellers crave experiences that haven’t been over-promoted on Instagram or that offer new perspectives and unforgettable local flavour, literally and figuratively, they are increasingly choosing to venture off the beaten path.

What makes this trend even more accessible is that many of these secondary destinations have recently improved their air access and offer more diverse travel itineraries. Some secondary cities that are top-of-mind are Porto, Portugal; Suzhou, China; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Osaka, Japan; and Bruges, Belgium. The beauty of the Preferred Hotels and Resorts portfolio is its offering of 750 incredible independent hotel experiences across 85 countries, making it easy for travellers to identify hundreds of options in stunning secondary markets.