The definition of luxury in the travel and hospitality industry is in the midst of a major transition. While the concept of luxury is still synonymous with opulence and exclusivity, the pursuit of such wealth and its scarcity will inevitably only take hotels so far. Operators are realizing, therefore, that the time has come to refresh their outlook on what claims to deliver genuine ‘luxury’ truly mean. Chirine Salha, senior consultant at Ulysses Consulting, shows us how
Seventy years ago, luxury meant finding crystal chandeliers when you walked into a hotel lobby, alongside Italian marbled pillars, and elevators with attendants and plush seats. Fast forward a few decades and it was added amenities, such as white-table-clothed Michelin restaurants, branded toiletries, a spa or an HD TV that gave hotels the ‘luxury’ status. But today, these attractions have all become standard – the norm and expected – no longer seen as leading indicators of luxury.
The new breed of travelers, which encompasses the millennial generation, is looking for authenticity and experiences during their stays. Today’s guests are expecting much more than a planned itinerary and restaurants, with substance given priority over style. They are less concerned about luxurious rooms and more focused on being offered extraordinary, exclusive and stress-free access to unique experiences that add value to their lives and those of the community. In this ‘new luxury’, experience has a higher value than material consumption. We’re talking about visitors who have already witnessed the best that this world has to offer; there’s nothing you can show them on a helicopter ride that they haven’t seen before. These travelers are searching for something that will blow their mind.
Gone, therefore, are the days of travel agencies and hotel concierges being the gatekeepers of booking and information about traveling. This doesn’t so much mean that the role of concierge has become weaker, but rather it has evolved into a new function, namely that of ‘destination manager’. With such an abundance of information accessible online, it is still routine for travelers to question the credibility of a source and complain about how cumbersome the task of trawling through it all is. For this reason, among others, today’s concierges are ideally suited to act as expert filters, and their services will continue to expand in terms of delivering exclusivity, as opposed to our standard definition of luxury.
Sustainability and the wellness segment are emerging as among the most important trends in the tourism industry. Guests are increasingly making their hotel choices based on the social and environmental impact of a property or company. This socially conscious aim of wanting to do good is closely linked to the social media trend, with the spotlight firmly on social platforms like Instagram. Luxury now lives through social media, with these platforms having shifted the balance of power. Today, anyone with a smartphone can exert an influence and have the power to impact the way in which a brand is perceived.
The travel industry is responding and adapting to this trend, with packages reimagined and rebranded as experiential escapes, and itineraries shifting away from traditional sightseeing toward experiences given titles such as ‘Live like a Local’ and ‘Digital Detoxing’, or ‘Off the Beaten Track’ adventures. Since Instagram inspires these concepts more than any other social media, hotels are capitalizing on this trend by showcasing what travelers can look forward to during their stay.
Today’s guests are not looking for the ‘rich type’ of luxury; if anything, they’re advocates of the sharing economy. They might take an Uber taxi instead of renting a car, for example. Ownership is no longer part of the luxury experience. This wave of tourists will make use of public transport and dress in a Gap T-shirt, but still wear a Rolex watch and spend money on good food and wine.
Significantly, these visitors are keen to avoid the barriers that scripted services and choreographed talk, delivered by hotel staff, produce and are, instead, increasingly seeking personal interaction. Whereas red nail varnish, tattoos and piercings were frowned upon a few years ago, today they are regarded as cool, and welcomed as a display of individuality. Some 5-star hotels are lagging behind in this respect, finding it hard to marry the services expected from a luxury property with the informality and instantaneous approach sought out by some guests. The future of service lies in this real-life, relaxed and informal style of contact. Moreover, while the level of service remains a determining factor of luxury, it should be both delivered and received with generous humility.
Guests are increasingly looking for a personalized, exclusive service, with the result that more hotels are expected to use guest-profiling technology to help them meet growing demand. Likewise, technology is playing a bigger role behind the scenes, with staff using software as a communication tool between departments. Technology enables today’s clients’ definition of luxury to be put into practice, that is: getting exactly what they want, when and how they want it, before they’ve actually asked for it.
A new landscape of offerings
To stay ahead of the game, luxury travel entities need to promote their offerings to new markets. Think Richard Branson’s space company, Virgin Galactic, launching its first commercial flights into space or the introduction of new airline routes between destinations that were previously unconnected. Again, destination being paramount, think the world’s first luxury commercial icebreaker ship going to the North Pole in 2021. Think Black Tomato, the super-innovative company where the sky’s the limit for clients when it comes to choosing adventures and destinations.
Industry players are transforming luxury by taking guests into unchartered territory in a new and luxurious manner. This trend will encourage luxury hotels to adapt to new markets, just as Black Tomato did with its ‘Blink’ lodging, for which the phrase ‘Blink and you’ll miss it’ was coined. This truly one-of-a-kind concept took the form of a pop-up hotel, momentarily created in a unique fashion for the guest and then dismantled at the end of their stay, never to be recreated in quite the same way for anyone else. Creating pop-up luxury accommodation in the most remote places across the globe helps to ensure that the experience is indeed second to none.
In this new landscape, hotels are also repositioning their interpretation of ‘luxury’ to meet the growing desires of their guests. For example, Marriott International has two kinds of luxury brands: Classic Luxury and Distinctive Luxury. With Classic Luxury, the focus is on opulence, as found in the St Regis properties, for example, while the Distinctive Luxury concept places value on experiences and lifestyle, like the W brand, which caters to the audacious trendsetter guest.
Alongside hospitality brands, luxury goods lines are also using experiences to engage their clients. Bvlgari, Versace and Armani are all examples of brands that have expanded into hotels, despite having no hospitality credentials. Similarly, LVMH has moved into hospitality through Maisons Cheval Blanc, a concept pioneered with the Cheval Blanc resort in Courchevel, which has become an extended collection of properties.
Luxury is multi-faceted; it can be a sensation or feeling associated with beauty, elegance or manners, in which case the focus should be on the senses, such as through touch, with linen thread, for example, or taste, with food. Luxury can also be an identity, in which case the emphasis should then be on the origin of goods, such as offering wine from France, olive oil from Spain or marble from Italy. For some, luxury is functional, as in the case of making all kinds of hi-tech gadgetry available to a guest. When luxury is linked to exclusivity, brands become synonymous with social acceptance and distinction. And now, added to these, is the new experiential luxury – that of second-to-none, memorable interactions.
So what is the new definition of luxury? Unforgettable experiences and unique sensations – and you certainly can’t put a price tag on either of those.