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What is Luxury?

Issue 4 - 2016
Issue 4 - 2016

Strange to think how much the world of luxury travel has changed since Andrew Dunn, Scott Dunn’s founder, sent his first guests on holiday 30 years ago. Luxury, back in 1986, was so much more about being seen in the right places, being dressed in the right things, being surrounded by the right people – and the options were relatively limited. Those who could afford great holidays, says Andrew Dunn, “might ski in Gstaad and Chamonix in winter, summer in a clutch of haute hotels in the South of France and on the Amalfi Coast, and go on the odd safari in Kenya”. Luxury of the barefoot, chilled-out, low-key sort, he says, was yet to happen, “let alone luxe eco-tours or glamping in the snowy wilds of the Arctic”.

Some of the service we take for granted now was certainly not widely available, adds Lucia van der Post, founding editor of the <em>FT’s How to Spend It</em> magazine. “I remember seeing for the first time a man at the bottom of the slopes, in St. Moritz, who was there to take the skis off one of the Forbes family when he’d finished his run. That, to us, was an unspeakable luxury. Now, of course, that’s not unusual; that’s what a ski concierge does. The world is a different place.”

This difference is not just because air travel has become so much more accessible (last year more than three billion passengers took a flight) but because more people can now afford the finer things in life (Crédit Suisse estimates there are about 35 million millionaires in the world, and that the number will rise to 53 million by 2019). “Thirty years ago, the people taking really luxurious holidays were film stars, heads of state and the aristocracy,” van der Post adds. “Look at the guestbook of the Hôtel du Cap and it was people like Humphrey Bogart and Marc Chagall who stayed. Now you’ll see a total mix: footballers, restaurateurs, bankers…”

The democratisation of travel means not simply that there are more hotels, says John Beveridge, who has run Park Hyatt hotels for 33 years, but that people expect more from hotels. “As well as good food, fine bedlinen and fittings,” he says, “guests expect to go away with experiences, with memories. We’re like a theatre in which they play out their fantasies. Running a hotel now is all about emotionally connecting with guests.”

It’s not just the theatre that has changed, but the costumes worn in them, says Jim Petrus, global brand leader at St. Regis. “People used to dress up on vacation; at one time luxury hotels were where you put on your best clothes. Today that’s passé. People want to be comfortable. And they don’t care about being judged. You can see a guy in jeans and a hoodie in some of the finest restaurants in the world.”

The food offering has undergone a revolution, too. “When was the last time you heard ‘hotel dining room’?” Petrus asks. “Hotels don’t have a single dining room any more. They’re competing with outside restaurants, so they have to be creative, slick, well-managed spaces, with staff who are educated about where the ingredients come from, how the dish is made, which wines go with them. Fine dining used to be about pomp and circumstance; now it’s about being attuned to diners’ needs.”

It’s those needs that have changed the world of travel most profoundly, says Serge Dive, whose annual PURE travel trade shows bring together top travel operators from all over the globe. While some nationalities still aspire to be surrounded by glamour and gilt, he says, “increasing numbers are going out into the world to find a richer life. That doesn’t mean cars and fine suits; it means emotions and dreams. Because they’re realising that a rich life now means a life rich in experiences.”

While for some that might mean treks into the jungle and getting close to nature, for others it might be culturally immersive experiences or adventurous activities that expose them to a different world. “What people want, really, is to have stories to tell,” says Dive. “They want to be able to describe floating in a balloon over Cappadocia, or having a private food-tasting aboard a train to Machu Picchu, or cycling on a wine tour through Tuscany: things they’ve never experienced before. They want to take themselves out of their normal lives.”

What they also want, he says, is a chance to share the world with people they love. “Many travellers now don’t need more stuff; they need more time with their families, their friends, doing things they can talk about later.”

As privacy becomes ever more important in our busy, crowded world, travellers are increasingly looking for spaces where they can holiday in the style they want, with whom they want. That might be a yacht or a private island or a villa. Or it might be taking themselves out of their ordinary world into another extraordinary one in which they experience something such as a heli-picnic on a New Zealand glacier or dragon-spotting on the Komodo Islands, or even immerse themselves in a philanthropic cause, such as working with endangered species. “What people are beginning to understand,” says Dive, “is that in order to have a rich life you don’t need excess and indulgence. You just need time to realise how incomparably rich and varied the world is – and to experience and share it.”

When I think back on my own past three decades of extraordinary adventures since my first big journey at the age of 17, from Africa to the US, my memories are not of grand hotels or fine dining. They’re of driving the whole way across the States in a clapped-out car, swimming with manta rays in Indonesia, dancing under the stars with bushmen, riding a camel across the Sahara, sharing chai brewed over a fire in India. They’re of experiencing new cultures, exchanging smiles with foreign tribesmen, feeling that warm wash of happiness at being young, and lucky, and free.

I have a ritual every New Year’s Day: putting a new diary into my Filofax, and writing out on the front page a quotation from traveller Robert Louis Stevenson, as a spur to plan that year’s adventures: “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”

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