Tattoos, Performance Art, Graffiti: How Luxury Hyatt Hotels Connect Guests to Brag-Worthy Local Experiences

Crystal Vinisse Thomas, Hyatt Hotels’ global brand leader for lifestyle and luxury brands, shares how these Hyatt hotels are offering singular destination experiences to guests.

A guest room at Andaz Prague, with large curved, high ceiling, and large windows

Andaz Prague is in the city’s iconic Sugar Palace, where guests can join a street artist to learn how to create graffiti art.

Courtesy of Andaz Prague

Luxury travel is booming—it’s expected to grow by close to 9 percent through 2031—and Hyatt Hotels is meeting the demand, growing its portfolio by more than 35 luxury hotels and resorts from Mexico to Malaysia by 2025. The company is also further defining each of its luxury lifestyle brands for guests—and ensure they translate into singular destination experiences for travelers in search of something different.

The secret weapon? Crystal Vinisse Thomas, the company’s Los Angeles–based global brand leader for lifestyle and luxury brands. Over the past couple of years, she’s been setting the global positioning strategy for Hyatt’s six lifestyle luxury brands (Park Hyatt, Alila, Thompson, Andaz, Hyatt Centric, Caption by Hyatt). Having tackled Thompson and Andaz, Thomas and her team have collaborated with hotels worldwide on property experiences already having an impact on guests. Her next focus: the iconic Park Hyatt.

Before arriving at Hyatt, Thomas was senior brand marketer for Beats by Dre at Apple, where she oversaw a partnership between the NBA and All Things Sports. Prior to that, the Cornell University hotel school grad was with Starwood Hotels and Resorts (which became part of Marriott International in 2016).

Thomas and I recently caught up at a luxury travel conference in Cannes, France, where she offered me a glimpse at what the hotels she’s working with have in store for travelers.

This interview was edited for space.

Crystal Vinisse Thomas, wearing an orange jumpsuit and standing in a large guest room with gray couches

Crystal Vinisse Thomas is Hyatt Hotels’ global brand leader for lifestyle and luxury brands.

Courtesy of Hyatt Hotels

Describe your role at Hyatt.

We set the strategic direction for these brands—how they sound, how they feel, how they smell—so from the experiences we create and try to standardize, to the marketing that you see in a campaign. So, a little bit of everything. That’s what I love about branding. My entire career has been just connecting with brands and connecting to the people that love them.

Andaz was one of the first brands you worked on—what can guests expect after checking in?

Andaz in Urdu means “personal style,” but we’d only leaned into that on the surface. I wanted to dig into it a little bit more. Actually, when you talk to people who speak Urdu, Andaz is a lot more substantive than that. It’s not just your personal style—it’s who you are fully, how you show up, the energy you bring to a room. When you travel, that’s when you allow yourself the most freedom to be either the person you want to be fully, or maybe who you thought about being, but didn’t give yourself permission to be. And I think travel gives us a different kind of permission. So we took that insight and drove that down into Andaz. So now when we talk about Andaz we’re talking about it being a place where you have the freedom to express yourself in whatever way you want.

What are some examples of uniquely Andaz experiences that guests can have?

One of my favorite examples is at Andaz Prague. They allow you to explore the art of the city in a different way. Graffiti art is pretty big there, so the hotel has a graffiti art experience where a famous local artist takes you around to see some. But then we surprise guests on the tour by teaching them how to tag in the streets of Prague in legal “free to spray” areas. Suddenly, you’re a street artist. At Andaz Savannah, we bring in a drag specialist to transform you for the day by doing your hair and makeup and styling. At Andaz Fifth Avenue in New York, they’re partnering with a tattoo artist. Sometimes we think about getting a tattoo and then we don’t do anything about it. But what if I told you they were here and they can do it today? It’s about giving guests an opportunity to take it to the next level. We’re not saying we’re going to come in and transform who you are fully. But we want to get you the resources to tap into whatever part of yourself you want.

Tell me about Thompson, which you’ve also spent a lot of time defining.

What I love about Thompson is when Jason Pomeranc started it in New York, it was very much about serving his network of friends. One thing that was always important about it was inclusivity. It didn’t have this level of exclusivity that some places in New York have where you felt like you were in this room of people that maybe you couldn’t talk to. That insight is what really prompted us to dig a little bit deeper: This is a haven for young creatives who have grown up and are seeking sophistication, but they want to feel cool and elevated too. And so having an inclusive place for folks to be able to be around like-minded individuals is a big piece for us at Thompson.

A Studio Suite at Thompson Central Park in New York City, with hardwood floors and large shelves that bisect room.

A Studio Suite at Thompson Central Park in New York City

Courtesy of Thompson Central Park

What are a few examples of Thompson guest experiences?

