There's only so much luxury a hotel can provide. The tap fittings in the bathrooms can only be so fancy. The pillow menu can only be so extensive. The bed can only be so wide.
Once you've reached the pinnacle of those tangible things, when no further improvements can be made, the concept of luxury comes down to one factor: service. Service sets you apart. Get the service right, make it personal, make it professional and make it seamless, and the concept of luxury goes to a whole new level.
That's something I'm considering while taking coffee in the "caveau", the basement level of Corso 281, a boutique hotel in the centre of Rome. All of the tangible trappings of a five-star luxury hotel are great, I'm thinking, but when the service is good – and here, it's very, very good – that's something else. That's another level.
Corso 281 has all of those tangible, traditional trappings. The hotel is set in a restored 18th-century baroque palace on Via del Corso, one of Rome's most famous streets, a stone's throw from the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and Piazza Venezia.
It has only 12 suites, each with a maximum capacity of three, and which were designed by Milanese architect Chiara Caberlon. These domiciles all have hardwood flooring and Carrara marble bathrooms; there are plush king-sized beds in each; personalised minibars; Bulgari toiletries; Samsung smartphones with 4G internet and free local and international calls.
The suites have something else too, something you only appreciate when you crack a door or a window overlooking Via del Corso open, and the cacophony of one of Rome's main thoroughfares comes pouring into the room: the sirens, the car engines, the shouts and the horns. The double-glazing on the windows and doors, you realise, is phenomenal.
"I searched for four years to find the right ones," smiles Natalino Gisonna, the suave former lawyer who is now the owner and manager of Corso 281. "They are amazing."
So yes, Corso 281 has everything you would expect from a five-star boutique hotel. The true luxury, however, is service. Here, it's personal. Natalino is from Calabria, in the south of Italy, an area where he says warm hospitality is a way of life. And so, that attitude has been transferred to Corso 281, where there's a feeling of family, despite all the fancy surrounds.
It begins before you even arrive, when you're asked weeks in advance to select your preferred bed linen, mattress, pillow. You're asked what you would like the minibar stocked with, whether you have a favourite champagne or liqueur.
It continues on arrival, where you're free to relax with a coffee in the basement – once a vault when the building functioned as a bank, today a gallery space, library and wine cellar – while the check-in process takes place. You're given options for your stay: where to eat, where to drink, where to visit. And here's the most important thing: Natalino is the well-connected Roman friend you always dreamed of having.
You want a last-minute table at the great trattoria down the road? Natalino knows the head waiter. You want to tour an art gallery nearby when there's no one else around? Natalino knows the curator. You want a private showing of the latest Roman fashion without leaving your hotel room? Natalino knows a personal shopper who will make it all happen.
This access is the sort of thing you need a local for, a well-connected local, a local with impeccable taste. Natalino is that local. That's why I'm taking him up on the restaurant booking, heading out with the waiter's name in my head, knowing that in this city where contacts are everything, I'll be treated like family at the trattoria, too. That's luxury.
Singapore Airlines flies daily from Australian ports to Rome, via Singapore. See singaporeair.com
Corso 281's suites include breakfast and 24-hour check-in and check-out. Room rates from €320 ($505) a night in low season, and €750 ($1185) in high season. See corso281.com
Ben Groundwater travelled at his own expense.