Personal services differentiate hotels, department store
In Korea, a five-star hotel, fully equipped with designer furniture, Internet access, a jacuzzi and even a high-tech kitchen, does not impress well-traveled A-listers. To accommodate the hectic and highly stressed lifestyle of the capital’s stylish set, this year the venerable Shilla Hotel has introduced a new concept of service in the city center. The idea is simple and comforting ― instead of struggling through traffic jams, why not stay in the hotel all day?
When its $27 million remodeling was completed earlier this year, the hotel had demolished a number of suites to make room for four clinics and a private bank. Matching the high status of the hotel, the facilities located on the fifth floor offer privacy, elegance and personal care. On this floor, footsteps are unheard on the plush sand-colored carpet, human traffic seems almost invisible and the only sounds are occasional whispers.
A branch of the Jasaeng Oriental Clinic in southern Seoul is an upscale, appointment-only version with private rooms for treatment and consultation. Nurses say the price is relatively the same as other branches. The hotel has opened the capital’s second sleep clinic where doctors watch patients’ sleep patterns in a room styled after the hotel’s newly renovated guest rooms. A meeting with a private banking consultant is reserved for members only in private lounges furnished with a leather sofa and a Bang & Olufsen stereo. Finally, La Clinique de Paris, which specializes in anti-aging therapies, has moved into the third floor to complete the hotel’s options for improving health long-term.
Similarly, the Avenuel department store downtown caters to elite customers in Seoul, who expect exclusivity in a one-stop comfort zone. Avenuel took Korean department stores to another level when it opened last year, by adding personal services to its members, who are categorized as “VVIPs.” According to Lee Hee-seung, marketing manager of the luxury brands team, there are about 500 such listed customers, who are issued with a special VIP card that accesses a number of attractive services. Pointing at tall young doormen, opening doors and offering guides to customers, he said, “You see, we have helpers at the door and a valet service, like luxury stores abroad.”
“When a customer contacts us from anywhere in the city, she or he can come here in a car provided by us. How convenient is that?” said Mr. Lee, dressed in an immaculate black suit with a pink tie.
Special VIP card holders can enjoy benefits, he continued, as they can, for instance, use the bridal salon and receive expert advice on how to organize their wedding and choose the perfect gown that fits their budget. They can also use a VIP lounge located on the second floor. Decorated with gilded mirrors, velvet chairs and glossy coffee table books and with a young secretary offering a cup of hot tea, the lounge looks and feels more like a reception room in a European manor than a department store coffee shop. How much does it cost to use both bridal salon and lounge? “It’s free of charge, of course,” Mr. Lee said, smiling.
Open to both members and non-members ― those who know the place exists and feel comfortable there ― are facilities on the 11th floor including diet and skin clinics, a beauty salon, a yoga center and a spa operated by local cosmetics brand Amorepacific. Medicos Clinic offers various weight loss programs using machines as well as oral prescriptions. A full diet regime costs 2 to 3 million (approximately $2,000-$3,000) per month, but a one-time prescription of appetite suppressants can cost as little as 10,000 won.
Yet the most popular feature with the special customers has been a personal shopper service. There is a “members-only” sign next to the tightly-shut door located in a discreet corner of the fourth floor. When the door slides open, a glittering world of opulence is revealed, like a secret chamber of jewels behind bland concrete walls. An antique horizontal bar displays a few couture garments. The labels of two evening gowns read Roberto Cavalli. A black shirt was by Ferre and another top was by Hugo Boss. “Oh, they are prepared for a customer. Here it’s like a fitting room, you know, they can bring their guests and try them on. Customers can order anything, I mean, anything from anywhere in the world, and we can bring it,” Mr. Lee said, adding that the service was so popular that the store had added another members-only room on the fifth floor.
If the room on the third floor oozes old money, the new room is young, new money, with a sleek, contemporary interior concept, very Armani Casa. Next door is a small lecture hall where about 15 people can attend classes such as cooking or flower arranging.
“These are all complimentary,” Mr. Lee said, “Isn’t that a great deal? The members can get 15 percent discount and collect ‘points’ when they shop here.” He added that of 500 special card holders, about 200 actively use the card’s benefits.