We have a brand program called Culture Lives Here that brings emerging creatives together. We just did our last one in New York, and it was a showcase in Central Park. We had several creatives work together: a playwright, a dancer, an actor, and a poet with a creative director. They staged a 30-minute one-man play about Black joy called Between the Lines. At Thompson Austin we paired a stylist, Loreal Sarkisian, with Adrian Quesada, who’s one half of the [American soul band] Black Pumas. [Quesada] scored a 10-minute song to a fashion show that she styled, and then we put that on at Thompson Austin, and guests were able to experience a seven-piece band with a fashion show.

These are examples of what we mean when we talk about connecting guests to the culture of a destination right within our walls. We try to curate experiences within the hotel that bring the creative community together, that showcase their work, and that provide a haven for them, [while also offering] a front row seat for guests to be able to connect with the creative culture of that destination.

You’re tackling Park Hyatt next, and I know you’ve already done extensive research on the luxury traveler in preparation. What are some takeaways?

Everything starts with an insight, and for me, the consumer is at the heart of everything we do. I want to know what they’re thinking, so we did a research project speaking to hundreds of high net worth individuals and tapping into what they want, their expectations, and how we’ve evolved as an industry. We wanted to find out things like, what’s driving you when you travel? What expectations do you have?

One of the biggest insights that we got is that we’re evolving beyond the personalization of travel to customization. It’s not enough just to personalize my stay and know my preferences. I want to have control or at least have the choice to be able to impact my stay in real time. This is a small example, but say my preference is sparkling water, but today I want still water. How do I make sure that that preference is adjusted in real time?

How do you distinguish the Park Hyatt guest experience?

From the beginning, Park Hyatt always meant to be this home away from home. [Founder] Jay Pritzker wanted to recreate his living room, where he used to host people, and extend that style of hospitality to travelers. So we started thinking of Park Hyatt with that as an insight. We have a living room, and we’re going to welcome you into our home. There’s an element of discretion, and it’s contemporary and modern feeling. So, we’re going to keep with that and just continue to evolve how we curate experiences to be more personalized, but more importantly, more customized to your preferences that might change each day. We’re excited to do that next year at some key openings in destinations where Park Hyatt guests have wanted and expected us to be—London, Marrakech, Johannesburg, Cabo.

A rendering of a guest room in the forthcoming Park Hyatt Marrakech, with wooden walls, carpeted floors, and a large daybed on a private terrace.

A rendering of a guest room at Park Hyatt Marrakech, opening early 2024

Courtesy of Park Hyatt

How do you weave sustainability social responsibility into your brand work at Hyatt?

At Hyatt we have World of Care, which talks about our efforts as a company when it comes to conservation, when it comes to sustainability, diversity. Through that, the click down for me is, how do I bring that to each of my brands? That’s another insight we got from our research: The luxury guest wants to make sure that their travel footprint is as small as possible, and they can be an active participant in that, and we want to give them that opportunity.

For example, Alila has always been a brand that’s immersed in its community and all about giving back. From the very beginning, we wanted to be a good neighbor—and that’s actually one of our design principles of the brand, to be a good neighbor. So, one extension of that at Alila Marea Beach Resort in California is ocean cleanups. Alila Marea also has a partnership with the Rob Machado Foundation, which teaches people how to surf while also giving back to the community with such efforts as cleaning up plastic.

I want to get to know you as a traveler. What is one gripe or pet peeve about travel that you wish someone would solve?

For me, everything is about the consumer journey, and it would be amazing if there could be dots connected along the entire consumer travel journey among our preferred travel brands to make it seamless. So from the time I open up my shared ride app to the airline I use and the hotel I select, how do I connect the dots between my stay? By the time we get to the hotel, sometimes the experience we spent on the plane has already impacted the traveler. So is there a way for us to talk to each other a little bit more in this industry to create a more seamless experience that connects the dots?

What do you love about working in travel and hospitality?

On one hand, I love the people who spend their lives genuinely wanting to care for and provide service to people and ensure they have amazing experiences. When I was growing up, my grandma, and especially my great-grandmother, if you came from out of town and you were family and we didn’t know you, it didn’t matter to them. You would stay with us. So at the foundation of hospitality, no matter what way you look at it, there’s just something special about being able to connect with people, strangers or not.

And then on the other side of that is the travel part: introducing people to new things, new perspectives, new cultures. I didn’t travel a lot growing up, so I was exposed to that more once I got to college and understood, wait, people can travel as part of their work, that’s a thing? I just became enamored and obsessed with the travel industry. When I left for a little bit, the one thing I missed most was experiencing new cultures and seeing the world, because it really gives you a different perspective on life. I feel like my point of view is more substantive because of the places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met and the cultures I’ve been able to connect with. There aren’t many industries that allow for that.

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of Afar.
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