By Kathi Everden
Intrepid travellers will soon stumble across luxury services as top hotel brands embark on global expansion spree.
The icons of the hotel industry were once the city classics; the likes of The Ritz, Raffles, George V, Pierre and similar, where those that had the budget could indulge in seamless service, elegant furnishings and the very best amenities, in-room and in-restaurant.
But, with the 21st century explosion in travel, the luxury brands are on the move out of their home territories, seeking to capture and retain the loyalty of their well-heeled customers through the establishment of their own network of hotel and resorts in the world's new hot spots, offering Four Seasons' style or the seclusion of Aman Resorts for instance, whatever the latitude or longitude.
And, apart from targeting gateway cities in the new economies, from Shanghai to Mumbai, most of the top chains are heading out to the beach, or mountain, or island hideaway, identifying leisure and in particular, soft adventure as one of the key growth areas for premium travel.
A cursory glance at development plans for hospitality's aristocrats underlines the globalisation of the sector, with North America's elite emigrating towards Asia, while that continent's top names are bringing their brand of exotic luxury farther west.
Raffles for one is planning to double in size by 2011; Shangri-La has 31 projects set for completion by that date in destinations ranging from China to the US, London, Seychelles, Paris, the Gulf, the Maldives and India, while Mandarin Oriental has 14 hotels under development around the globe, including properties in Paris, Marrakech, Barcelona, Las Vegas, Grand Caymans and Chicago and new hideaway resorts in Chiang Mai, Riviera Maya and the Turks & Caicos.
Conrad is targeting the Middle East as well as Asia; Starwood's luxury brands such as W and St Regis are pushing boundaries with properties in the Alps, Tibet, Bali and the Middle East; Ritz Carlton has 38 confirmed projects, mainly in the US and Asia, while Four Seasons also has global aspirations with new properties in Hawaii, Alexandria, Mumbai, DisneyWorld, Moscow and Bora Bora, and Banyan Tree and GHM are among the groups targeting Vietnam with major projects in that country.
China is the big one for many: Ritz-Carlton has six projects on the anvil there while Hyatt has 12 hotels under development, Four Seasons and Conrad have properties on the way, Jumeirah announced Shanghai as one of its first moves overseas, while Kempinski has just announced its 18th hotel in that country, as well as a luxury train circuit to Tibet.
The latter marks another significant move for the top brands - out of the bricks and mortar and into alternative leisure lifestyles.
Four Seasons marked the trail with its tented camp that opened last year in the Golden Triangle in the north of Thailand, where canvas comes with teak floors, sundecks, massage beds, copper bathtubs, free-form swimming pool, wine cellar and spa in the jungle options.
Now Maldives' group Per Aquum is developing an eco-friendly, 41 unit luxury tented camp in the Seychelles, complete with two spas, while Taj has teamed up with CC Africa to upgrade wildlife safari options in India and Oberoi has added space and spa facilities to the traditional Nile cruise with its new Zahra vessel and has signed a joint venture to operate a premium train circuit out of Delhi covering Agra as well as Rajasthan sites.
Brands including Four Seasons, Six Senses, Banyan Tree and Per Aquum are also taking to the high seas, with all four groups offering a Maldives option aboard catamaran, adapted dhoni or Turkish gulet vessels.
Travel with a tick box is one imperative for this eclectic expansion, as high-end holidaymakers seek to beat the crowds and become the first to open new doors around the world, according to Declan Hurley, regional sales & marketing director for Ritz-Carlton, which has just announced a new Reserve brand that will focus on exclusive resorts.
"People are into trailblazing; they want to discover something new and get away from everything ... except comfort," he says.
"This is the advantage of taking a brand into the wilderness since it gives a sense of security and expectations of service, no matter what the destination."
And, while travellers might be prepared to ‘rough' it in terms of travelling beyond the known leisure horizon, Hurley stresses that resort facilities have to make the grade.
"The product has to be delivered from branded coffee-making machines to DVD flat screen technology and designer bathroom amenities," he says.
