Luxury is the word

1 May 2023 by Hannah Brandler
Silver vintage bell on village reception desk in the morning sunrise (iStock/FTiare)

Forget gold taps, these days luxury could mean wriggling through the mud on an exclusive boot camp adventure.

Strike up a conversation with a family member, friend or colleague and it’s likely that your view of luxury travel will differ. For some, it may be ostentatious hotel rooms dripping with bling. For others, it may be the peace and quiet found in a cabin in the woods. Does luxury mean Michelin-starred dining in the city or a rustic meal with a bedouin tribe? No-expense-spared shopping trips or a chance to rebuild coral reefs?

According to Lauren Alba, VP of global marketing and communications at Leading Hotels of the World (LHW), a collection of five-star independent hotels across the globe, “luxury is in the eye of the beholder”. Not only is individual preference at play, but luxury is also shaped by circumstance.

The pandemic prompted a reassessment of priorities and values, and for many, the result was a renewed appreciation of simple pleasures (time spent with loved ones, experiencing nature) versus more traditional materialistic pursuits. There’s also a demographic shift, with Millennials and Generation Z starting to shape the future of the luxury space with a focus on sustainability, slow travel and unforgettable experiences.

Here we take a look at the ever-evolving concept and hear from important players in the travel industry on their forecast for the future of luxury.

Eager to experience

One thing that can be reliably guaranteed is that luxury travel will still come with a high price-tag. Investment bank Credit Suisse has forecast that the number of global millionaires will exceed 87 million by 2026, a rise of 25 million from 2021, (see Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2022). But what will these individuals seek?

According to Marc Speichert, chief commercial officer at Four Seasons, luxury is about personal interactions. Tailor-made experiences are also the key to a successful stay. “When we look at what drives satisfaction scores, it’s not about materialism. It’s about creating that sense of belonging and connection,” he says.

That’s not to say lavish touches will disappear. Standalone bathtubs, window-side chaise longues and fluffy bathrobes – three of my personal favourites – will remain fixtures at luxury properties across the world, but a personal touch is now required to meet guests’ expectations. “That excellence you expect from a luxury brand still needs to be delivered, but you also want to be welcomed as a friend,” Speichert adds.

Besides the appeal of customer service, experiences must be bigger, better and bolder than before, with travellers willing to pay a premium for meaningful experiences. American Express’ 2023 Global Travel Trends Report found that 74 per cent of respondents care more about creating a travel experience that meets their expectations than about the cost.

Rebecca Masri, founder of private members luxury travel app Little Emperors, explains that travellers are on the hunt for authentic experiences. “Rather than spending days on sun loungers in five-star beach resorts, our members are enquiring more about tented safaris in Tanzania, taking a cooking class in San Sebastian, or learning to surf in Hawaii”.

The app found that over half of affluent millennial travellers deem luxury as associated with discovery and adventure, with 70 per cent wanting to learn from the cultures they experience during their trips. “This is today’s version of luxury,” Masri adds.

A new age

With Millennials and Gen Z representing the pipeline of luxury travel customers, brands must shape their offerings to several audiences simultaneously. “It’s a challenge as you have to be all things to all people”, Alba of LHW says.

Hospitality company Belmond is best known for its glamorous sleeper trains, notably the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), British Pullman and Royal Scotsman. While these high-end rail services celebrate the golden age of travel, Belmond is laser focused on staying current. “It’s very easy with these original carriages from the 1920s to perhaps treat the train as a museum piece, [but] we want to be really relevant to today’s travellers,” explains Gary Franklin, Belmond’s VP of trains and cruises.

Last month Belmond joined the booming global wellness market, partnering with Dior Beauty to launch the Dior Spa Royal Scotsman, complete with two lacquered treatment rooms to supplement the train’s existing pampering services. “People will miss a meal to say that they’ve had a wellness experience on a train on the move”, Franklin adds.

The Dior Spa Royal Scotsman Treatment Room - Credit Pierre Mouton for Parfums Christian Dior

To cater to those who prefer active experiences, the company is launching a new winter route on the VSOE from Paris to the Rhône-Alpes this December, with the option to disembark at various stations for skiing or simply watch the snow fall from the comfort of a cosy cabin.

Adrenaline junkies can also sign up for the Royal Scotsman’s Highland Survival Adventure itinerary this summer (June 30-July 3), with a programme that includes assault training, wild swimming and abseiling down a waterfall en route – plus traditional ceilidhs onboard, naturally. Luxury, after all, is about choice. “Most people want to celebrate a moment, or the moment, and that goes across all ages,” Franklin explains.

Born to be digital

“We are continuing to take really good care of our older guests because they are the ones who made the brand successful in the first place. At the same time how do we effectively refresh the brand for those younger generations?” Speichert asks.

