By Harriet Sinclair
Some luxury brands are trading in their brawn for brains as they attempt to cater to the intelligent traveller, but what are clients really demanding from hotels? Harriet Sinclair reports.
Some luxury brands are trading in their brawn for brains as they attempt to cater to the intelligent traveller, but what are clients really demanding from hotels? Harriet Sinclair reports. In the eclectic world of Middle Eastern luxury hotels, you would be hard pushed to find something small. For years the luxury market has been filled with brands aiming to be bigger, better, and more lavish than their competitors. But following the global economic downturn, consumers have begun to take a look at the hedonistic lifestyle they have created for themselves, and are now asking - is this all too much?
Taking a sharp turn away from extravagance, ‘intelligent travellers' are now looking for hotels which match their more subtle idea of luxury - brands which can provide a high level of service and comfort, without bankrupting a small country to do it.
The ‘intelligent traveller' wants eco-conscious surroundings, local produce and a sophisticated hospitality experience. But can hotels keep up? Brands which once prided themselves on being luxurious and extravagant may now be viewed as wasteful by this new breed of ‘intelligent traveller'.
It has been clear for some time now that luxury brands need to be innovative. They must drive customers to their hotels and adapt to the new demands coming from their clientele, many of which are borne from a desire to be less frivolous with money.
But according to Insignia founder and managing director, Gaurav Sinha, the situation is not as dire as the naysayers would have us believe. He points to the fact that many hotels have faced previous situations which have forced them to be innovative.
"Luxury hotels are very resilient in this marketplace; we've seen luxury hotels survive the Gulf War, we're seen them survive SARS, swine flu, terrorism - and they have all been fairly resilient regarding how they have been able to innovate their product offering. In this sense, it's not always about them reducing their room rate to get people in but it is about looking at innovative ways to create partnerships with other brands", says Sinha.
The lack of proverbial gold paving the streets means that consumers are beginning to look at their own spending packages and are re-defining what luxury means to them.
"I think what we are seeing in the market is what we call ‘ethical travellers'; travellers with a conscience. That is in the front of travellers' minds today - to make sure that there are no excesses in the way they are indulging. I think the decade of decadence is over, we have stepped into the decade of frugality now and people have to align their postures to come across as fairly responsible - and that's where sustainable brands and sustainable luxury are heading,' argues Sinha.
The arrival of this new breed of traveller is something which brands such as Soneva Kiri, by Six Senses, are paying attention to. Soneva Kiri, which is situated on Koh Kood in Thailand, defines itself as a hotel with ‘intelligent luxury', and is responding to a demand for luxury which is sustainable and environmentally friendly - without the ‘back to basics' image which eco-travel has previously conjured up.
Six Senses has built an ecological suite ‘The Eco Villa' at Soneva Kiri, which the company says is a prototype zero emissions suite; showcasing environmental technology in a bio-climatically designed structure made from non-toxic, locally sourced building materials.
Although not all hotels are going this far to incorporate customers' ‘green' concerns, many hotels are beginning to pay serious attention to the demands of ‘eco-travellers'.
In Dubai, the Emerald Palace, Kempinski Hotel and Residences general manager, Beat Peter, says hotels can make the environment a part of the luxury experience.
"Luxury is about nature, about things being real, not artificial. So the environmental element of having healthy surroundings - that's also luxury," maintains Peter."There are various initiatives to make the hotels, the utilities, and the waste more environmentally friendly. Once we go in to operation, we will apply for certificates to show we are environmentally friendly," he says of the Palm Jumeirah property, which is due to open in 2011.
Sinha believes there is a need for luxury hotels to demonstrate that they are paying attention to the environmental concerns of guests.
"There are hotels today where guests are not only told about the type of meat they want to eat but where it came from, so it's not just the taste, it's the source that people are more engaged to know about," Sinha says.
"Luxury brands who will survive in years to come are the ones who make sure they are well positioned to address these elements of curiosity, allowing the guest to feel responsible and ensuring the experience is enriching beyond the time they spend in a particular environment." Affordable luxury
The concept of eco-luxury is just one aspect of innovation that luxury brands are adopting in order to drive new customers to their hotels.
