Today’s luxuries, for top-end travellers, are more about exclusive experience than pampering. It’s not that pampering is passé, it’s that it is taken as a given.
"The elements (of luxury travel) that five to 10 years ago were top-end are now expected," says George Cohen, MD of Johannesburg’s ultra-swanky boutique hotel The Saxon. "These people come from homes where they have butlers and chefs. What they want is more authentic, specialised, discrete and exclusive experiences".
While spending on material goods increased incrementally between 2005 and 2015, according to research from consumer trends agency Future Foundation, spending on experience outpaces this. That trend is expected to continue.
"The new era of luxury travel will be about having access to the most incredible, transient experiences money can buy, but only for a select few," tourism research and development company Amadeus reported in May. It operates in 195 countries.
"We design non-Googleable options," Luigi Bajona, partner at boutique Italian travel agency Onirikos, told Amadeus. "From a private gala dinner in Venice on the roof terrace of Peggy Guggenheim (art museum, in Venice) to a private visit to an excavation under the Vatican."
This is something the SA hospitality industry is also seeing. "It’s more and more about specialisation," says Cohen. "More and more important is that guests don’t want bling, they want authentic."
Given the rand’s weakness, and repeated tragedies in the northern hemisphere such as the attack in Nice, the coup attempt in Istanbul and the boiling over of racial conflict in the US, SA is looking good as a safe and affordable destination. SA Tourism says the overall increase in foreign tourist arrivals in SA was 28.9% overall for January-April 2016 against the same period in 2015. That figure for Europe was 15.4%, for North America 19.6%, for the Middle East 40.7%, and for the Indian Ocean islands 18.9%.
Of course, not all of these travellers have weighty wallets, but luxury travel is growing faster than overall travel, Amadeus reports. North America and Western Europe account for 64% of global outbound luxury trips, says Amadeus, which also reports luxury travel’s global compound annual growth rate of 4.5% from 2011-2015 "slightly exceeded" that of general travel (4.2%).
"Tourism in SA looks to be going up at a steady rate," says James Basson, general manager of the luxury Western Cape resort Bushmans Kloof, nestled in the Cederberg, north of Cape Town.
Outbound luxury travel, Amadeus predicts, will grow 6.2% globally over the next 10 years, way ahead of the projected 4.8% growth of all travel over that time. Between now and 2025 the number of luxury trips from Brazil, Russia, India and China will increase, the research company says.
Luxury travel from Eastern Europe, North America and Southeast Asia is also predicted to outpace overall travel.
Research from Amadeus and from the Intercontinental Hotel Group shows luxury travel is becoming increasingly bespoke, mostly because it can — technology is enhancing the speed at which a hotel or resort can tailor-make experiences and itineraries. This raises the expectation of what is possible.
"Curating something that appeals to them (guests) on a specific, personal level that goes above a traveller’s ‘norms’ is key to the next chapter of luxury travel," says Amadeus.
Says The Saxon’s Cohen: "People want you to deliver the unimaginable, or the perceived unthinkable."
Nicole Robinson, chief marketing officer of SA luxury travel company &Beyond, says: "Luxury for us is around the stories you tell when you get home." The company owns 35 luxury lodges and camps in Africa and India, and designs personalised luxury safaris and tours in 15 African countries and India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Chile and Argentina.
Increasingly guests want to participate in what would previously have gone on behind the scenes, says Robinson. For example, the company is involved in the Rhinos Without Borders campaign to move some of SA’s rhino population, under threat from poaching, to other countries.
"We’ve had a lot of interest," says Robinson. "Guests want to be involved in moving the rhinos — it’s the luxury of being able to do something others are not able to do."
Then there’s the increasing ubiquitousness of technology, on the one hand a boon to travellers, on the other a source of stress, especially for the kind of people able to afford luxury travel. It can be tricky working out when to provide it. Basson says guests enjoy the fact there is no cellphone reception at Bushmans Kloof, and that there is WiFi only in the bar area, because they can choose when to be connected.
"What’s interesting for us," says Robinson, "is that our lodges are often in very, very remote places. It is very expensive to provide WiFi access, but the expectation is that at our rates we should provide it. We would prefer it if our guests just switched off to relax properly."
Some resorts are adding technology to rooms, for example providing in-room iPads that allow a guest to communicate desires — a techno-butler, as it were.
Another growing trend is multigenerational travel.
Families are time-poor, and the hiatus from busy lives that travel offers means people are using it as time to reconnect with loved ones.
"In the past in the safari industry people wanted no kids," says Robinson. "But probably for the past 10 years or so we’ve seen multigenerational groups. The grandparents are bringing their kids, and their grandchildren."
The far future of luxury travel, according to Fortune 500 futurist Faith Popcorn — who has a documented 95% accuracy rate — looks very techie. She speaks of 2086, when guests will "be able to design spaces specifically tailored to their personal aesthetics and needs" using holographic wall art, and of different wings or rooms in hotels that will use virtual reality to "offer guests a taste of cultural experiences from different corners of the world".
But Popcorn, who also predicts hotels partnering with fashion brands to bring guests in-room wardrobes, punched out by a 3D-printer, returns to the dominant theme to emerge from all the research. "Luxury as we know it today," she says, "will become so accessible that consumers will seek more extreme and unattainable experiences".
Technology also means end-to-end luxury is increasingly expected — because travellers can be tracked.
"The importance of the Internet is key for the luxury goods and travel industry. High-end agents understand how essential it is to map out all stages of the traveller’s journey — before, during and after the experience," says Alison Gilmore, director of International Luxury Travel Market, a portfolio of global, regional and specialist luxury "travel events".
"Mobile technology is also playing an increasingly important role in the personalisation of luxury travel journeys for travellers from all over the world."
Africa’s time is now, says Gilmore.
"Africa is proving to be the growth story of the 21st century — the variety of beautiful locations available to the luxury traveller throughout the continent is huge. As more hotels are developed, this story of success for African tourism is only going to continue.
"Now is the time for the African luxury travel industry to connect with the world’s best international Africa specialist agents."