Simply the best: the new definition of luxury travel

Echo Base, White Desert. Best Luxury Travel
Echo Base, White Desert

What determines the ‘best’, and what does the term mean when it comes to modern luxury travel?

What makes a cruise company, a tour group operator, a lodge, a destination or an airline the ‘best’? On semantics alone, the word ‘best’ can be a rather arbitrary term that varies depending on perception. One traveller’s idea of ‘the best’ may vary greatly from the next person, even among those of similar demographics and interests.

At the highest and best levels of luxury, they all have in common exceptional service, staff who come to understand your preferences and treat you like family, quality and varied food and beverage options, sourced sustainably, and great locations (either centrally in cities or in magical, remote destinations).

Reputable and well-researched awards are helpful in identifying ‘the best’, with experts recognising standout operators as judged according to a key set of criteria.

Luxury Travel started its annual Gold List awards in 2005. Readers voted their favourites and certain commonalities among the winners would consistently emerge. Quite simply, people gave their gold ‘seal of approval’ to luxury travel brands that over-delivered on their promise, and which left them with valued memories and wanting to repeat interactions with the brand — whether in the air, on land or on water.

As we prepare to relaunch our Luxury Travel Gold List awards in 2023, there is no question that, since 2005, the definition of ‘best’ has evolved. And just as travellers around the world haven’t simply picked up where they left off in early 2020, it would be naïve of us at the publication to pretend that the definition of luxury travel is the same as it was a mere three years ago. The world has — and while the collective love of travel hasn’t wavered, the act of travelling is now considered more a privilege than a right.

Shifting perceptions about luxury travel

There’s never been a greater awareness that the joy we take from travelling cannot, and should not, come at the expense of journeying responsibly in the regions we visit.

In September 2022, I attended the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) Asia Pacific, in Singapore. At the event, Portfolio Director of ILTM, Alison Gilmore, shared the results of a survey conducted by affluent research specialists Altiant, taken from 500 wealthy APAC travellers from six countries.

Some 31 per cent of the luxury travellers surveyed said that sustainability/environmental protection is important in their travel considerations, while 48 per cent are planning to take more sustainable/eco-friendly trips in the future.

Around 50 per cent of the travellers surveyed said they were looking to fly less often and stay longer in a destination and take holidays that last longer than one week (45 per cent).

The survey showed 50 per cent prefer longer holidays with an emphasis on slow, recuperative travel versus only 19 per cent in favour of fast, whistlestop breaks.  Almost half prefer holidays to new venues/experiences (48 per cent), trips that are single-destination (43 per cent) and which enable exploration of the local area (40 per cent).

Luxury in action

Gilt finishes, white gloves, and sleek surfaces no longer own the patent or encapsulate the full expression of what luxury travel is. The modern ‘gold standard’ for the ‘best’ in luxury travel is now about so much more.

As Jean-Christophe Moreux, Regional Director of Sales and Marketing Asia from Belmond Hotels & Resorts said at ITLM: “Doing is the post-pandemic definition of luxury.”

The best luxury travel moments allow us the freedom to be able to explore — or be excused, if only for a little while, from our daily responsibilities. Luxury can be a spatial consideration, whether that’s internal space in terms of literal square metres; or wide, open plains where borders and boundaries don’t apply. For some, the best luxury travel moments involve the seclusion and secrecy that comes with being off the beaten track and deliberately off-grid but relaxed in the knowledge you’re in safe hands.

The best luxury travel design, of either a physical, built structure or a tour itinerary, is seamless and has a logical flow. There are no jarring encounters, and everything has been meticulously and carefully considered long before the first customer interaction.

Indeed, modern luxury travel is about genuine and authentic connection points. The best experiences, stays, and itineraries are those that allow the culturally curious traveller to explore the provenance, culture, and stories behind the places they visit — including the local communities and Indigenous people who call them home.

Attention to detail

At the new 161-room Hotel the Mitsui, Kyoto, located opposite a World Heritage-listed site, stands the Kajiimiya Gate, built in 1703. During the hotel planning, the team decided that the gate, relocated to this site in 1935, should remain here and serve as the entrance to the new hotel. The project team engaged a group of specialist shrine and temple restoration craftspeople who carefully dismantled the gate into more than 1000 pieces and, blending old techniques with new, work was completed to restore the gate to be structurally sound and in its best condition in decades. When construction work on the hotel site began, drills bore down more than 1000 metres to uncover a natural, hot spring source. Guests at the hotel can now enjoy the restorative properties of natural, thermal waters — including from the privacy of their own luxurious Onsen Suite.

Exclusive experiences

The rarity of an experience, by nature of its exclusivity, can rate it as ‘the best’. Take, for example, Echo, the newest camp by South African operators, White Desert, which launched in December 2022. There may certainly be much warmer climes and more ‘luxurious’ accommodations to stay on Earth, but these six futuristic, heated sky pods, inspired by astronauts and the age of space exploration, will sit on the stark white terrain of Antarctica for a limited season.

