In the travel industry the term ‘luxury’ seems to be attached to every property and package available. Luxury Travel News asks the industry to explain the true definition of luxury.
What do we mean when we refer to a ‘luxury' travel experience?
At first glance the answer seems self-explanatory, but in today's market where confusion over hotel categorisation is rife and with properties ranging from the major chains to the smaller boutiques all claiming to be ‘luxurious', it's difficult to get a handle on what ‘luxury' should represent to clients and how agents should represent it to them when taking their bookings.
I think ‘luxury’ is the most oversubscribed word in our vocabulary.
"It really is becoming such an overused term," said Four Seasons sales and marketing director EMEA David Crowl.
"We try to avoid the phrase luxury in our releases now because we feel that the phrase has become de-valued."
In fact, some of the world's leading hotel chains have been shunned as 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 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. "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 Seasons, 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."
Conversely, Crowl at Four Seasons, seems to agree, at least to an extent, despite being lumped into the Mass Affluent category by Puri's definition.
"What you need is an experience delivered by intuitive staff in a classy location," he enthused. "Luxury isn't about having gold faucets, it's about being somewhere beautiful where you can feel like you've arrived and can wallow in deserved indulgence where the staff and the property are geared to be attentive to your needs without actually being overbearing; that way luxury can come from the attitude of the property as well as the quality of the actual product. We have consistent service standards but on top of this we have tremendous diversity; no two hotels look and feel the same."
But Crowl did disagree with the implication that a brand or chain couldn't be defined as luxury, claiming that a luxury top-end chain could provide a luxury experience as long as the "attitude" of the property was right.
Welf J Ebeling, executive vice president & chief operating officer, The Leading Hotels of the World group concurred with many of Puri's comments.
Eberling maintained that "luxury is defined by something rare in numbers whereas Mass Affluent is something of a high standard that can be mass produced".
"A lot of the hotel chains cater to Mass Affluence. They are cookie-cutter hotels; sometimes it is indistinguishable whether you wake up in Mumbai, Rome, or Chicago," he added. Ebeling said true luxury defined itself "through an authentic experience that reflects the culture and the environment in which the hotel is located".
He also remarked that everyone one of Leading's 435 member hotels possessed its own specific 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.
As a rebuttal, Crowl referred to Four Seasons' recently-developed 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. So, when it comes down to it, a luxurious experience is subjective, but the individuality of properties and the service levels provided by staff are essential to the impression hotels will make on their clients.Jacqueline Campbell, managing director of Dubai-based luxury hotel representation group, The Travel Collection, commented that luxury had to be "subtle" and "different" to warrant the term.
"Luxury is always aspiring to be the top end of the market of course," she said.
"But it has to be more than that. If you're talking about a luxury property, the guest has to feel like they're arrived.
We try to avoid the phrase luxury in our releases now.
"Luxury can be big or small it doesn't have to be defined by size, but it does have to give the guest a sensation of deserved indulgence when they stay there."
Ritz-Carlton Company LLC regional vice president Middle East Pacal Duchauffour said his company had "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 is what defines luxury," Duchauffour added.
It's expected that industry leaders in the luxury market will have differing views on the definition of luxury in the current market, but the one constant is the consensus that a property cannot provide a luxury experience without staff that can perform to the very highest standard.
"The small and the big touches; that is what makes the difference in today's market between merely top end and actual luxury," said The Leading Hotels of the World director of sales Middle East Hatem Chatter.
"It's all about understanding that the comfort of the guest is paramount and then working from that mindset"
Of course, the concept of luxury is difficult to quantify and also depends on the market you are targeting.
"The interesting thing is that while a run-of-the-mill deluxe property certainly is luxury to the average working man, it's nothing special to a billionaire," said the general manager of Bahrain International Travel Group, Paul Clabburn.
"What was previously termed a ‘luxury traveller' is now someone seeking to elevate their travel experience.
"The term ‘luxury' is intrinsically linked with product branding and the emotive perceptions of the target audience.
"To define luxury is very tricky, but here's a thought, is unique the new luxury?"
The idea that luxury has to be a unique experience echoes the comments of GHM's Puri, but is it fair to dismiss properties simply because they are part of a brand that seeks to offer consistent high standards across all of its properties?
It's possible to see both sides of the argument and Clabburn's additional comment that luxury experience should be "something so special that all expectations are surpassed", is a good one, but doesn't account for the high standards of the mega rich and would be impossible to judge, because what defines unique?
One solution would be to have a luxury properties accreditation board setting out standards that were adhered to worldwide, but until that time comes, clients will just have to decide for themselves.