Peter Borer could have been excused for thinking his career in hotels was over when he was at the helm of the exclusive Hong Kong Peninsula.
Only four guests were booked into the 30-storey hotel one night in 2003 and the usually buzzing colonial-style lobby – famed for its high teas, chandeliers, pillars and impressive staircases – was so deserted that Borer and other staff kept themselves amused by rolling coins across the marble floor.
Outside, the roll-up of luxury cars bringing well-heeled guests to the 1928 hotel nicknamed the "Grande Dame of the East" had come to a halt and the white-gloved bellboys with pillbox hats had no doors to open or designer shopping bags to carry.
Things were bleak. The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) had almost brought travel to a standstill.
But Borer endured this downturn and the fortune cookies have favoured him ever since – all the way to the top job as chief executive of the entire Peninsula group of nine hotels in Asia and the US, famed for their impeccable service and Rolls-Royce fleets.
As a 30-year veteran in the hotel industry who has just introduced the some of the most technologically advanced hotel rooms in the world, the Peninsula head nevertheless believes good old-fashioned service is the cornerstone to luxury travel.
"I"ve come to the conclusion that the principles of luxury travel have not changed all that much over the years," he says. "Guests still want very personalised experiences and not to be treated in a cookie cutter fashion.
"Luxury guests also want attention to detail and quality, whether it's a hand-stitched leather chair or the feel of a bed sheet. They want space, and not to feel cluttered.
"I am great admirer of other great luxury brands that have stayed pure over the years. Chanel, Hermes and Rolls-Royce have remained true to their original premise and they have succeeded. In a way, we are trying to be copycats in the hotel industry."
Does this mean other brands have sold out, abandoning core values for quick dollars?
"No, everyone has different business philosophy, and I'm not here to criticise the others. To me, the greatest freedom in life is to have choice, and if you have the choice to stay in a Regent, Four Seasons or in a Shangri-La that's wonderful. They are all doing it their way and we are doing it our way."
Borer, who visited Australia recently to spruik Peninsula hotels, has just presided over a $HK450 million ($A55.4 million) renovation at the Hong Kong Peninsula.
The renovation has delivered chic room interiors with caramel, walnut and dark chocolate colourings and the attention to detail he so admires, including leather vintage travel trunk drawer handles, mahogany dining tables, Chinese ink paintings and Poltrona Frau dining chairs.
But the piece de resistance is the room technology designed to provided "touch-of-the-button" access to almost anything a hotel guest could desire.
The centrepiece of the technology is an in-room tablet (like an iPad) available in five languages.
From the tablet you can order room service, operate the TV and complimentary HD movies, adjust the lighting and airconditioning and even open and shut the curtains.
Access is also provided to the hotel's new PenCities web-based travel guides by Luxe. The guides are updated weekly with the latest information about food, culture and shopping in the city you are visiting.
Complimentary wi-fi access is provided as well as free international VOIP phone calls. There are also LED touch-screen wall panels to summon the valet, control the temperature and to access weather reports.
Concealed power sockets have universal adaptors and chargers and there is also wirelesss connection to an all-in-one fax/printer/scanner/photocopier that provides the functionality of a home office.
"We believe that right now this is the most personalised guest room in the world," Borer says. "We have all the latest technology and accessories that a modern traveller may need, but without screaming high-tech."
He says he is a "technical idiot" and didn't give the green light for the technology until he knew he could work it without a manual.
"It is very easy to use and guests have accepted it very well, including one gentleman who is 100 and has been coming to the Peninsula for 83 years. He told me the other day he finds it extremely useful."
The technology will also be installed at the new Paris Peninsula opening late this year, and will be retrofitted at the group's other hotels, including those in Shanghai, Beijing and New York.
But Borer harks back to tradition. "Service takes years to perfect. To get near that perfection we have to have a culture in which our staff feel connected and are respected for what they do."