The whole concept of ‘luxury travel’ has been shaken up, turned around and made over. It dresses more discreetly these days – in fashion speak it is increasingly about insider labels and an inherent quality rather than any obvious brand one upmanship. What does luxury mean if everyone on the High Street is wearing the same over-designed and over-embroidered garment? It’s less a matter of exclusivity, more a matter of less being more. And so it is with travel… People are not only thinking about what they want from their luxury experience, but also what they don’t want.
As travel has become a democracy, with the package crowd moving from their traditional fun-in-the-sun enclaves to the further reaches of the far east and beyond, quality control has suffered across the board for the sake of making things mainstream and accessible; a kind of ‘McHoliday’ effect. A quiet revolution has been taking place at the polar opposite end of the market – streamlining, honing and refining the business of luxury for the clued up wealthy traveller who knows what they want, and is making travel arrangements accordingly.
For some years, many elements of what travellers don’t want from their luxury experience have in fact been the first thing they experience. Continuing its decline from an exciting part of the travel experience, air travel is, for many, the worst part of their trip. Recent years have seen the rise of all-business class flights as well as ever more innovative design in premium service cabins. Providers have promised to lessen all the elements that have ruined travel, eliminating a three hour check-in, an hour sitting on the runway and an hour waiting for luggage. By taking away the complications of modern air travel, the airlines give you the most precious thing you can get, along with your Le Caprice designed menu: time. In a world where time is what you don’t have, to have to check in a mere 20 minute before your long haul flight is better than any amount of complimentary Anya Hindmarch or Elemis.
There is no reason for the luxury experience to change once you step off the plane (and collect your luggage immediately, of course). Like the airlines, the most successful of the new wave of hotels also go out of their way to make the most of your precious time. Room service, if you’d rather spend the morning in bed, is universal, but great hotels are now offering high quality food equivalent to destination dining. In the same way, if you want a DVD or book that perhaps you haven’t had a chance to catch up with in your ‘real life’, it should be immediately available, or sourceable within a short time.
It is this attention to detail and focus on doing the little things well which we are seeing more of. Contemporary luxury in hotels is less about show, more about substance: the impact of an evidently huge florist’s bill in the lobby of a grand hotel is dampened if, on arrival in your suite, you’re presented with mean single-serving bathroom products. For a truly luxurious experience it is the sense of generosity which is key, in contrast to the showy opulence of the 80s. To echo the earlier fashion analogy, luxury hotels are like Versace; the embodiment of flash twenty years ago, now an embodiment of understated, chic Jackie Onassis style minimalism.
This feeling of generosity over opulence is echoed in the size of the rooms in what people consider to be the best hotels. This generosity isn’t necessarily anything to do with size, but style and layout. Many of the most successful luxury design and boutique hotels don’t offer anything like the dimensions of, say, the suites in a grand hotel, but their guests have a completely different expectation of luxury. As well as the layout of individual rooms, the scale of hotels is changing at the top end of the market. There is more expectation and more demand for privacy. Travellers don’t want to feel as though they are in a hotel with hundreds of other people having the same experience as them, and hoteliers have subsequently started to focus on smaller properties, often with a focus on villa accommodation rather than traditional hotel rooms. In these cases the layout is spread across a series of rooms to make the guest feel like they are in a small, exclusive environment, no matter what size the hotel.
Luxury is becoming less and less about standardisation. It must feel bespoke and there must be flexibility for each guest’s experience. Each guest’s tastes, from pillow fillings and flowers to food likes and dislikes, are assessed in advance by questionnaire, so that the hotel can prepare for their visit and make their experience unique. The result is a personalised experience, from the stock in the minibar to the music playing when they first enter their room. However, the strategy is only as good as its execution as expectations are, of course, raised by filling in a questionnaire, so if the wrong kind of bedding is awaiting a guest on arrival it’s worse than if there had been no expectation. The promise of luxury must be kept.
Today’s traveller is bored of the feeling that they could be anywhere in the world, and wants an authentic feel to their holiday, to know where they are and really feel as though they are experiencing local culture. This can be reflected in many facets of the experience, from the décor to the activities available to guests. In fact, culture is the one thing that cannot be copied and luxury hotels are now realising its potential. People want to do something ‘out of the ordinary’ on their holiday, not return home with a memory card full of images the same as last year’s. In the past, few people would have thought that spending the night in a sleeping bag in -5 degrees would be an integral part of a luxury holiday, and yet the Ice Hotel in Sweden now has over 100 rooms that are fully booked throughout the winter. Is this a kind of one-upmanship amongst luxury travellers, doing something none of their friends have? Quite possibly so… but isn’t that part of the fun? The more creative and unique the experience the better, because the luxury travel experience should feel like culture… one of a kind, exclusive to you and impossible to duplicate….just like great fashion.
Travellers are increasingly confident in their desires and as such the luxury in the hospitality world now reflects the ultimate in fashion luxury: couture: Individual, unique and tailored to an individual. The difference? You won’t spend hours being ‘fitted’ for your experience; everything will be done for you.