Oberoi director Ketaki Narain concurs that the difference between any leisure experience in the luxury sector lies in the service and activities rather than the product.
"Not only are travellers more demanding, but they are more focused in terms of what they expect, and for many customers, this no longer relates merely to material objects. It is less about cost and more about value, less about extravagance and more about the experience," she says.
Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho KwonPing defines this trend in exclusive travel as one of proliferation of niche tourism.
"Edu-tourism, eco-tourism, agri-tourism, cultural tourism, medical tourism, community tourism are just some of these niches, and there is also bespoke tourism; customised travel for small groups that might involve chartering a private jet, luxury yacht, a dedicate camel or elephant trek," he explains.
And, in a bid to target this elite group, Banyan Tree has launched its Private Collection offering the personalised packaging of a destination club encompassing 20 destinations and complementary product offerings; a development that is growing in tandem with that of branded residences offered by top chains such as Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Ritz-Carlton.
The road less travelled
For pure escapism, Ho cites exotica as the new big trend.
"People are seeking the road less travelled and you will see us expanding in to unusual destinations in the next few years including Mexico, Morocco, India, Oman and Barbados," he says.
Many top hoteliers endorse that list, adding a few more predictions besides, with the Himalayan high spots of Bhutan and Lhasa among the most regularly mentioned.
"Everyone one wants to get in to Tibet just now," claims Ritz-Carlton's Hurley.
"Africa is virgin territory, particularly Mozambique and Madagascar with their undeveloped coastlines, while Istanbul has seen a renaissance and Reykjavik is making a comeback. In Asia it's the Vietnamese beaches and in China, Sanya is predicted to become the new Bali."
Six Senses CEO Sonu Shivdasani has opted for Oman, Mozambique, Morocco, Greece, Brazil and India, Catherine Martel from Mandarin Oriental has picked Northern Thailand, the Riviera Maya in Mexico and Hainan Island in China, while Debbie Joslin, exhibition director for Reed's International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) predicts longer-term travel to destinations including Patagonia, Mongolia, Antarctica and even space.
"Luxury is definitely a global phenomenon with extensive development of tourism infrastructure outside of the Western economies in the past five years, increasingly in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean and China, while there is more niche development in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia - and this is reflected in the growth of exhibitors at ILTM," she says.
"Tropical islands are still very much en vogue, however research also stipulates a greater demand for more culturally immersive holidays and destinations with a sphere of luxury travellers moving to locations more out of the way than ever before."
As well as the boom in high-end multi-generational family travel, Joslin says that the luxury sector expects to see a rapid rise in ‘green' travel, and at the same time, new facilities will be introduced to service the premium market sector, including business-class only flights, concierge services and luggage-forwarding services.
"The polarisation between the mass market and luxury travel will continue to widen and travel agents will need to become much more specialised in specific destinations," she explains.
"We see customer loyalty increasing between the luxury traveller and their private travel arranger."
But while consumers may stick with a travel agent who delivers the right goods, some hoteliers see a decline in brand loyalty given the spiralling number of options available to customers on the market.
"Most companies are concentrating their efforts on loyalty marketing, however in recent years, research has proven that luxury brand loyalty has decreased among global consumers," says Six Senses' Shivdasani.
"Customers were consistently loyal to certain luxury brands they felt they could identify with but now there is rising price competition with the number of products which exist in the luxury segment of our industry proliferating, and with the internet, customers can compare and make more informed and rational, or less brand driven, choices."
Another element in the market mix may be designer brand loyalty as Cerruti, Armani, Versace, Bulgari and Missoni all lend their brands to the hospitality sector.
"The Bulgari in Bali practically sold itself even before the official opening," says Hurley. "People were booking in for the name, in that location."
Whatever the rationale behind travel, at the high end, all hoteliers are in agreement that demand is driving expansion, with new markets in Asia as well as increased family travel, affluent baby boomers on the move and an aspirational generation waiting in the wings.
"There is an explosion of travel fuelled by growing affluence and globalisation," concludes Banyan Tree's Ho.