- Michael J. Berens
Is hotel luxury dead?
What’s in a name? A luxury hotel by any other name is still luxurious, right? No longer, it seems, in today’s hospitality industry.
When hotel discount brokers offer "luxury" accommodations at $49 a night, as occurred during the recent Independence Day holiday, does the word "luxury" have any useful meaning?
Those in the industry who want to appeal to the wealthy and sophisticated traveler are upping their game and moving beyond traditional standards of luxury.
According to a recent article on the lifestyle portal Star2, worldwide many in the upper echelons of the hospitality industry are now shunning the word "luxury" altogether.
One reason is that, as in retail, the word has become "inflationary," and thus rather meaningless as a marketing or branding label. Another is that today’s travelers have different views about what constitutes "luxury," so the word conjures up different perceptions for different kinds of guests.
So, what defines "luxury" today? Leaders in the industry use words like exclusivity, anonymity, lifestyle, and wellness. Insiders refer to the formula UX + LUX.
That is, user experience plus luxury (in the traditional sense of splendid design, outstanding amenities, and unparalleled service). The "e" word ("experience") comes up a lot. But even the concept of "experience" is changing as more hotel chains attempt to imitate what the more exclusive properties are offering.
The fact is, for today’s most discerning business and holiday travelers, the LUX side of the equation is taken for granted. What differentiates one exclusive property from another is the UX half. That can take a variety of forms.
One current trend is offering guests an opportunity to connect authentically with nature (preferably spectacular nature). Where the hotel is located and how it interacts or melds with the surrounding environment is important.
In addition, the interiors are designed to reflect the natural surroundings, incorporating local materials and natural colors, textures and patterns. Sustainability and eco-friendly furnishings and amenities are a must.
Another trend focuses on accentuating the uniqueness of the local and regional character. To combat guests’ ennui with staying in yet another "luxury" property with the same old "pomp and splendor" décor, same old infinity pool, same old roof top bar, same old farm-to-table restaurant, same old sumptuous spa, the design and services offered are selected to make guests feel that they are having a cultural experience that they will not find anywhere else.
Many hotels have caught on to this trend, decorating interiors with local art and artifacts, incorporating photographs highlighting local history and landmarks, offering local signature foods and beverages, and providing walking tours or other types of excursions into the local community and natural surroundings.
The more exclusive properties have taken the idea a giant leap forward.
You can experience what it would have been like to be on safari with the upper classes in an outdoor tented room outfitted with all the amenities you would expect in an urban top-of-the-line hotel. Or how about relaxing in an elegant bath in the style of Madame Pompadour or an Indian rani?
With these kinds of properties, the Instagram opportunities and bragging rights are all part of the package. For that reason, design is crucial, and the more unique the design, the more it enhances the guest experience. It’s all part of telling a compelling story that will make prospective guests choose your property over another.
Millennials have brought a different set of values to the luxury hotel industry. In a blog for HospitalityNet, hospitality branding consultant Allen Adamson points out that for affluent millennials status comes not from what one can buy but from showing what one cares about.
They are looking for "transformative experiences" that will somehow make them a better person. Luxury for them is not about being pampered but about self-enrichment and inner growth.
Adamson terms this "deep luxury," the kind that appeals to guests on an inner rather than outer level, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally. Those properties that can provide such experiences, he contends, will be the winners in the high-end luxury market.
The challenge for exclusive hoteliers, observes Jinou Park, vice president of Design Hotels Asia-Pacific,is to appeal to both sides of the UX and LUX equation and maintain a balance. Sophisticated travelers, he says, "want to have that local experience that makes travel rewarding and enriching. At the same time, there is definitely a somewhat standardised global language of luxury."
Designers understand that language, and will remain crucial to the success of this hospitality sector, regardless of what you call it.