Digital innovation is already becoming a major trend in hospitality, with in-room tablets and WhatsApp channels to chat with staff members becoming prevalent. “Chat is really big for us,” Speichert confirms. “We say it’s where EI (emotional intelligence) meets AI (artificial intelligence). Four Seasons Chat is technology that taps into our secret sauce – our people,” he adds.

But while technology is at the forefront, it is not intended to replace the hotel’s staff members with bots. Instead, the idea is that guests’ queries can be directed to staff members, sometimes across differing departments, with the conversation so seamless that you feel as if you have been speaking to one person the entire time.

The volume of interactions on Four Seasons Chat has increased threefold over the last two years, with early tracking from the first quarter of the year indicating an 86 per cent guest satisfaction score for those engaging and connecting with the teams via the service. “Chat is the future. Once you get into it, you probably don’t go back,” Speichert adds.

Aside from this, the company has also noted a growth in usage of the Four Seasons App, which enables you to curate your own hotel itinerary, check in and out, or make bookings for the hotel’s dining or spa facilities, with a 61 per cent increase in downloads and a 124 per cent increase in usage year-over-year.

Slowing down

Luxury and sustainability haven’t traditionally gone hand-in-hand, but growing concerns for the environmental impact of travel has rightfully prompted luxury travellers to be more concerned with their carbon footprint. Virtuoso’s 2023 Top Travel Trends found that 74 per cent of travellers are willing to pay more for sustainable travel if they know where the money is going, and 70 per cent agree that travelling sustainably enhances their vacation experience.

Travellers are also spending more time in their destination of choice, in part thanks to remote working lifestyles. The rise of slow travel is connected to sustainability, with travellers able to choose a low-carbon form of transport for their trips. This has led to a surge in sleeper trains across Europe. “One of the biggest luxuries we can enjoy at the moment is time. Time to relax, to slow down and really engage in the moment. We’re very lucky that train travel is one of the best modes of transport to allow that,” Belmond’s Franklin acknowledges.

Certain luxury brands are also encouraging customers to make environmentally conscious choices when travelling. EARNT, a social enterprise launched in 2022, partners with well-known brands to encourage people to donate their time to a positive social or environmental cause, and describes itself as creating “a brand-new type of VIP – those that do good for the planet or society”.

Design Hotels, a collection of more than 300 independent, boutique and luxury hotels around the world, is one such luxury partner, and has organised a ‘Pick and Paddle’ event this month. Customers will take part in litter-picking while paddle boarding on the River Thames in London, and earn experiences at participating hotels within the Design Hotels’ portfolio in return. These include complimentary nights at hotels reachable by rail from London, lavish dinners and wellness experiences.

The perks will be drawn during a post-paddle lunch at the plant-based Yeotown restaurant at B-corp certified hotel Inhabit Southwick Street, a member of Design Hotels.

While luxury travel will continue to serve up all the bells and whistles when it comes to service and aesthetics, hospitality providers need to evolve beyond the facade to create meaningful experiences for today’s premium travellers. All that’s left is for you to define what luxury means to you. Is it opulence? High-tech service? Adventurous experiences? All of the above? The ball is in your court – as long as you can afford to play.

Four Seasons Hotel Megeve – Credit Four Seasons


Car fanatics

Following a successful launch in Tuscany last year, Four Seasons is rebooting its driving experiences with six-night itineraries in the Swiss Alps (June 12-18) and Napa Valley (October 29-November 4). Guests can get behind the wheel of vintage motors or modern supercars and chart a course between lavish Four Seasons properties, experiencing curated local activities en route – from learning about the Swiss art of watchmaking to hot air balloon rides over Californian vineyards and mountains. Contact [email protected] for pricing.

Hats off

Guests staying at Casa Baglioni Milan, a Leading Hotel of the World, can customise their dream hat by luxury Italian brand Borsalino from the privacy of their own suite. The Borsalino Made to Measure experience enables guests to choose from an array of colours and materials, and inscribe their initials in gold or silver leaf in the lining or on the outer ribbon. Once ordered, it will be delivered to a home address eight weeks later. Contact [email protected] for pricing information.

Movie magic

Hôtel Plaza Athénée on the tree-lined Avenue Montaigne in Paris is bringing back its popular Plaza Film Club in June and July, following a successful launch last summer. The hotel’s courtyard restaurant, La Cour Jardin, will transform into an open-air cinema, broadcasting classic films with French subtitles alongside movie-inspired meals by chef Jean Imbert. Stay tuned for the programme, set to be unveiled soon.

Wellness seekers

Velaa Private Island in the Noonu Atoll of the Maldives is launching a purpose-built Wellbeing Village on June 1 in the centre of the island. The new facility will come complete with a spa, offering Ayurveda and Eastern medicine, new restaurant concept FAIY, focusing on nutritional menus, and a yoga and pilates pavilion. Stay at one of the 47 private villas, houses and residences and enjoy the peace and tranquility.

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