Arguably, luxury is not what it was 30 years ago. Back then, it was easy to define and characterize luxury by comfort, pleasure, culinary delicacies, hyper-attentive service and travel to remote destinations. Those elements serve as a foundation for today’s luxury travel, whose centerpiece is authentic and adventurous experiences.
“We understand the importance of thread count. But that’s almost a given with us. We’re not afraid to go beyond that at times to create a better experience,” says Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent. “We think about the experience first. Sometimes on the private jet trips, we might stay at a place that isn’t a five-star hotel – like a hotel in Papua New Guinea – because of the experience of being with native Papua New Guineans.”
For today’s luxury traveler, authentic experiences trump opulence and comfort. “We are finding that clients really want to have the experience of living like a local, so in Cape Town we are taking them away from the waterfront more and more so they can be located in neighborhoods close to local eateries and smaller shops, rather than in a tourist area,” says Karin Jones, president of Anastasia’s Africa, “Luxury is no longer just about creature comforts. Now luxury means having things just the way you want them.”
And what do people want? Adventure, of course. Travel has always been about adventure. “Adventure is an expected component of any program,” says John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours. “It has been that way since organized tourism has been with us, and will continue for the foreseeable future.”
It’s easy to understand why adventure plays such an important role in luxury vacations. “Anyone who has experienced Wadi Rum on horseback, looked a leopard in the eye just a yard away in Kruger National Park or felt the breeze on one’s face on a two-wheeled discovery in Taiwan cycling through the Taroko Gorge will tell you that these kinds of adventures are priceless, rich with experience and those most sought after,” says Laudie Hanou, vice president of SITA World Tours. Tour operators say they have learned that what their customers want most is authentic experiences. They want to experience a destination deeply, taking in its natural beauty, historical richness and culture, and local residents.
“Authentic experience is the new luxury,” says Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours. “Travelers are looking for something that challenges them, such as abseiling Table Mountain or taking a bicycle tour in Sydney.”
Today’s luxury traveler is looking to the tour operator to provide the greatest adventure possible at the destination, and each operator is competing to meet that demand.
Luxury travel is not only for the affluent these days. Travelers with moderate incomes also want to live like kings on their vacations.
Trafalgar, a mainstream tour operator, learned from its market research that the greatest luxury is to have a unique experience at the destination. “The most common thread I hear about why people travel today is that they want bragging rights,” says Gavin Tollman, CEO of Trafalgar. “They want to come home and tell everyone about things they did [and be able to say], ‘I went to the same destination you did but I did something you never did.’”
As luxury has pervaded all economic levels of the travel industry, adventure too is an essential component of all travel packages.
“Adventure travel has definitely gone upscale. Agents are coming to us with requests from their clients for adventure activities like hiking, caving, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and ziplining,” says Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations. “But they also want lots of creature comforts, especially in their accommodations and dining. So we’ve been adding more luxury properties and gourmet options in destinations where previously travelers used to rough it.”
While luxury operators have had to amp up the adventure component of their trips, adventure operators have learned that they have to increase the luxury element in their tours.
“This is a trend we have been seeing building for quite some time. We are working diligently to increase our commitment to offer a balance of luxury, adventure and value,” says Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “We have looked at all of our existing trips and continue to make slight adjustments to improve the creature comforts. Things like making sure we have the best rooms at every property are a must, or looking for the perfect table in the perfect restaurant is another example.”
Today, luxury is all about adventure – and an authentic experience is the greatest adventure of all.