I think a lot about travel, probably too much if we’re being honest. It’s my passion though and I feel mostly justified in my preoccupation, which is kind of how this post came about. It’s also a reaction though to a lot of questions I get about how I travel, why I choose certain places to visit and how I get the most out of the travel experience. So, after thinking about this topic for months, I have decided to finally put into words what my travel style is like, how it’s slightly different from current definitions floating about in the ether and why I think it will be the new normal for the luxury travel sector moving forward.
Not only experiential
For years I’ve simply called my style of travel experiential luxury. It was the best way I could think of to accurately portray the amalgamation of styles I’ve assembled into one concrete definition. Not only that, but I even defined this single term in a couple of different ways; I now realize that this was because it wasn’t the most accurate term. But, prior to today I usually explained it like this. There are some travel experiences, some entire trips even, that are so exceptional they are de facto luxury travel experiences. These run the gamut, from African safaris to a cruise around Antarctica, but their commonality is that they are once in lifetime activities that do more than just take you to a new place, they transform who you are as a person. The second definition is more traditional, which is luxury travel but luxury that doesn’t cut the traveler off from the places they visit. Thankfully, this has been the norm lately and all of the luxury travel experts have been quoted saying that experiential travel is the new luxury, and I couldn’t agree more. Sure, spending some time at a nice tropical resort where you do nothing but rest by the pool can be fine, but more often people want more. They want to get out and explore, experience local communities and cultures and feel like they’ve actually traveled somewhere. Nice pools exist everywhere, but those cultural connections, those are unique. I usually explain it by saying when I’m in Bangkok I love staying at the Mandarin Oriental or the Peninsula, but during the day you’ll find me in the markets, eating $2 street food lunches and getting to understand the city on a personal level.
The problem here is obvious. Experiential luxury just doesn’t cut it as a single term; it’s not really accurate for me and millions of others like me. I’m a Gen-Xer, but I firmly believe that what I’m about to lay out will be the new luxury of the future; how Millennials in particular will choose to see the world and how that in turn will (already has honestly) influence everyone else.
I talk to a lot of people when I travel, mostly because I have a natural curiosity. I learn a lot about their lives but also why they travel in the first place. Lately, I’ve noticed a strong trend amongst all types of travelers. They don’t want things that are too prepackaged or bundled, instead they want spontaneity and to feel like they’re actually traveling. This goes for everyone from that fiercely independent backpacker to people I’ve met on organized tours. I was most curious about the latter category, especially since they elected to join a tour in the first place. After chatting with them, I learned that while they wanted some elements of their trips arranged for them (hotels, some meals and so on) they also wanted the luxury of free-time and exploring new destinations on their own. We’re not talking about Millennials here either, but Baby Boomers and beyond. It’s fascinating to me. They’ve noticed how others are traveling and want the same experiences. They want the thrill and rush of discovery, but also certain assurances built into the trip. After these conversations, I formulated what I think the new luxury is trending towards and that’s community-based travel.
This is essentially what I have always described as experiential travel, but I now think that definition didn’t go far enough. When I talk about community-based travel, I mean a few different things. It means being immersed into local cultures, walking through markets and down side streets and really understanding what makes a destination tick. But it also means responsible travel. No one wants to take advantage of any place they decide to visit, so being respectful of local cultures and traveling with sustainability in mind is essential. We can see how this has risen rapidly in recent years by looking no further than SeaWorld. What was once one of the top family travel destinations has been forced to rethink their entire business model after massive public backlash. Tourists began educating themselves and once they learned about the atrocities involved not only at SeaWorld but at most other animal experiences, they walked away. They decided that a few laughs was not worth widespread animal abuse. Gone are the days of listening to the advice of so-called experts and following their every word. Tourists today are more proactive and are actively making decisions about the minutiae of the travel experience that they didn’t do even 5-years ago. The travel industry must respond and respond quickly if it wants to stay one step ahead and nowhere else is this more true than in the luxury travel sector.
From my experience, luxury travelers have tended to be at the forefront of this community-based tourism. I first noticed it back in 2011 when I visited the Four Seasons Lanai in Hawaii. Even then they had incorporated several community-based voluntourism projects into their activities. I remember being so shocked but thrilled to see that, to have the opportunity to leave the metaphorical gilded confines of the resort and to get to know the real community on Lanai, instead of the palm tree, Kukui beaded version. That’s what luxury travelers want. Yes, they want all of the amenities that luxury travel affords, from well-appointed hotel rooms to cutting edge cuisine. But they don’t want to feel as if they’re traveling in a bubble, separated from the real reason why they traveled in the first place – to see and learn about the world. It’s how the travel industry manages to intertwine these two concepts that matters. How they bring community-based travel to their guests and customers. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary not just for the feel-good reasons you’d expect, but because the market is now demanding it.
Put all of these concepts together and you have what I am calling Honest Luxury. It’s the way in which we combine the finer elements of the travel experience with the real, unvarnished look into a new destination. For a while I’ve worried that my writing didn’t accurately portray the luxury side of my travels enough. Even though I almost always pay extra for that upgrade and prefer five-star hotels instead of Airbnb, I looked around at other luxury writers and saw something very different. In their articles I saw fine watches and expensive meals detailed almost every day, and I felt as if I wasn’t considered to be a “real” luxury traveler. But then I realized, my own preoccupation with culture, history and the destinations themselves are truly what is at the heart of the luxury experience. It’s the new way that luxury is being redefined thanks in large part to those slightly annoying Millennials, but also to the other generations who have emulated their style of travel. This is how I experience the world, this is how I combine those fancy hotel rooms with real and authentic travel experiences and that is why I call it honest luxury. It’s honest to me, but it’s honest to the destination and it’s an honest look at the world. I’m not alone either, as I’ve outlined in this post. This is the new normal, this is what people want and for once I find myself on the cusp of something, rather than chasing to keep up. But chase is exactly what the travel industry must do if they want to attract new customers and guests. They must fully embrace these concepts, create new products and experiences around them and now, more than ever, listen – truly listen – to what the traveler has been begging for. Travel as exploration and not exploitation. Travel as an experience and not a voyeuristic activity. Travel as something that is life changing and not just an indulgence. This is my travel mission statement and I’m excited to see how these trends will continue to develop in the next few years.