Some of the world's leading hotel chains have been shunned as true luxury brands and categorised instead as "Mass Affluent".
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts were two ‘luxury' hotel groups lumped into this new category by MPS Puri, head of the Americas, General Hotel Management (GHM) during his visit to two recent high-profile hospitality events - the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) and Arabian Travel Market (ATM).
"I think ‘luxury' is the most oversubscribed word in our vocabulary," Puri told Luxury Travel News (LTN).
"There is a clear distinction between mass affluent and luxury."
He continued: "Luxury is something that is very bespoke and highly individualised. True luxury is about imperfections; a touch of hand. It's exclusive. It's an obsession and a passion, without reference to cost."
Puri said hotel chains such as Ritz-Carlton, Four Season, Mandarin Oriental and Raffles, now it had been acquired by Fairmont, were "Mass Affluent" brands, whereas GHM properties were true luxury brands because "they are not abundant".
"We are not consistent. We are bespoke, quirky and eccentric and there is a touch of hand," he said. "Anything that is perfect, consistent and abundant can't be luxury."
Gimmicks that many hotels claimed qualified them as luxury properties such as pillow menus were dismissed by Puri who said: "They don't give you a menu at Gucci or Hermès. They are the authorities on their products and we are meant to be authorities on the luxury lifestyle. We don't ask our customers to choose their pillow. We give them the pillow there is and if they ask for a different pillow we get that pillow for them."
Puri was one of four panelists speaking at an AHIC breakout session entitled The Future of Independent Luxury Lifestyle Hotels in a Consolidating Environment where he also remarked: "God help us if The W [hotel brand] is luxury".
Fellow panelist Welf J Ebeling, executive vice president & chief operating officer, The Leading Hotels of the World, concurred with many of Puri's opinions.
He maintained that "luxury is defined by something rare in numbers whereas Mass Affluent was something of a high standard that can be mass produced".
"A lot of the chains cater to mass affluence. They are cookie-cutter hotels, sometimes indistinguishable whether you wake up in Mumbai, Rome, or Chicago," he added.
He said true luxury defined itself "through an authentic experience that reflects the culture and the environment in which the hotel is located".
Ebeling remarked that each of Leading's 435 member hotels possessed its own individuality: "Leading has been the cradle of every major luxury hotel brand in the world today, including Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, but they grew to maturity and reached a critical mass. When the kids grow up, they flee the nest," he added.
But high profile representatives at Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton begged to differ.
"We have consistent service standards but on top of this we have tremendous diversity; no two hotels look and feel the same," said David Crowl, VP sales & marketing, Europe/Middle East/Africa, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, speaking to LTN at ATM.
"We need some critical mass and economies of scale to put our brand forward and sure, we flocked the Leading nest, but we are not a cookie-cutter mass produced hotel. Each of our 74 properties is unique."
As an example he referred to the group's forthcoming property in Florence, which has taken 10 years to build and comprises a 16th Century palazzo, five-acre garden and 17th Century convent.
"This is not Mass Affluence," he said. Crowl noted that luxury meant "different things to different people".
"It's about providing extraordinary experiences that exceed expectations and create life-long memories," he added.
Pacal Duchauffour, area vice president & general manager The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain Hotel & Spa said The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company L.L.C. "has always positioned itself in the luxury market" and over the past few years had "spent a lot of time talking to customers" to determine the evolving needs of the ‘luxury traveller'.
"We have gone back to basics and redefined some of our standards based on the needs of the customer today," he explained.
"Customers are younger and faster; they want to combine business with leisure; and technology is part of their lives. They want our staff to be more casual."
As a result, Ritz-Carlton has encouraged staff to modify their behaviour according to the customer and are "polite but sincere".
"I believe that's what defines luxury," Duchauffour concluded.
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