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Tue 1 May 2007 03:40 PM

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Luxury goes global

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.

Soft adventure

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."

Designer labels

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.

Top tips for selling luxury

Travel agents must profile their customers in order to achieve better levels of client satisfaction and loyalty, according to Nick Sheppard, general manager of Dnata Holidays.

He was speaking after Dnata Holidays launched its glossy luxury brochure featuring nearly 200 hotel products across 25 destinations.

"Agents have to be proactive in asking the right questions so that they can understand what products would suit a particular client given their age, if they are travelling with family, whether they want seclusion or plenty of activities, etc," he says.

"We educate our team so that if a customer requests a certain product that is not available, the right alternative is offered to them.

"Luxury used to just be grand luxury; now this has changed with increasingly a greater choice of boutique hotels, spa resorts, chic hotels, riads and name brands. Therefore training and product knowledge has become much more important."

While the hotels and resorts featured include many of the premium brands already popular in the region such as Four Seasons, Dnata Holidays is also working with partners who are ‘new' to the Middle East such as Aman Resorts and Rocco Forte Hotels.

"We aim to introduce new products in to the region that suit both Arabic and expatriate travellers. The Dnata name gives credibility to names that might be unknown to agents or consumers," says Sheppard.

The operators is seeking more boutique options as these are now gaining popularity among young travellers in particular he explains.

"Next year, we will be developing the product range farther and looking at hot spots such as China and Vietnam, as well as the United States, while the next launch will focus on niche products later in the year," Sheppard adds.

The sales pitch

European splendour:

Mandarin Oriental, Prague:

opened late last year, the hotel is located in a restored 14th century monastery located riverside beneath Prague castle. With only 99 rooms and 22 suites, it has a boutique feel with every facility including an exceptional spa built on the site of a Renaissance church, plus intimate dining rooms with vaulted ceilings. The top suite has a terrace with city views, ideal for private parties. Double room rates this summer start at EUR 409 (US $556) inclusive of breakfast.

Egyptian classic:

Oberoi Zahra:

The Nile in style on the Oberoi's new cruiser, which accommodates only 25 suites and two Grand suites, all with timber floors, panorama windows and en-suite facilities. Spa massage rooms are a first while other perks include gourmet cuisine, private docking to avoid the crowds, luxury coach tours with Egyptologists and onboard amenities such as pool, sundeck, gym, theatre, library and cigar bar and telescope for star gazing. A seven-night tour from Aswan to Luxor starts late summer, with prices per double cabin from $950 full board inclusive of taxes and sightseeing.

Thai retreat:

The Barai Spa, Hyatt Hua Hin:

an eight-suite, 18-treatment room residential spa has opened at the Hyatt Regency in Hua Hin, set in 4.5 acres of land and the first of its kind in Thailand. Rooms are 126m² minimum and include an outdoor soaking pool, rain shower and Thai day-bed for treatments, while three doubles also have Vichy treatment room and steam room. Other facilities include a 30-metre pool in a tranquility court and the 19th century McFarland House pavilion for beachfront breakfast and snacks. Introductory rates until June 30 start from $540 a night for a balcony suite and from $620 for a pool suite, plus 17% tax and service, inclusive of a free aromatherapy or Thai massage for two people, breakfast and evening cocktails.

Swiss elegance:

Le Richemond Geneva:

Rocco Forte's Swiss hotel reopens this summer after an 18-month renovation overseen by Olga Polizzi. First opened in 1863, the property is a legend in the city located in the heart of shopping and dining with stunning views of the Alps. It will feature 109 rooms including 35 suites in its new look, with a 230m² Royal Suite offering panoramic views, while a new spa with five treatment rooms will also debut. Room rates start at EUR 440 ($598) per room. (RFH will also launch its third German hotel this summer when The Charles opens in Munich).

Hip New York:

Hotel on Rivington:

new and hot, the Hotel on Rivington offers something completely different on the Lower East Side. A 21-storey glass tower, it has large rooms, many with private terraces, and all of which offer floor to ceiling glass walls with panoramic views over New York (the owner has rumoured to have bought air rights to prevent ever losing his views). Designer bathrooms include Japanese soaking tubs and steam showers, while the 250m² triplex penthouse has 360-degree views, Bang & Olufsen technology, home theatre, three fireplaces and private 85m² roof deck with outdoor shower and 10-person hot tub. Prices start from $375 per room.

Vietnam beach:

The Nam Hoi, China Beach:

GHM Hotels, operator of The Chedi Muscat, has opened on a private beach near the heritage city of Hoi An with a sprawling resort that features 60 guesthouses and 40 pool villas. Vietnam architecture, gourmet cuisine, tropical spa, clubhouse and a wealth of sightseeing opportunities are among the plus points of the destination. Rates in July range from $550 for a villa or $850 for a pool villa, subject to 15% taxes and service charge. Prices are inclusive of butler service, airport and local transfers, breakfast, mini bar, snacks, afternoon tea and laundry.

Tropical hideaway:

Evason Hideaway & Spa, Yao Noi:

Six Senses is opening its fourth Evason boutique resort late this summer on a Thai island between Krabi and Phuket. The hotel will have all the usual tropical trimmings with all 53 units offering vast decks, open-air bathrooms and private infinity pools as well as butler service and a Main House with restaurant, bar and other amenities. Pool villas start at 154 m² with an 18m² pool, while the Hill Top Reserve boasts a staggering 1453 m² of space with a 246m² pool. Prices start at around $700 a night plus 19% taxes and service.

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