Up to 12 guests staying at Echo will have exclusive access to the rarely seen, or trodden, interior of the continent and its endless daylight, reached by a five-hour flight from Cape Town. White Desert’s seven-day flagship South Pole and Emperors itinerary, priced at US$104,000 per person (inclusive of private jet flights to and from Antarctica), is hosted by a team of chefs and high mountain expert guides ready to take guests to a nearby emperor penguin colony, or on a bucket-list journey to the South Pole.

Sustainably focused operators emerging as the best

The best sustainable operators do more than actively reduce their carbon footprints. They also work to regenerate and positively contribute to their local communities in constructive ways, which could be in the form of land or marine conservation or programs that support local artists or infrastructure. Luxury travellers don’t want to just be passive observers anymore, they are willing to actively participate in activities that genuinely make a difference.

A 2022 Sustainability Survey conducted by the global travel network, Virtuoso, polled 300 luxury travellers in May 2022, and more than 80 per cent of respondents said the pandemic has made them want to travel more responsibly. Some 75 per cent said they were willing to pay more to travel responsibly if there is transparency over how funds are being used.

Around 78 per cent believed that it’s important to choose travel companies that have a strong sustainability policy.

From boutique to large-scale players, the standout luxury travel brands and operators are addressing customer sustainability concerns in meaningful and measurable ways.

“Sustainability is the new luxury,” said Tristan Dowell, Global Vice President, Luxury Lifestyle and Leisure Sales, Hyatt Hotels at ILTM. In 2021, Hyatt Hotels launched its World of Care program, a global environmental, social, and governance platform that is working to address the full spectrum of sustainable tourism, including diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Similarly, Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) launched its Considerate Collection in 2021, a portfolio of environmentally conscious properties. Participating hotels have been hand-picked for achieving the highest categories of SLH’s Sustainability Criteria and Pillars, in alignment with the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) as well as Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) framework.

In their words

We asked leading luxury travel experts for their definition of modern luxury travel.

Hayley Bailie, Founder and Creative Director
Baillie Lodges

“To me, ‘modern luxury’ is about experiencing a pristine natural environment with the ones you love, complete with a gin and tonic as a bonus at sunset.”

Fiona Dalton, General Manager Australia and New Zealand

“The traveller mindset defines luxury travel: quality is essential, but we’re really in the “how did you make me feel business”— couple this with the knowledge that high-net-worth travellers value more immersive, more purposeful, and more experiential travel than ever before, and you’ll be in sync with how we view modern luxury travel today.”

Brent Hill, CEO
Tourism Fiji

“In a world as busy as the one we live in, and increasingly in large urban cities, modern luxury to me is the ability to really truly, switch off and enjoy the natural environment around us, and appreciate the beauty of slowed down time — while also having the convenience and simplicity of luxury surroundings. For me, I feel like I’m surrounded by luxury on a daily basis in Fiji — it offers a slower pace of life, relaxation, luxurious touches, and true happiness in stunning surroundings — what more can you really want in life!?”

Penny Rafferty, Executive Chair
Luxury Lodges of Australia

“Modern luxury travel is… all about that element of exclusivity of access — to place, nature, people, knowledge — that generates real connection and an understanding of the privilege of being in that place.”

Sarah Derry, CEO
Accor Pacific

“Markers of modern luxury travel include superb guest service, meticulous attention to detail, and access to highly desirable experiences and amenities. Our modern luxury five-star properties are distinctive with thoughtful design, comfort, and excellence.”

Bas Bosschieter, CEO
Captain’s Choice

“For myself and our team at Captain’s Choice, modern luxury travel will always be about the union of exceptional customer service matched with experiences and modes of travel that guests can’t access themselves.”

Sonu Shivdasani, CEO

“At Soneva we believe that luxury is defined as something that is rare or uncommon for the consumer, it is something novel and authentic, and something that strikes a chord in one’s heart when it is experienced. Our Slow Life (Sustainable – Local – Organic – Wellness – Learning – Inspiring – Fun – Experiences) philosophy aims to create unforgettable, enlightening experiences for our guests that illuminate and enrich their lives while treading lightly on the earth.”

Sarina Bratton AM, Chairman Asia Pacific

“It is about unique, enriching, and tailored experiences that stay with you forever; the idea of seeking intimate, remote explorations in pristine wilderness destinations that inspire you to protect the precious world we inhabit.”

Debra Fox, Managing Director ­– Tour Operations
Abercrombie & Kent

“Modern luxury travel is the ability to invest time to discover a destination in-depth, with privileged and private access to those ‘little black book’ places and experiences that feature on a meticulously curated bespoke journey.”

Tom Rowntree, Global Vice-President for Luxury Brands
IHG Hotels & Resorts

“Luxury modern travel incorporates inspiring design, hyper-personalised service and experiences with intention, and meaningful and transformative experiences, influenced by the ever-changing tastes and desires of the luxury traveller.”

Vlad Doronin, Chairman and CEO

“Modern luxury travel is offering guests the service and remarkable experiences in exceptional locations enabling them to make long-lasting memories and moments of connection which will stay with them for a long time. Ultimately, at a luxury price point, guests want to know their money has been well spent and they feel happy and fulfilled, appreciating the value of the experience.”

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