The rich really are different from you and me — at least when it comes to travel.
For ordinary travelers, the Presidential Suite might sound like the ultimate luxury. For the traveler with the 25,000-square-foot home or office, though, it's not much of a wow.
"It's going to look like a closet," says travel adviser Bobby Zur, owner of Travel Artistry in Franklin Lakes, N.J. His agency is part of Virtuoso, a worldwide network of luxury travel advisers, whose membership is by invitation only. Zur's clientele includes rock stars, billionaires, CEOs and pro-sports icons.
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Luxury travel isn't about the biggest and the most lavish anymore. The rich have been there, bought that. Today, they're spending their money — investing it, actually — in experiences rather than material possessions. "It's really about intangible things," Zur says. "It's about how they're made to feel."
Small is big today in luxury travel: boutique hotels, private airline terminals, special-access tours and those little touches that have always been part of the "VIP treatment."
And more Americans are in that VIP category now than at any point in U.S. history: There were an estimated 10.8 million millionaires by the end of 2016 — up 400,000 from just the year before. The wealthy travel more, and spend more per trip; the luxury market is growing almost a third faster than the overall travel industry.
The established brands in the luxury market — from accommodations like Aman Resorts and Four Seasons to cruise lines like Silversea, Crystal and Uniworld, and tour operators like Butterfield & Robinson, Abercrombie & Kent, Lindblad Expeditions and Micato Safaris — are adapting to the new luxury traveler in ways big and small.
High-end hotels are emphasizing more personalized service, providing training in how to anticipate guests' needs, solve their problems and manage crises. At the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver, for instance, VIPs get monogrammed bathrobes, pillowcases, or both, and toiletries with the guest's name printed on the label. And in case you felt like taking a run or hike, and only packed your pumps or oxfords, they'll send up a pair of Nikes you can borrow, in just your size.
Wellness has quickly become a major focus for luxury travelers, so hotels are ramping up their spa services — some offering treatments reflecting local traditions. Hotels are meeting the demand for authentic and unique experiences by arranging anything from an after-hours museum tour with the curator to a cooking lesson with a local chef. Marriott teamed up with hotelier Ian Schrager for its luxury Edition brand, where the staff includes a cultural director, responsible for programming and events that draw locals as well as guests.
Cruising for luxury
Cruise lines are making some of the biggest waves in the luxury arena.
One emerging trend, according to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, is the "luxurification" of expedition cruising. "It used to be — and sometimes still is — that an expedition cruise was considered luxury because of the hard-to-get-to destinations it visited — places like the Galapagos and Antarctica," she says. Originally, the accommodations were basic. "Now, lines like Crystal, Ponant and Scenic have created ships that carry cruisers to adventure in a luxurious ambiance," offering personalized service by butlers, or private helicopters in port.
"The newest thing we're seeing in the luxury market is a big emphasis on toys — things that you wouldn't get in a hotel or on your own," Brown says. "Crystal Esprit has an underwater submersible, Scenic will have a private helicopter onboard."
Dining is also being revamped. Most notable: Silversea's Silver Muse, which debuted last month, has eight restaurants and no main dining room. Again, today's luxury travelers don't want to be told what to do — they want choice.
There's long been a yacht-style of cruising (Seabourn was a pioneer, and Windstar is top-of-the-line now) but Crystal's Esprit and Scenic's upcoming Eclipse are both courting the type of traveler who might otherwise charter his/her own vessel.
Cruise ships are also creating exclusive areas for their luxury clientele. Norwegian Cruise Line's The Haven features the "most luxurious" suites (a three-bedroom villa among them), private inner courtyard with pool, butlers, dedicated restaurants, and priority on-and off status in ports.
Crystal is arguably taking the deepest dive into luxury: Along with the ultra-luxury yacht Esprit, it launched Crystal Luxury Air, a private jet charter service, in April. Crystal AirCruises debuts in August, offering round-the-world journeys via private jet. Anticipating the need to stay put for a while after all that traveling, the company has a portfolio of Crystal Residences.
Some critics point out that the new luxury options — especially those "behind the velvet rope" arrangements, such as The Haven — may be creating resentment and animosity between the classes (not unlike walking through first class to your seat in coach). On the other hand, the proliferation of luxury and experiential options gives the average traveler an opportunity to go for the occasional splurge, say, on a great hotel room while still going budget on other parts of his or her trip.
The options for luxury are more plentiful today, but that one-percenter — the billionaire, the A-lister, the clientele Bobby Zur works with, for instance — isn't taking a trip right off the rack.
"The one percent want blow-me-away experiences," says travel adviser Catherine Heald, CEO of Remote Lands, part of Virtuoso, whose clientele skews toward the affluent and ultra-affluent. "They want to do things and go places that no one else has gone, to earn bragging rights for dinner party conversation, such as taking a helicopter to Everest Base Camp," she says.
They use travel advisers because "they want smooth, seamless, white-glove service. Flawless logistics. If they are taking a route that has no commercial air service, such as from Chiang Rai to Siem Reap, they will charter a small jet rather than take a connecting flight in order to save half a day which is precious to them."
"True luxury is getting exactly what you want, in the precise way you want it," says Terrie Hansen, senior vice president of marketing for Virtuoso. "It sounds straightforward, but it requires an actual human being to fulfill and I go back to the importance of the human connection. If you want to impress someone who has everything, make sure they get what they want before they have a chance to ask for it."
Luxury travel advisers focus on making that connection; Virtuoso even offers a certificate course in it. Clients may not know exactly what they want on the initial visit, and advisers will spend hours and a variety of approaches to get to the heart of a client's vacation aspirations.
Bobby Zur, for instance, has all his clients fill out a questionnaire, asking about their best vacation ever, notable disappointments, favorite hotels and other basics that provide subtle guidance and insight. "I make them slow down," Zur says. He gains their trust — and the knowledge he needs "to give great advice." They're spending a lot of money, after all. Zur's customers spend anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000-plus a night for a room.
His fees range from $500 to $1,000. For that, they get not only great advice and someone who will do all the planning, but the benefit of Zur's travel connections.
One such connection was the key to fulfilling a travel request from one of Zur's clients, a "legendary international pop/rock band" that wanted a place to rehearse and bond for two weeks before starting their next world tour. It had to be in or near Turin, Italy. It also had to accommodate 20-plus people, including the band members and staff. And it had to be completely private.
A friend who was the GM of the Four Seasons Milano put him in touch with a 90-year-old "contessa" whose family finances were flagging. He and the band's tour/travel manager persuaded her to rent the entire estate to the band. "They then proceeded to turn this 12th-century palazzo into a 21st-century high-tech space with Wi-Fi." They brought in new beds, built a music studio for rehearsals, and went on tour.
One more travel memory that will last a lifetime — for the band, the contessa and Zur.
Virtuoso, the global network of luxury travel agencies, issues an annual Luxe Report, forecasting emerging patterns and top destinations for the coming year, based on a survey of its members worldwide. Among the top trends this year:
• Multigenerational travel is still hot, keeping its place as the top travel trend.
• Travelers are seeking adventures in less explored areas and craving customized local experiences wherever they roam.
• Exploring new destinations was the top motivation for traveling.
• Long trips are back — international trips of two weeks or longer were the most popular.
• Japan is becoming a new non-traditional hotspot for family travel (how luxury market families like to go).
• South Africa retains its rank as the No 1 spot for adventure travel, followed by the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Peru and Iceland.
• Trips are selling out earlier than in past years, and many travelers are planning and booking one or even two years out.