Luxury isn't what it used to be. Slowly but steadily, people with disposable income have become less interested in "having it all" and are placing more value on "doing it all," and this preference for experiences over material goods is reshaping the meetings and incentives landscape around the globe.
In Metroluxe: Countering Complexity in the Business of Luxury, released last January, Boston Consulting Group pegged global experiential luxury spend in 2015 (the most current year surveyed) at $585 billion, a 4.2 percent increase over 2014, with the bulk of that - $448 billion - spent on hotels and exclusive vacations. According to BCG, consumers increasingly are looking for experiences vs. status, and "the shift from owning to being [is] happening in all countries."
The hotel industry has been swift to adapt to this change in customer demand. While the luxury sector will continue to roll out all the must-have trappings such as sumptuous guest rooms, deluxe spas, fine-dining outlets and killer service, properties are now bolstering those trappings with promises of exceptional experiences that guests simply cannot purchase on their own, no matter how much heft their names or wallets carry.
"Luxury has become the launch pad for self-actualization, and social media has amplified it all," says Tina Edmundson, global brand officer, luxury and lifestyle brands, for Marriott International. "Everything we are looking at indicates this shift away from materialism is all about guests looking for meaningful travel experiences that really speak to what's important to their inner selves. That shift is also manifesting itself in the group marketplace."
As a board director with Maui Cultural Lands, Duane Sparkman helps visitors appreciate the inseparable link between Hawaiian culture and the environment. Sparkman, landscaping manager for the 759-room Westin Maui Resort & Spa, Ka'anapali, a Marriott Convention Resort Network property, and a former astrophysicist, leads botanical tours of the resort's more than 49 species of flora and fauna. He also is actively involved in the ongoing restoration effort of the island's cultural ruins in Honokowai Valley, home to a flourishing community more than 500 years ago. While this unique site is open to the public only on Saturdays, Sparkman has been known to arrange private outings at other times for fortunate groups.
The authenticity angle
In June 2017, Australian-based Local Measure, a social-intelligence provider that counts luxury chains Fairmont Hotels & Resorts and Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts on its growing roster of hotel clients, released an eBook titled, The New Luxury: What It Means for Hotels, which examines the ways luxury has changed, what luxury travelers are seeking and how hotels are responding.
According to Local Measure's findings, the definition of luxury has shifted from commoditization to authenticity, quite possibly as a result of the mass manufacturing of high-end luxury goods that now can be purchased at shopping malls and just about every major international airport, not to mention online from the comfort of your own bedroom. As a result, unique, memorable experiences have become the new bragging rights. "When luxury becomes something that nearly every brand takes claim to, consumers begin to look for something more meaningful," the report notes. "An oversaturation of luxury products led consumers to shift spend toward experiences."
Local experiences are cited in the Top MICE Trends of 2018 report, released in October 2017 by global destination and event management company Pacific World, headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. "Experiences that tie guests to the destination are growing in popularity," confirms Tania Pasi, global product development manager for Pacific World. "A great example is in the middle of a forest south of Seoul, South Korea, where guests can cook a meal in an ancient Buddhist Temple and learn about what food sharing means for Asian communities and cultures."
There is no question the demand for authentic experiences has carried over into the group market, says Peter Nowlan, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. "There has been tremendous change in the industry, both from a competitor and consumer standpoint," he says. "In the case of an annual meeting or incentive trip, there is a lot of pressure on the planner to one-up the previous year's event. Planners are looking for exclusivity, variety, creativity and connection.
"This desire to build in memory-making experiences is especially true for groups with a strong Millennial presence," Nowlan adds. "Millennials tend to prioritize experiences over material goods. And, given their use of social media, they are also looking to be the first among their group to have an experience and are quick to share photos and updates when they travel."
Four Seasons is responding with a new targeted option for groups, Extraordinary Exclusives and Buyouts, which the chain launched in October 2016 across its more than 100 hotels worldwide. "A buyout allows planners to write their own scripts for the program," Nowlan says. "It allows for experiences that otherwise wouldn't be possible."
