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What it's Really Like Operating a Luxury Hotel—an Insider Shares the Scoop

We spoke with Mark Bradford, Mandarin Oriental General Manager, about what almost two decades of managing hotels is really like.


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It takes a lot of multitasking to run a hotel: orchestrating a staff, ensuring that all the little details come together so that guests have the best possible experience, serving top-notch cuisine, etc. But managing—and opening—a luxury hotel? That’s an even bigger job.

When I recently traveled to Beijing this spring, I stayed at the newly-opened Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing, one of the city’s finest luxury boutique offerings. Upon walking into the lobby, I could tell that the property was different—there was the calming blue wallpaper that I couldn’t take my eyes off of (which I later found out was hand-made especially for the brand); a minimalist and airy library space; sparkling jasmine tea (served cold) brought to me the moment I sat down. It was little details like these that made me feel at once right at home, but also as though I was experiencing something extraordinarily special. I was fortunate enough to spend some time touring the 798 Art Zone with the hotel’s General Manager, Mark Bradford, and we got to chatting about design, art, and the importance of both in the boutique hotel industry.

Bradford has been in the luxury hotel business for over 17 years; he’s managed five Mandarin Oriental properties, and (in addition to the Wangfujing property) opened the award-winning, American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts Property, Mandarin Oriental Marrakech in Morocco. If one thing stood out to me especially during my stay, it was Mark’s patience, kind and calm demeanor, and attention to detail—all of which was readily reflected in the hotel’s smooth operation.

Recently, I followed up with Mark to ask him some behind-the-scenes questions about what exactly goes into managing a luxury hotel. Below, he tells us about what makes a good hotel great, relays some out-of-the-ordinary guest requests, and talks about what he notices first when staying at a luxury hotel.

What are some of the biggest challenges your job poses?

Mark Bradford: "Firstly, attracting and retaining colleagues genuinely keen to excel in delivering personalized service in luxury hospitality. Secondly, managing your time every day to balance between being a host on stage with your passionate colleagues, and leading by example with millennials. [Also] meeting and receiving feedback from your well-traveled guests, monitoring the quality of the guest experience (whilst in parallel managing a business unit of a publicly listed company like Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group), and reporting to owners of the asset you are managing."

What is something about your role that guests staying at the hotel probably don't know about?

"Like most things in life, luxury hospitality is an art and it requires peoples’ passion and attention for every detail—and in doing so, instilling confidence with everyone to delight every discerning guest."

Coordinating a hotel staff must feel like something akin to conducting an orchestra or choreographing a ballet. What helps you keep an eye on everything while also ensuring that your staff gets all those little details right?

"Practice, practice, more practice, and passion to serve from the heart! Without forgetting to let our people shine and be confident in the art of hospitality."

What, in your opinion, turns a really good hotel into a really great hotel?

"Luxury hotel assets are a long-term investment for owners in world-class locations. The manager and the owner need to have a long-term vision, and patience, to reach greatness. Celebrity chefs become renowned when they consistently source exceptionally fresh and quality produce and apply their culinary talent and craftsmanship day in and day out to deliver an incredible culinary experience to diners. Over several years, they become icons in their communities. In the hospitality world, consistency of the service experience in a unique setting, day in and day out, and delighting guests with emotional empathy will deliver a legendary hotel and ultimately tangible added value to owners and discerning customers."

What has the experience been like as a GM staying with one brand over the course of almost two decades?

"Whilst nearly two decades with one company seems like a milestone and perhaps to some monotonous, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group has allowed me over the past decade to open and operate three luxury hotels in incredibly different destinations, namely Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, Marrakech in Northern Africa, and now Beijing in the heart of China. I also spent five incredible years at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok in Thailand as Hotel Manager, and it remains one of the best hotels in the world today. In this fast-evolving world of travel, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is determined to remain relevant as one of the true luxury hotel operators in the world and I believe in their vision. We’ve just opened a beautiful gem on Lake Como and two beautiful hotels in the Middle East and I think there are more to come soon, including the iconic Ritz Hotel in Madrid next year. I hope we can soon return to the U.S. West Coast and, in particular, L.A. and San Francisco."

Is there one thing that you always notice (or look for) when you stay in a hotel for the first time?

"Genuine smiles and desire to give you an incredible stay. The design of the resort or the hotel is a question of taste, and the genuine unobtrusive emotional connection with the host is what I always enjoy. Of course, attention to details like a freshly squeezed juice, or the quality of the “bircher muesli” at breakfast, or the crispness of the bed linen can’t be ignored."

Have you had any crazy or wild requests from guests that you can share?

"We love to receive unusual requests from guests and take a lot of pride in meeting and exceeding their expectations, as it often results in great appreciation from having created a genuine moment of delight. I do recall once upon a time removing all the furniture from a Presidential Suite—including the four poster bed in the master bedroom—and replacing them with fur rugs for a VVIP. That comes to mind as quite an extraordinary request."

Your favorite hotel in the world?

"The Oriental, Bangkok now called the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok remains a special place in my heart for various reasons. Auberge du Soleil in Napa, when I stayed with them on two occasions a decade ago, was magical. More recently, Aman Sveti Stefan in Montenegro also blew me away. Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona is also a favorite. My ultimate favorite hotel right now is Mandarin Oriental, Wangfujing. It’s in an incredible location facing the Forbidden City and the team are so passionate to please all of our guests." All highlighted properties mentioned are American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts Properties.


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