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(Reuters.com) - What does a luxury holiday mean: private transfers by Rolls-Royce and gold-plated taps on the double vanity, or an intrepid, individually tailored excursion to better understand a new destination?
Industry experts think affluent holidaymakers now place more emphasis on service, personalisation, and authentic and enriching travel experiences than the mere physical trappings of luxury.
Rather than indulge in over-the-top, escapist holidays cocooned from reality, Perry Lungmus, a vice president at Travel Leaders Group (a travel company which had US$18 billion in annual sales last year according to its website) says his bookings reflect that people want "small ships, lodges, camps and interaction led by guides who can help facilitate wildlife, cultural or people-to-people connections."
In the UK luxury market "people don't care as much about the hotel room," says Geoffrey Kent, founder, chairman and CEO of veteran tour operator Abercrombie & Kent (A&K).
"The key thing they want today is personal service. The guide has to be real. People love things they can't Google."
That guests are demanding aspiration and experience over ‘bling' might be partly in response to the drawn-out economic situation where, as Lorna Walker, programme director of the MA Business Management of International Travel and Tourism at Regent's College London puts it, "Conspicuous consumption is now seen as somewhat tasteless."
The recession could also be driving people to seek out life-affirming experiences. April Hutchinson, editor of travel trade magazine ttgluxury says vacationers are looking to their travel company to curate a more meaningful trip for them.
In response, according to Hutchinson, brands are trying to forge deeper emotional connections; this means "talking about heritage and showcasing craftsmanship, offering a multi-platform, inspirational 360 experience for their clients instead of just selling them a handbag now and again."
Of course, there are still exceptions, she adds. "Plenty of bling still abounds, but perhaps of more interest to the ‘new money' of the world!"
How do travel brands, especially the bigger ones, present a personalised, intimate experience to their clients? A&K think they have found an effective template in their recently unveiled concierge-meets-security-and-medical assistance scheme Lifestyle Club.
Members and their partners are allocated a travel consultant and a lifestyle manager who can help design custom-made trips and give 24/7 workaday assistance, from sending flowers to securing impossible restaurant reservations and VIP sporting or entertainment tickets.
A&K, which has been designing top-end trips for its affluent guests for 50 years, says it will limit the number of members of its Club to 600, so it can present "exclusive offers to a very close group."
In the business travel space, new contender Marchay is offering an invitation-only travel programme for air warriors at the luxury end of the spectrum. Marchay members can use their collective weight to access corporate rates on flights and exclusive hotels.
"Our members are very discerning and sophisticated, so at the end of the day the most important factor is service and guest experience," says its main sponsor Jon Ein.
Marchay currently has deals including Mandarin Oriental in Paris, The Connaught in London, The Peninsula and The Mark in New York and Park Hyatts in Beijing and Dubai.
It's not just the super rich who can enjoy such exclusivity. "A key development in the luxury market is that whilst fewer people can afford to pay the extra for all-out luxury, more people want to experience it," says Lorna Walker, who thinks organisations need to find ways to offer a taste of luxury to a less affluent segment whilst being careful not to alienate their traditional market or cannibalise their full service offering
"We see an increasing number of companies offering ways in which customers can engage with specific aspects of luxury through leasing, renting and membership of private clubs," she says.
This trend can be observed in the popularity of flash-sales of luxury holidays such as those brokered by Jetsetter.com, where travellers purchase high-end hotel packages over a set period at a significantly discounted rate.
In the same way, travellers don't have to be members of an exclusive concierge scheme to engage in authentic experiences when on holiday.
"Exploring the local village while at a luxury Cambodian island retreat like Song Saa, or Ritz-Carlton's Give Back Getaways are not necessarily expensive add-ons to the main holiday," says Hutchinson.
"Whether that's feeding manta rays at the beach, kids joining a football school while at the resort, taking a cooking class in Thailand - the drive to offer more than just a bed and an all-round experience definitely permeates the mid-market too."
There is a one-off joining fee for the A&K Lifestyle Club of £2,500, thereafter the annual membership fee is £7,000. Annual membership to Marchay is US$1,000.
Editing by Mark Kolmar