First there were pillow menus, or maybe those came later, I can't be certain.
Then, someone thought of leaving some minty chocolates on those pillows.
No sooner that was done and you would come back to the room at 6pm to find your bed neatly tucked in. Two slippers sit symmetrically positioned by the bedside, ready for you to strut your stuff in front of the 400 channel TV as you wait for that $40 salad to arrive . OK, there's no toothbrush within a mile of the bathroom, but those high-end brand conditioners sure take the frizz out of my hair, so dental hygiene be damned. That's just the beginning.
Breakfast offers a decadent spread of food, with enough variety to have made an ancient Roman food orgy look bland. The orange juice is so smooth, it was probably squeezed by the delicate fingers of a concert pianist. Don't get me started on the carefully orchestrated and smile-infused table service. My serviette (because at this level it's not a napkin, please) gently draped over my lap, coffee ground just minutes ago and served in designer porcelain, only the spoonfeeding is lacking, lest I regress into a toddler I suppose.
I love it. See, that is luxury. All of it.
Or it used to be....
Now, the service described above is expected at the five star level, it's the norm. Deliver anything less than this as the baseline and you'll hear about it on TripAdvisor, that bastion of balanced, impartial and incorruptible peer judgement (right).
Even for those lucky enough to afford premium travel, the thrill is often gone.
Another lavish sanctuary of a room with calibrated mood lighting, perfectly pressed pillow covers and more switches than a 747's cockpit. Another 7 series luxury sedan to whisk me from the in-crowd's beloved cocktail bar to the hipster shopping quarter. Yawn.
The sheer overabundance of externally focused opulence has left an agonizing emotional void, often compounded with a sense of guilt over having spent the equivalent of someone's monthly salary on a room night, fancy car and a few star rated morsels of food. But it just isn't enough, not anymore.
Extensive research by leading psychologists has concluded that 'to do' brings more lasting happiness than 'to have'. And while the initial conclusions were certainly damning for the luxury goods industry, increasingly the same weariness applies to all types of material luxury, including hotel stays, fancy cars and astronomically priced 'star food'.
So if those things can no longer make us happy for more than a fleeting moment, can they still be considered 'luxurious'? Shouldn't true 'luxury' involve such emotions as 'satisfaction', 'fulfillment' and 'contentment'? Isn't that the bedrock of true luxury?
As far as the high-end travel and hospitality industry is concerned, the cat's now out of the bag. The shift from material opulence to a more introspective form of luxury has begun in earnest. I see it in the (endless) hotel presentations, local operator itineraries and of course in our own clients' requirements. The consumer is empowered, and increasingly demands a different approach to luxury and in many ways a simpler and more personal approach to top quality. How is your brand responding? Will you increase the thread count in your sheets? Add five more options to the breakfast menu? Placate the guest with a bottle of Bollinger?
A friend and business partner in Japan told me recently that since the Fukushima disaster there is a greater sense of urgency now for people to experience the things that make travel (and life) really worthwhile, the stuff of dreams and memories. And increasingly that excludes traditional luxury. Because life is short, you don't know when it will end, and you really can't take stuff with you.
We owe it to an ever growing worldwide consumer base to shift our own thinking and start focussing on designing more authentic, local and - dare I say - more spiritually fulfilling activities. That doesn't mean guests won't stay in the beautifully appointed suite. It doesn't mean the star chef should quit or the limo driver give up and hand in the keys; these things are still the icing on the cake for many. But they're no longer the cake. And to ignore this trend is to put yourself out of business sooner rather than later.
Which leads me to the last point I wanted to make. Specialize. Stop being all things to all people. Pick a niche, become the best at it and thrive. Once again, the customer is empowered now. And if your entire raison d'être is to sell as much of anything to anyone for any reason, you're probably on your way out.
The death of the travel agent has been predicted for 10 years. To a large extent, it was true, and countless agencies are gone for good. But for many, it was a rebirth, a chance to find focus and become really, really good within their niche. And they are thriving, and probably will for a long time.
So how do you feel about luxury? What does it mean to you?
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Marc Mekki is a serial entrepreneur in the
luxury life experience travel industry. Originally from Belgium, Marc spent 14 years living and working in China, where he founded Mandarin Journeys, providing concierge & travel services for high level visitors to China & Japan. Marc recently founded Ode to Joy, a travel technology and service company offering unprecedented insider access to unique travel experiences in Europe. He is a frequent guest at major invitation-only trade shows like ILTM, Pure, Connections and the Private Leisure Forum. Marc also serves as an advisor to the luxury division of Barcelona’s Tourism Office, a city he now calls home.
twitter: @marc_mekki, @odetojoylife, @mandarinjourney