From a sunrise balloon ride over Borobudur to starring in your own wildlife documentary in Kenya, luxury travel is evolving. In recent years, the term luxury has become less about staying in the most expensive location and more about asking, ‘how can this experience enrich my life?’
During Virtuoso Travel Week, the world's largest luxury travel trade event held in Las Vegas in August, one key trend stood out; the rise of experiential travel. While gold-plated baths and diamond dust spa treatments are all very nice, what people want now is more fulfilling experiences, think gorilla tracking in Rwanda or cookery lessons from a Michelin-starred chef in Madrid.
At the end of 2016, American Express' Spending & Saving Tracker survey found that 73% of travellers were willing to go over their budget for a unique local experience. “We are increasingly hearing about the demand for more experiential travel, where holidaymakers become immersed in the culture of a destination and really get under its skin,” says Lucy Huxley, Editor-in-Chief of the Travel Weekly Group, which incorporates luxury travel brand Aspire. “Consumers are forgoing material goods in favour of creating incredible, lasting memories, and they want to do this through travel, in an authentic, enriching way.”
[A recent] survey found that 73% of travellers were willing to go over their budget for a unique local experience
Photo: Jeff Sheldon. Huxley: 'Nowadays, people also want to post pictures on Instagram and Twitter...'
Many factions of the luxury travel trade, including hoteliers, tour companies and private jet operators, are providing more personalised, 'money-can't-buy' experiences for their clients. The VIP package at Le Royal Monceau Raffles Hotel in Paris includes private after-hours access to the Grand Palais. While specialist UK tour operator, Grape Escapes has nurtured its relationships with French vineyards, including the Dom Perignon estate, to offer bespoke tours and technical tastings with champagne's top winemakers.
The rise of millennial travellers, who largely place experience over expense, means a strong digital presence is also important for hoteliers and other places to stay. “The growing desire to share experiences via social media, means just lying on a beach – no matter how beautiful - just doesn’t cut it anymore,” explains Huxley.
“Nowadays, people also want to post pictures on Instagram and Twitter of them doing a range of activities, such as cooking and eating with local people, learning a traditional craft or skill, or thrill-seeking in a stunning location,” she continues. “It's these two clear trends that are pushing the industry to create more unique and bespoke opportunities for their clients – at a cost, that will give them genuine authentic experiences and memories, plus bragging rights over their friends. And consumers are prepared to pay for the privilege.”
Now is the time to make luxury more visible. Hoteliers, holiday rentals and other properties need to engage via social media platforms like Instagram, where the right pictures will tell a thousand words (and in some cases sell a thousand hotel rooms). It's a key way to build and strengthen a brand's connection with its audience.
Rise of chatbots
Another strong influence seen throughout the industry is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a tool to improve customer service and engagement. Mezi, a travel concierge app which launched in the US in 2016, acts like a personal travel assistant in your pocket and can book hotels, flights, car rental, dinner, tours all via a chatbot-enabled messaging service. The more you use it, the more personalised it becomes. Although clever bots won't replace people - luxury travellers will always want a seamless, highly personalised service - it will make it a more accessible, smoother process.
Luxury is not about having the most incredible suite but how you feel - Barbara Rohner, Magna Pars Hotel
But what does the trend for experience over expense mean for the hotel industry? “Luxury is not about having the most incredible suite.” says Barbara Rohner, General Manager of the five-star Magna Pars Hotel in Milan. “Luxury is about your personal experience, how the hotel and staff make you feel. The very baseline is that it has to be unique, exceed expectations and have that 'wow' element,” explains Rohner.
It also means more travel companies can hop aboard the luxury train by offering genuinely unique experiences. “I think the buzz around experiential travel has been around for years,” says Stuart McNair, Founder and CEO of UK-based Luxury Travel Advisors.
“I've always viewed experiential travel as simply an experience while travelling that made you ‘feel’. That could be a simple foodie walking tour or an extravagant, once-in-a-lifetime trip. We saw a demand for travelling by interest, so we created our seven pillars of modern travel; Wonders, Wilderness, Art, Style, Gastronomy, Wellness and Extremes, and all can be combined to create a really unique trip.”
“However, saying that, I believe experiential travel needn’t always be expensive or extravagant, but simply travelling with a purpose,” concludes McNair.
So whether you're on a champagne or a cider budget, travel is about making special, long-lasting memories.
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American Express' Spending & Saving Tracker survey found that 73% of travellers were willing to go over their budget for a unique local experience
Social media such as Instagram and Twitter has become increasingly important for the industry as travellers seek to share their experiences almost immediately online
"[Luxury] travel needn’t always be expensive or extravagant"