The Death of Luxury, the Rise of Transformational Experiences

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By Babs Harrison, Managing director of Babs Harrison and Partners
February 2018


The highest priced tranche of resorts and hotels find themselves at an inflexion point that will dramatically transform how we talk about the properties, how they are marketed, and - ultimately - what guests experience in them.

This is a revolution.

Out is marketing hinged on sheet thread count, pricey toiletries, lovely lobby floral arrangements, and similar. All of that remains in the properties - of course. It's all good. Upscale guests have similar at home and they expect it where they travel.

That's key though. It is expected. It does not dazzle or thrill. It just is. It closes no sales. None.

Certainly, most high-end resorts have moved beyond marketing by thread count - but many seem stuck in uncertainty about exactly what makes them special.

The very word "luxury" has plummeted into a fog of meaninglessness. It is table stakes - and it is not a closing concept. It is so overused, many guests just cynically ignore it. Rightly so. Hotelier "luxury" just isn't what they want today.

What guests now want are experiences that matter to them.

Read that sentence carefully and note the last two words: to them.

They also want experiences that they find transformational - they want to leave the experience somehow different. Ideally, better. Improved by the experience.

The Global Wellness Summit recently named transformative wellness travel as a huge trend in 2018. So true.

But this trend now goes way beyond wellness.

Right now, a lot of resorts are stampeding to label themselves providers of experiences but many miss the mark. An experience is not one size fits all. The experiences that matter are ones that matter to this guest, right now.

Skift reports that Marriott, for instance, has opened up real experiences - such as cooking with Eric Ripert - to bidding with loyalty points. That hits two notes. It rewards the most loyal guests - such events usually go for more than 300,000 points - and it also delivers exactly the experience this guest craves right now.

Skift continues: "Large brands are not the only players looking to entice luxury travelers in search of transformation. Boutique travel companies are also getting on board. From high-end yoga retreats and luxury glamping experiences in remote wilderness settings, luxury travelers are being presented with increasingly personalized travel experiences created with the sole aim of guiding them on their journey toward personal fulfillment."

It ominously added: "As with any quickly adopted trend, this one also runs the risk of being exploited by brands that use transformative-travel language, but don't actually provide the life-changing experiences luxury travelers are after."

That's key: guests now want those special moments they will remember, and talk about, for years to come. A perfunctory cooking class with a hotel chef won't press the right buttons. Obviously, some of those classes are right in this personal experience theme and the key is to make very sure yours, if you offer same, is.

Also keep in mind that - increasingly - resorts are competing for personal experience time and dollar investments by guests with specialty retreats such as The Ranch in Malibu and Camp Biche in France. These places are very good at delivering transformational experiences.

That ups the ante substantially.

My advice is to drill deeply into truly local experiences that help define the place itself. And make the experiences ones that are not easily had by any visitor. Rarity matters. If you are offering private yoga instruction in New York, for instance, set up classes with the city's best. Ditto for a session with a meditation master. Or a wellness healer.

Only the best will do.

At the same time, a resort has to get very good at asking guests and potential guests what precisely they are looking for - and keep asking until you want what they in fact want. I can't tell you how often I have seen resorts that in effect present long, unedited menus of activities to guests, often under a series of web page tabs, and it's left to the guest to do the sifting of a lot of often mediocre offerings.

That is no way to win at the highest level.

Help by being the guide. Help the guest discover exactly the experience they crave.

That's how to thrill a guest. It's how to deliver real luxury in 2018.

Even better, these experiences - many of them - will be inherently Instagrammable moments. Guests will frequently post about them on Facebook and Instagram and that will be some of the most impactful marketing any resort could hope to do.

That's win-win, for the resort and the guest.