So who is eligible for such a great bargain? He paused for a moment and said, “Let’s say a person who spends money, [as much as] the monthly salary of a Korean office manager, on luxury goods alone.”
The spa war is on ― ask who is the steamiest at the moment, in terms of luxury, and everyone’s answer differs.
The Shilla Hotel has long boasted of its luxury spa, operated by leading French cosmetic brand Guerlain. The Guerlain Spa, or L’Institue de Guerlain, located on the third floor, is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and comes with 14 treatment rooms, a footbath room, a Vichy shower room and a beauty salon.
A footbath in the sunlit lounge overlooking a verdant park is recommended before a 60-minute session of Swedish massage in a private room. There are 32 different treatment packages, with prices starting from 155,000 won (plus 10 percent VAT) to over 2 million won. Products used at the spa are all Guerlain, except for a couple of Pedix products, a German footcare brand. At a whopping 170,000 won, the footcare is not as “haute couture” as in some top-class foot spas which charge far less money in fashionable destinations around the world, but they say, at Shilla, it’s the company of Korea’s most exclusive people that matters more and, of course, the attitude of the humble employees who understand and cater to their customers’ delicate needs.
The Amorepacific brand, which is slowly gaining a reputation as something of a cult favorite among the beauty-conscious in the United States since it opened an Amore Spa in New York, has its branch on the top, 10th floor of the Avenuel department store. The brand’s moisturizing cream made from green tea extract has recently been mentioned in American beauty magazines, as actress Sienna Miller’s “favorite,” in particular. Equipped with private VIP rooms, the Amore Spa is equipped with an elaborate computer program specially developed for diagnosing skin conditions. The manager said the treatment using green tea available here is the same as at the Amorepacific spa in New York. Popular treatments include a Korean massage, known as gyeongrak, as well as Swedish massage for face and body. The prices range from 150,000 won to a maximum of 2 million won for a pre-wedding treatment.
Are you seeking tranquility, relaxation and rejuvenation in the middle of a week? A drive eastward to the Away Spa at the W Seoul Hotel will do wonders for a tired body and weary spirit. The place is spic ’n span new throughout; hip lounge music fills the air. With your feet cushioned inside apple green terry slippers and your eyes covered, a journey to another world starts. The spa, which sprawls across two floors, comes with a myriad of comfort zones.
Compared to the spa at the Shilla, where social stature counts more than the size or facilities, thus making it virtually impossible to obtain membership, at W, it’s the exhilarating comfort of brand-new luxury that money can buy.
The Away Spa is reserved for true spa lovers who can frolic in colorful pools of different temperatures, varying from the “very cold” at 20 degrees Celsius to the “very hot” at 40 degree, and leisurely wander between dry and wet saunas.
When the sun sets, check out the “Deck” balcony, with a panoramic view of never-ending freeways and forests of buildings in southeastern Seoul.
The hotel’s much-talked-about sauna, usually reserved for members only, is accessible through an affordable weekday package, called “Parent Treat,” which includes breakfast, dinner, sauna, Walkerhill show tickets and a one-night stay for two persons for 298,000 won. Individual spa treatments are also available for non-members, with prices starting at 100,000 won.
The hotel currently offers non-members a “Top to Toe” package at 470,000 won (plus 10 percent VAT) for six different treatment courses for three hours and 20 minutes. The highlight of this package is a “calming hydro steam shower” combined with color therapy, where the entire body is lightly oiled and then wrapped in a soothing cloud of warm steam inside a machine that resembles a large cocoon. The steam and water showers are followed by an hour-long massage session by a highly skilled therapist, who combines muscle-relaxing Swedish massage with Aruyvedic healing points.
The best way to rejuvenate in Seoul is to immerse yourself in one of the Deck’s two types of pool, one a whirlpool jacuzzi which fiercely massages your back and the other a calming stone bath in the shape of an open shell. There, feel your soul awaken, slowly, as you see beyond the gorgeous cityscape. In the hot tub, you realize something, with a sigh of relief ― that life isn’t all that bad after all.
by Ines Cho