The 123-room Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto in Japan, for example, has a traditional stand-alone teahouse in its 800-year-old garden. "There is nothing else like it in Kyoto. Groups can watch a tea ceremony being performed and learn about its history and meaning," Nowlan says. The hotel's exclusive evening with English-speaking geishas is another one-of-a-kind destination-centric experience that the hotel offers to groups.
Conrad Hotels & Resorts launched "Stay Inspired" in 2015, a program that asked guests, "If you had 1/3/5 hours to explore, what would you do?" The luxury chain's hotels crafted 15 to 20 quintessential local experiences tailored to all three windows of time, including harvesting oysters on Portugal's Algarve coast, making soba noodles with a soba master in Tokyo and visiting a bookshop in New York City that sells only mystery novels. The itineraries are designed to immerse guests in a destination's unique offerings, even if they have just one hour to spare.
"We have become even more committed to strengthening our guests' relationships with each destination," says John Vanderslice, global head of luxury and lifestyle brands for Hilton Worldwide, Conrad Hotels & Resorts' parent company. "Stay Inspired elements allow visitors to experience the wonders of these cities within the hotel and provide accessible excursions that can be booked at a moment's notice."
In June 2017, Leading Hotels of the World debuted "Destination Experiences," a series of guides to help guests discover the fabric of the destination beyond the lobby doorsteps of some 375 independent, luxury members. The first five were launched in Dublin, London, New York City, Paris and Rome, with another seven cities, including Barcelona and Tokyo, to follow.
For example, LHW's Uncommon London offers a prominent British architect's tips for sipping cocktails at a bar with a view, while guests at the city's Milestone Hotel can learn the art of sabrage, an ancient technique for opening a bottle of champagne with a saber.
The Uncommon Paris guide recommends taking part in an excursion to the brimming flea markets at Saint-Ouen (considered the largest antique market in the world) accompanied by a local antiques expert, as arranged by LHW member property La Reserve Hotel & Spa.
Several months ago the Rome Cavalieri, a member of Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, launched "Meet in Luxury," which includes a personal concierge whose sole job is to craft some very insider experiences in the Eternal City. "With so much rich history and culture right at our doorstep, the opportunities are endless for us to collaborate with many of the city's brightest historians, designers, and other vendors and artisans to bring these experiences to our guests," says Alessandro Cabella, the hotel's managing director.
Two city-centric experiences popular with groups are a local eatery tour aboard vintage Vespa motorcycles and a visit to the workroom of luxury Italian leather-handbag designer Aleksandra Badura for a lesson in how she crafts her exquisite products. Participants watch the leather being cut and sewn by expert artisans and then create their own take-home memento (while getting a chance to shop the designer's exclusive collection).
For attendees booking a suite in the Rome Cavalieri, the new "Suite Experiences" program offers even more unique activities, like participating in a sandal-making workshop with a local shoemaker or enjoying a private showroom shopping session with an Italian luxury brand. It all adds up to a new kind of luxe - and unforgettable, share-worthy memories.
SKIP THE HOTSPOTS: LOCAL IS THE NEW COOL
Marriott International upped the loyalty game in May 2017 with an investment in Cambridge, Mass.-based PlacePass, a search and booking platform for unique tours and activities. The 2016 startup, powered by entrepreneurs, travelers and tech geeks, now offers more than 100,000 local experiences in more than 800 destinations around the world.
That gave Marriott's 100 million-plus loyalty members across the Starwood Preferred Guest and Marriott Rewards programs license to skip the tourist attractions and do something different, like hit the mats with a retired Sumo wrestler in Tokyo, take a guided tour of the filming locations for Downton Abbey in London or hone their pasta-making skills with an Italian chef at a Tuscan farmhouse in Italy.
"Now we are looking for the group solution to that," says Marriott International's Steve Heitzner, chief sales and marketing officer, Americas. "We think there is tremendous possibility in meeting planners being able to take advantage of this technology to give them options and ideas for their attendees."
Marriott is on target to roll out PlacePass to its group clients by early 2018, once the Starwood and Marriott online platforms have fully integrated.