Hotel insider: South American concierges with a cultural edge

It took little more than a comment on the morning news bulletin to set Martín Böhmer off raking up history. I had signed up for an introduction to Argentina’s 19th-century Belle Epoque, a golden era when Buenos Aires shone with luxury and grandeur. The experience would involve a one-on-one chat with Böhmer, a dapper and eloquent law professor at the University of Buenos Aires, and a walking tour of the capital’s grandest mansions with architectural historian Eduardo Masllorens.

Böhmer, a polished and passionate speaker, was waiting in an elegant salon in the city’s ritzy Recoleta district. We sat amid a finely crafted interior of lapacho wood, rawhide furniture and linen drapes; on the wall hung an original oil by Argentine master Nicolás Uriburu.

Within an hour, Böhmer had spiced up two centuries of history with pithy comment and pertinent asides, finding threads to link the grisly deeds of Argentina’s post-independence warlords with the rise of Evita and the gaucho’s demise.

With a practised flourish, Böhmer brought his talk around to the late 19th century, when railways and refrigeration opened Argentina’s fertile Pampas and the vast reaches of Patagonia to cattle and sheep farming, underpinning a boom that catapulted the country into the top six economies in the world.

We headed out on foot to see how that wealth transformed a gilded swath of Buenos Aires. As Masllorens pointed to a succession of Parisian-style mansions erected by the country’s great and not-so-good, he regaled me with titbits on Argentina’s 19th-century high society. By the time we called a halt at lunch, I had learnt of more indiscretions and infidelities than most practising divorce lawyers.

Such half-day history lessons from cultural heavyweights are part of a concierge service being organised by Hub Porteño, a hotel that opened late last year in a gothic-style mansion in Recoleta. Backed by some of the country’s most patrician families, the 11-room townhouse hotel has quickly made a name for its understated luxury and good taste. Yet its key selling point is an attitude to concierging that goes far beyond a mere booking service.

“We take care of what goes on outside the walls of the hotel as much as what happens inside,” said Gonzalo Robredo, Hub Porteño’s general manager.

At the heart of a top-of-the-line, all-inclusive package is a choice of “experiences”, each focused on a key topic related to Argentine history or culture and delivered by historians, figures from the literary world or experts on local politics.

“Buenos Aires is a city of many layers,” says Robredo. “If you’re curious about Borges’s labyrinths or the figure of the gaucho in Argentine literature, these experts act as cultural interpreters to bring these subjects to life.

“For someone interested in art, say, an hour spent with Pablo Siquier, one of my favourite Argentine artists, is perhaps worth more than a visit to five museums.”

Such high-level hand-holding is not cheap: Hub’s all-inclusive package costs $2,000 per double room, per night – five times as much as a lodgings-only rate, although it also includes chauffeur-driven transport, a personal shopper and pre-paid dining in handpicked, off-the-beaten-track restaurants.

“We might suggest a no-frills steakhouse next to the Boca Juniors football stadium rather than a fancy Puerto Madero place that’s already in all the guidebooks,” says Robredo. “It all depends on the tastes and interests of the guest.”

A handful of South American hotels have already begun to follow Hub’s lead in using activities or excursions to cement each property’s identity to its surroundings. In a similar vein to the winemaker’s concept of terroir, these hoteliers aim to create properties that exude an unmistakable sense of place.

Brazil’s most expensive hotel, Botanique Hotel & Spa, which opened last November in the forested hills of Campos do Jordão, 100 miles from São Paulo, showcases local produce and skills to accentuate its sense of place. “In South America, we’ve taken a long time to learn to value our own traditions, rather than simply copying others’ tastes or values,” says Fernanda Semler, Botanique’s co-owner.

Semler has gone to some lengths to stamp Botanique’s identity with those of its surroundings. In the spa, massage creams are based on locally grown herbs, while guests are invited to accompany chef Gabriel Broide in foraging nearby woods for ferns, bark and berries used as condiments in the kitchens, or for the mushrooms he uses in his shiitake-and-shimeji wrap.

Peru’s Hotel B, a 17-room boutique property in the Barranco district of Lima, adheres closest to Hub’s concierge technique. Hotel B opened in April in a former family mansion built in 1914 by France’s Claude Sahut, who brought his own particular style to Peru’s capital by designing theatres, gardens and the country’s presidential palace.

Ignacio Masías, the hotel’s backer, devised an arts-focused “experience package” designed to connect guests to Lima’s thriving arts scene through private viewings, after-hours museum visits and access to private collections. Personal introductions to up-and-coming and established local artists are provided by contemporary art gallerist Lucía de la Puente, whose gallery is located next to the hotel. A second package is focused on Peru’s natural history and culture.

Rural hotels and lodges in South America routinely offer a fully inclusive rate that includes twice-daily excursions, the best of which are guided by informed locals or professionals. Indeed, Masías’ first hotel, Titilaka, offers a dozen day-trip options, ranging from nature-spotting on Lake Titicaca, led by professional birdwatchers, to jeep-bound photographic safaris in wind-sculpted Tinajani Canyon.

So why have urban hotels been so slow to provide the same level of tailor-made, expert-led activities? “Providing a full package of in-house excursions is much more difficult in a city,” says Masías.

For Robredo, urban hoteliers have simply been slow to break out of inherited ways of thinking. “Most hoteliers are obsessed with what goes on inside the hotel but largely leave guests to fend for themselves outside,” he said. “It’s an approach that functions well in Rome, Paris or London. But in a more complex city like Buenos Aires, you have to do a little more to bring out the best of the place.”

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