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The new luxury

Panda. Image: GettyPanda. Image: Getty

Forget the caviar, luxury travelers now want authentic a-la-carte experiences served up on a plate. Sam Lewis reports on the high-end vacationers changing the game

Gone are the days when high star-ratings and thread counts secured a hotel booking, and a complimentary bottle of Champagne and room upgrade bought the loyalty of the luxury traveler.

Nowadays, upmarket clients desire something more transformative — epic adventures headed by expedition leaders, and experiential benefits such as private dinners prepared by a celebrity chef or a one-to-one encounter with a panda.

As Chris Gabaldon, chief sales and marketing officer at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, says: “Our luxury customers are looking for loyalty programs that access gateways to the extraordinary — experiences money can’t buy.”

A recent report by The Future Laboratory confirms a shift in what defines the luxury traveler, and what they expect from the industry. While six- and seven-star hotels continue to deliver a wow-factor, many discerning travelers seem to prefer the simpler things in life — authentic and tailored experiences.

Norman Howe, president of Butterfield & Robinson, agrees: “While we’ve seen a clear trend away from conspicuous consumption, expectations around personalized service are greater than ever. We try hard to know each traveler, to find out if they’re the type of person who loves farmhouse lunches, celebrity chefs or a mix of both.”

For clients who prefer family-run enterprises to glitz and glamour, the operator has launched more modest Bistro tours, around $200-300 less a day than its signature trips. “We believe the luxury of an experience is sometimes more important than the luxury of a place,” adds Howe.

The moving goal posts require agents and operators to intuitively tailor-make vacations. Around 40% of B&R’s business is now bespoke, compared to around half that a few years ago, and there’s a surge in demand from discerning younger travelers too.

Virtuoso’s 2013 Luxe Report revealed a major growth in upmarket clients aged 40-55 years old. “The multi-faceted Virtuoso traveler wants to reconnect with loved ones, explore new destinations, and seek out opportunities for personal growth,” says Virtuoso chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch, CTC.

Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, agrees: “They’re thinking about life in a much more careful way and have reaffirmed their priorities, focusing on family and friends, rather than consumption and acquisition.”

Agents need to work harder than ever to discover emerging destinations and new products — and match them to their clients. Here we take a look at the major luxury trends in travel.

CRUISE

The trends: Small-ship experiential ocean cruises giving luxury passengers the chance to reach far-flung destinations and live out their Indiana Jones fantasies in comfort accompanied by anthropologists, ecologists and other first-rate lecturers. Themed cruises also continue to get bigger and better with food a focal point for many. Some of the larger cruise lines have celebrity chefs — Nobu’s founder Nobuyuki Matsuhisa makes occasional appearances for Crystal Cruises, and the line also brings top local chefs on board at certain ports of call to give culinary master classes. River cruising is the fastest growing sector, with AmaWaterways offering new Culinary Delights tours featuring cooking classes, walking tours and tastings on select European itineraries.

The travelers: The luxury cruise market commands a premium price point and tends to attract the grey market. But it’s not all old couples and retirees — larger cruise ships with shorter, more affordable, itineraries in particular are attracting multi-generation cruising with children accompanied by adults and grandparents.

The destinations: The ports of call are usually the overriding or most influential reason for choosing a luxury cruise. The Amazon is hugely popular thanks to luxurious small ships such as Aqua Expeditions’s M/V Aqua and M/V Aria offering pampered adventures in places most people associate with backpackers. The company launches its third luxury vessel in 2014, the M/V Aqua Mekong, which will sail the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam. The Poles have also never been cooler and upscale French Cruise line Compagnie du Ponant will sail its new ship Le Soleal in the Arctic this summer.

Sample: Tauck is offering a 16-day land and sea cruise to Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore on board Le Soleal priced from $9,990 per person, double occupancy, excluding flights. T: 0800 961 834. www.tauck.com

HOTELS

The trends: Travelers are trading in over-the-top opulence for more exclusive and experiential benefits, with location being the most important factor. Some hotel groups now offer their own private jet tours to stay at handpicked properties in key destinations.

