For some reason, travel experts love talking about trends in travel. Really, more than anything else, I think it’s just a way for them to stay in business. They need to appear as if they’re great prognosticators of future interests, otherwise why would anyone listen to them? But, there are nuggets of wisdom hidden deep within their voluminous forecasts, including identifying ways in which luxury travel has evolved over recent years. It seems as if every hotel and travel experience has decided to call themselves luxury, whether or not they truly are. Add to that travel bloggers and writers with no prior exposure to luxury travel, suddenly labeling anything nicer than a 3 star hotel as luxurious. This has meant a watering down of the term for some segments of the traveling public. Perhaps that’s why, at the other extreme, the super-wealthy (I’m talking VERY wealthy) have quietly taken things up a notch and are booking fantabulous around the world journeys on private planes and ultra-luxe $50,000 dining experiences. The result of this disparity is a widening gulf right in the middle. Luxury travelers like me, professional, upwardly mobile with an upper-middle class salary, are left wondering what to do if they really want a luxury travel experience that is accessible even if we didn’t start a tech company. So today I want to address the concepts of both mainstream and honest luxury, terms I use as shorthand and which most likely don’t mean anything to other people. However, it’s the type of luxury travel that is at the broad point of the bell curve; individuals that those working in the luxury travel industry want and need to attract.
What luxury means for most of us
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. They do not have to include other luxury elements, the experience itself is luxurious. 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. For example, when I’m in Bangkok I love staying at five-star hotels, 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.
That being said, modern luxury for those of us in the middle of the luxury travel bell curve is much more than this. It incorporates a sort of community involvement that simply didn’t exist in years past. 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.
Power of hospitality
For years I’ve been toying with the concept of airlines and hotels as experience curators. Rather than just see them as a mode of conveyance or a place to sleep and shower, I have evolved intellectually to understand that if chosen properly, both can help augment our travel experiences in tremendous ways. Hotels are perhaps easier to understand and I was reminded of their great power while on a trip to China. For the project, I worked with Ritz-Carlton, a hotel brand I have come to know and love over the years and with whom I have stayed in all corners of the planet. I’ve enjoyed their hospitality both on business and leisure travel and have come to know and understand them in a way unlike any other luxury hotel brand out there. I like them not only for their consistency in standards and service, but for their incredible hospitality as well. Hospitality is a loaded term and we each define it slightly differently, but for me it’s at the heart of any travel experience and simply means the ability to go above and beyond in helping me make the most of my trip. Throughout my time in China they helped me in small ways, from easily answering any city questions I had to helping me put together transportation to and from airports and even walking me to area restaurants. I chatted with some Ritz-Carlton staff during my stays with them in China and asked about this and was surprised to learn that each of them are encouraged to go above and beyond to provide this hospitable environment for their guests. The example given to me was that if a guest asks their housekeeper where he or she likes to go eat after work, then they might consider not only telling them, but walking them over there following the end of their shift. That takes friendliness to a whole new level and is a little touch that means a lot to us when we travel. Ritz-Carlton isn’t alone in this phenomenon of course; any great hotel will have this amazing level of service and hospitality, which is one of the many reasons why I seek out luxury hotels wherever I go. It’s not just for the nice rooms and comfy beds, it’s because I know that they understand my time with them is an investment and they will help me realize as many returns from that investment as possible.
More than anything else, mainstream luxury travelers understand that who we decide to travel with defines our experience, our investment of time and treasure. I’m an independent traveler at heart, but over the last year or two I’ve had a few opportunities to join river cruises of various quality levels as well as more formal tours, from basic to luxury. Looking back at these trips, the experiences could not have been more different. In regards to tour companies, the maxim you get what you pay for is sadly entirely true and is important to note as more and more people look to companies like G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Insight Vacations and Abercrombie & Kent for assistance in their own trips of a lifetime. My experiences with Abercrombie & Kent taught me a lot about this world and showed me the real power that a truly experienced travel provider can have. Choosing one of their tailor-made trips in Tanzania, I was still able to be an independent traveler, but using their unique expertise that only they possess. They transformed an average trip into something I’ll never forget and that, maybe more than anything else, exemplifies the very important investment that travel is for all of us. If we are going to leave home and find new places to experience, then we had better make sure we’re getting as much out of that as possible. The incredibly high levels of hospitality from groups like Abercrombie ensure that we maximize both our time and our money.
Put all of these concepts together and you have what I call 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 modern 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.