Luxury is at a discount today," says Ashish Jakhanwala, MD and CEO of SAMHI Hotels, when you ask him what is the top trend in luxury hospitality.
For luxury hospitality chains, as if battling price pressures was not enough, a host of other disruptors are conspiring to give them nightmares.
Airbnb, for one. The home sharing website which sent budget hotels in a tizzy, has now encroached into the luxury apartment space too. Now it's the turn of the five star hotel chains to start worrying.
Just trawl through Airbnb's luxury home stays and you will find at least 300 luxurious apartments in Paris. From spectacular hilltop villas in Italy to historical corner lofts in New York's happening Manhattan district there is top-notch accommodation available for around e1,000 in Europe or $1,500 in the US. Posh hotels have a reason to take fright. For, one big trend in travel today is the way the luxe consumer is increasingly experimenting with staying in private villas. Add to that, today, it is the era of the conscious traveller who wants to go eco-friendly, try new experiences and is tired of the same five-star drill.
So what are the hospitality majors doing? Well, they have no choice but to reinvent themselves and so hotels are building private zones for their uber luxe guest in the new developments coming up. And creating some unforgettable experiences to hook the traveller.
"The design of the luxury resorts is building more privacy in accommodation," says Dilip Puri, Managing Director, Starwood India. He describes how in Maldives the chain's top brand, St. Regis, is coming up with villas that are built completely private. In India, he says, they are in talks with a developer in Lonavala near Mumbai to create branded residences for the well-heeled.
Down south, hospitality and tourism veteran Jose Dominic of the CGH Earth Group has come up with a radical new offering - a one-key hotel in Kerala. Chittoor Kottaram, the tiny palace that the Rajah of Cochin, Rama Verma, built for himself in order to be close to the Guruvayur Temple is now converted into a hotel. But only for one family. Chittoor can accommodate just six people. There are lots of dos and don'ts for guests booking into the property. They need to enter barefoot and stay that way. The menu is rather sparse - only one item a day. And yet people book a stay in this unique hotel where the promise is you will be treated like a Kerala king only for the sheer novelty of the experience.
"The luxury traveller is not only financially capable but is also a global citizen, design savvy, tech savvy, a foodie and constantly looking for new and unique experiences. This segment will continue to command and drive change the world over," says Umar Tramboo, MD of Pinnacle Resorts, which has created the rather exotic boutique hotel Khyber Himalayan Resorts and Spa in the ski town of Gulmarg.
EXPERIENCES SELL: The product matters but it's the experiences that are a lure, feels Umar Tramboo of Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa (left), an uber luxe getaway in Gulmarg that rides on its skiing and spa experiences
The demographics of the luxury traveller is undeniably changing. More millennials now can afford five-star stays, and their tastes and needs are different. For them, says Puri, the traditional offering does not suffice. That's why, he says, when the St. Regis opens in Mumbai (it's expected to launch in September), the chain will be investing in a lot of rituals. The Bloody Mary was invented at the St. Regis in New York, so the hotel has made it a tradition to play up its connection with the cocktail and offer a local version at every city it is in.
At the Khyber, an elaborate tarami - a Kashmiri feast served at weddings - is one of the big experiences for guests staying here. At the tea zone - Chaikash - guests can taste local saffron tea looking at the mountain ranges.
"Guests appreciate some authentic experiences from the location woven into their stay," says Puri, describing how increasingly chains will place local artefacts in the room, encouraging guests to visit the craftsperson.
Epicurean journeys delving into a region's heritage are also big-selling items in most five-star hotels today in India. So in Delhi the luxe chains will take you on food trails to Old Delhi or curate special recipes from there.
At ITC hotels, the chain has taken enormous pains to make sure that the food served mimics the cuisine of the region. So the Grand Chola in Chennai will go all out to serve Chettinad and other cuisines.
Starwood's Puri talks about even arranging dinners at local homes of celebrities - say a Bollywood star in Mumbai or a socialite. "Eat at a local's house" is a big trend to hook travellers. *Ratti Dhodapkar, Abercrombie and Kent's MD for India, also says that when they arrange bookings for foreign travellers to the country, requests often pour in to arrange a dinner at home with a local celebrity.
Riding on Well-being
VYING WITH VILLAS: Hospitality majors now compete with private homes and villas as the rich increasingly crave the home setting
Most luxury properties are changing their positioning to capture the market for well-being - which is one of the fastest growing drivers in travel. Says Tramboo: "People are now travelling around the world to pursue activities that enhance their overall well-being, thus seeking authentic experiences like spa, wellness treatment or rejuvenation."
This is why Khyber has invested in a gigantic spa wing and tied up with global brand L'Occitane. With three single treatment rooms and two couple suites, each with its own private steam chamber, the spa aims to bring to life the invigorating climate of Gulmarg. But in terms of size, it can't match the sprawling Kaya Kalp spa at the ITC Grand Bharat where an entire floor of the main building, spread over 32,000 sq. ft. is given to well-being. At the ITC Grand Chola it is spread over 22,000 sq. ft.
Interestingly, it's not a uniform experience at all the ITC hotels. The effort is to introduce indigenous therapies for indigenous regions. So at the Chola the treatment will be more from the southern traditions, while at the Maratha it draws on local treatments. And significantly, ITC, has a Swasthya (healthy) menu for guests who book their wellness packages.
Chains are getting really innovative when it comes to well-being. Starwood's Westin chain for instance is experimenting with a running concierge to accompany guests who like to go jogging.
Almost every hotel chain has woken up to the power of digital, especially social media. So blogger outreach, pictures on Instagram, contests on Twitter are all becoming ways of engaging travellers. Ankur Bhatia, Executive Director, Bird Group, and the man behind the luxurious urban resort Dusit Devarana, describes how a picture of a sculpture at the property posted by a guest on Instagram got someone in New York interested in the property. Puri describes how Le Meridien is using the social network actively. "We send a photographer to an exotic location and build up the destination through Instagram," he says.
The hotel chains are undeniably thinking out of the box today - the only question is will they be able to keep pace with the consumer?
*An earlier version of this story carried the spelling of Ratti Dhodapkar incorrectly.