In addition, many luxury travelers want to offset any environmental guilt about traveling and expect their hotels to have serious eco-credentials with a minimal visual and environment impact. Some hotels have launched innovative sustainable solutions. Chile’s Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa, for example, gives patrons a virtual tree code to aid reforestation of Patagonia — guests choose where it’s planted via Google Maps.

The travelers: Guests range in age but many now travel with their children and expect innovative activities to keep kids occupied. They’re also increasingly tech-savy, with Four Seasons offering limousines equipped with complimentary wi-fi and iPads. Guests also want to ‘live like a local’ and expect the hotel to help them. The Ace Hotel in New York, for example, teamed up with Brooklyn tailor Martin Greenfield to give loyal guests a pop-up bespoke suit service.

The destinations: The luxury hotels most in demand tend to be situated in areas of rich historical or architectural interest — again it’s not so much about the hotel but the destination itself. Up-and-coming destinations include Bhutan where Aman and Taj have lodges and 50 hotels are currently being built. Italy remains top of the destination list for American travelers.

Sample: Four Seasons offers a 23-day private jet expedition to 10 destinations, including Hawaii, Bora Bora, Bali, Sydney, Mumbai, Istanbul and London. The trip costs from $62,950 per person and includes all private jet transportation, Four Seasons accommodation, meals, ground transportation and excursions. T: 888 215 2728. www.fourseasons.com/aroundtheworld

RAIL

The trends: The legendary trains remain the bestsellers. According to Eleanor Hardy, president of the Society of International Railway Travelers, Rovos Rail journeys — ranging from 48 hours to 28 days in Africa — and trips on Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) are perennial favorites. And while VSOE trips from Paris to Istanbul or Istanbul to Venice are the mainstays, the company launched new rail journeys to Scandinavia in April 2013 traveling from Venice to Stockholm, with an overnight stop in Copenhagen. However, Hardy warns this new itinerary sold out fast and reservations for iconic trips must be booked far in advance due to limited space. Meanwhile, responding to luxury travelers’ demands for space, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express has added two large imperial suites for 2013 featuring a king-sized bed.

The travelers: Well-seasoned, experienced travelers, who are typically over 60, retired and prepared to spend in the region of $800 to $1,000 per day on average for a luxury train journey, excluding flights.

The destinations: The Society of International Railway Travelers lists the top 25 train trips on its website. Destinations include Thailand, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and Siberia. In addition, India is one to watch, with new trains such as the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels launched last year. n Sample: The Society of International Railway Travelers offers a two-day/one-night package on South Africa’s Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria. Prices start at $1,800 per person, including one night in a five-star hotel, all drinks, meals and excursions. Longer itineraries, such as the 28-day Rovos Rail Cape to Cairo Journey, via Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, the Sudan, start at $48,500 per person, double occupancy. T: 800 478 4881. www.irtsociety.com

TOURS

The trends: There’s increasing demand for epic adventures to remote and wild or unexplored destinations, often led by celebrities or ex-military types. A&K has relaunched its private jet trips across Africa and around the world, and has also introduced a new Connections line offering experiential itineraries at around 30% less than their average trip, using hotel brands such as Fairmont, Hyatt Regency, Marriott and InterContinental.

The travelers: B&R says its affluent clients have a household income of $500k+ while Virtuoso says it’s seen major growth in travelers aged 40-55 years of age, often traveling with family. Most operators report a surge in multi-generational family groups in which three or four generations travel together, often to celebrate an anniversary or milestone birthday. A&K reports a 20% increase in bookings for groups of five or more. The operator also reports an increase in solo travel where guests aren’t necessarily single but travel alone because their partner either doesn’t share their interest in the destination or had a scheduling conflict.

The destinations: A&K reports exceptional growth in Antarctica, southern Africa, Bhutan and Nepal, and Argentina and Chile. Virtuoso says Myanmar, Bhutan and Chile are its most popular emerging destinations while B&R cites Bhutan and Myanmar as the bestsellers outside of Europe.