In 2009, luxury brands in the region lowered prices or introduced value-added packages to keep customers interested in their product.
But some hoteliers believe that the idea of lowering prices can damage the concept of luxury travel.
"I do feel that when it comes to hotels, luxury has its price," says Peter. "But there is a place in the market for every concept - there are more affordable mid-scale hotels in the market now."
It is certainly true that more affordable brands such as Holiday Inn Express and Premier Inn have had recent success in the Middle Eastern market, but Seven Tides Hospitality managing director Mike Scully argues that top-scale hotels can also lower their prices without losing their ‘luxury' status.
"I think there are certain brands that believe that price indicates luxury. And some of the biggest faults with some of these brands is that they are not willing to drop their price in case it affects other destinations and the perception of their brand," Scully says.
"However, as far as the owner is concerned - we need cash going through that door and we're not worried about the perception of someone's brand and the price they want to see it at. And although some big brands will state that they're not dropping prices - they are."
But innovation in the luxury market is not only achieved by dropping prices or launching eco-hotels. There are a number of well established brands trying to address gaps they see in the market or responding to specific demands from customers.
In mature hotel markets such as London, it is essential for well-established brands to be innovative says The Dorchester general manager and regional director UK, Roland Fasel.
"The Dorchester prides itself on being innovative. The vision has always been to be the most sought after hotel in London - not only to stay in, but also to be seen in. With almost 80 years at the head of its game, The Dorchester continues to evolve, surpassing guests' expectations and leading the pack in London," says Fasel."Recent years saw new additions: a new world-leading destination spa, three new contemporary roof suites, the appointment of a top class chef for The Grill, and a new design for chef's table The Krug Room at The Dorchester. The calibre of our guests, both international and local Londoners, means we can only ever afford to offer the best."
And this is the approach that brands such as Kempinski strive to follow, says Peter.
"The only constant in life is change so we re-evaluate what we do on a daily basis. Just because you have a good brand and you're Kempinski, it doesn't mean that you don't have to move," Peter asserts.
"For example, at the moment we are implementing what we call a ‘lady in red', which is a person who stands in the lobby welcoming guests - helping with any requirements they may have. She is like a concierge, and that really is something which Kempinski came up with that is innovative and responds to a demand that is not implemented from head office, but comes from the bottom up."
Sinha argues that hotels will need to rethink their whole approach to customers if they truly wish to create something new.
"I think true innovation is driven by pioneering change to a degree. Extremely clever marketing has come out of New York and London; you have extremely innovative service offerings in some of these mature markets," says Sinha
"I think Dubai is embracing that, for example; we have brands like Armani coming into play which is fascinating to see and I think brands like these will innovate.
"But you know true innovation is not just about bolting on the word by doing something slightly different like saying ‘OK let's not check in at reception, let's check-in in the room', that's hardly innovation. Innovation really involves being able to come up with something truly authentic and unique and for that I think people will have to scratch their heads a little harder.
"There are smaller details on a food and beverage level - why does a lady in a black dress get a white napkin given to her? So it is about picking up on smaller details like that, that's innovation for me. Innovation is something which really makes a connection with a customer on a one to one level," says Sinha.
The lack of real innovation is something also lamented by Scully, who feels that hotels have been relying on their destination and airlines to attract customers, rather than coming up with new ideas to drive business to their hotels.
"I think everyone is going to have to be more innovative by the nature of the economic climate and the biggest problem with most brands up until now is that they have been like sheep and they have all followed each other - so every hotel is exactly the same and the poor old customer was offered this mass of the same products just under different brands," argues Scully.
"They may have had a slightly different smell or slightly different colour or slightly different furniture and the bed springs may have been slightly different or the thread count may have been slightly different, however, by nature hotels have not been innovative and have lost the art of being innovative," he says.
"The few hotels that make the difference now are those who know how to create a market, can bring their own markets in and not just rely on airlines or destinations bringing clientele. And that will create the difference now and the people who are the most innovative will certainly get the best results."
But for hotels to create a market and bring in new business, they must pay close attention to the demands of their customers and respond to the recent trends in luxury travel, such as the idea of sustainable travel. And according to the eco-traveller, that would be the ‘intelligent' choice.