Sample: A&K’s 13-day Bhutan & Nepal: Heart of the Himalaya tour costs from $7,995 per person, double occupancy. It includes an elephant-back safari, observing Buddhist monks debating, and sharing tea with a family in their home. International flights not included. T: 886 611 4711. www.abercrombiekent.com

SELLING TIPS: PHIL OTTERSON, PRESIDENT, ABERCROMBIE & KENT

Go network: Introduce yourself to local business leaders through the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary or other civic organizations. Also try to join groups with an affluent membership such as country clubs, alumni groups and golf/tennis clubs.

Keep in touch: Get to know your client’s interests and forward interesting articles that include a ‘travel trigger’. For example, opera fans may be inspired by the idea of attending an opera at a Roman amphitheater in the south of France.

Seek expertise: Personally experience the products you recommend by going on fam trips with high-end tour operators. Become an expert in adventure, food and wine, or train travel. When you don’t have personal experience with a product, set up a three-way call with an expert from a trusted supplier to answer their questions.

Start to share: Write an entertaining blog about your travel experiences or tweet about travel-related subjects where you have genuine insider knowledge and expertise.

Promote services: Consider symphonies, ballet, country club newsletters, upscale magazines or boutique newspapers in affluent zip codes. Promote yourself as a travel expert on local radio or television shows.

EYEWITNESS: PARADISE FOUND

Sam Lewis flees the world for the barefoot luxury and sanctuary of Fregate Island in the Seychelles

“If you ever discover another island like this in the world let me know,” said the dark Irishman sitting at the bar, his eyes giving that all too familiar twinkle seen in his movies. Only if you take me with you, I thought, pinching myself. It’s not every day you bump into James Bond, and this was my second time in less than eight hours.

Earlier I’d spied Pierce in Speedos on the beach charging headfirst into the choppy sea, diving under the waves without a care in the world — the absence of prying paparazzi lenses making it easy to relax and blend in with the scattering of guests.

At around 1,000 miles off the east coast of Africa, a 20-minute helicopter flight from the main island of Mahe, and with only 16 villas, the private island of Fregate in the Seychelles has a secluded atmosphere, offering unrivalled space and security. Each villa, made from teak wood and native mahogany, blends harmoniously into its tropical surroundings and is positioned carefully to guarantee privacy.

Behind the vivid hibiscus and bougainvillea flowers on my terrace I skip down the steps past my villa’s plunge pool and king-size day bed to discover a private sweep of powdery sand, framed by giant granite boulders that mask the view from the neighboring villa. Emboldened I swim naked and afterwards, invigorated, rinse the salty water from my body under a huge outdoor shower before dressing casually to explore the private island that’s to be my temporary home.

My private butler is at my beck and call, ready to drive me wherever I want in a golf buggy — there are no cars and a deep commitment to preserving the environment prevails. Much of the food is grown on the island with a hydroponics house supplying fresh fruit and vegetables, and guests are welcome to forage with the chef — cookery lessons are a popular pastime.

On select evenings guests gather to listen to eco lectures on projects to propagate tens of thousands of indigenous trees to help restore the islands’ endangered native flora and fauna, and protect over 100 species of birds including the magpie robin, one of the rarest in the world.

Others take tours with on-site ecologists to discover Fregate’s oldest inhabitants — the Fregate beetle, found nowhere else in the world, and giant Aldabra tortoises who can live to the ripe age of 200. With close to 2,000, the island is home to the world’s second largest wild herd and, for a fee, guests can adopt one, enabling their visit to have a permanent and positive impact.

Back at the villa I discover a massage bed has magically appeared on the sun terrace and a gong signals the arrival of my therapist. There’s a spa but bespoke treatments can be taken anywhere, along with picnics and romantic dinners — the epitome of barefoot luxury.

While excursions to other islands can be arranged, most guests follow the tortoises’ example, opting to take things slow, living out their Robinson Crusoe fantasies, privileged and pampered but without unnecessary pomp.

Barefoot, I drink Champagne, indulge in fine food and sleep in expensive sheets but the real luxury here is space, seclusion and authentic experiences — and for some Hollywood movie stars, of course, anonymity.

PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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