iTT addresses the luxury in the experience

Posted on Sep 1, 2013 | Comments Off on iTT addresses the luxury in the experience

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On Sunday September 1, Luxperience 2013 opened in Sydney, Australia’s Town Hall with a “Thought Leaders” evening. David McGonigal of iTravelTree was asked to present as the opening speaker –
his topic was “The Luxury in the Experience”.

Good evening. From Andrew’s introduction you may gather, I’ve been a travel writer/author and photographer for too many decades.

100 places to visit

In fact, a friend recently send me one of those Facebook quizzes on  “100 places to see before you die” –  and I had visited 90 – I’m either well travelled or ready to cark it.

My latest venture is a start-up called iTT. Basically, iTravelTree conducts a meta search of travel data filtered by your social preferences. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to “luxury” lately – the trend I see in luxury is to collect exotic experiences not things or famous hotels.

If you had asked my mum, she probably would have defined travel luxury as a grand old hotel – like Sydney’s Australia Hotel.

Marstrand-Island-in-Bohuslan-Photo-Lisa-Nestorson

I suspect Scandinavia may agree with her. While flying on SAS last month I read in the in-flight mag: “Marstrand has something that no new luxury resort can buy: dignity and soul”.

It was both a sweeping generalization and wrong. Marstrand may do it well but so do many new resorts. Brilliant architecture, environmental sensitivity and empathy with local residents lie at the heart of dignity and soul. Some go further:

D on ele

© David McGonigal

The Anantara Golden Triangle gives you a chance to be part of a care centre for mistreated Asiatic elephants. More on that later.

My last 18 months have been special as my wife Sandra, stepped down from running Rupert Murdoch’s Australian magazine division early last year and, after a lifetime of being tied to an office has finally had a chance to travel. We’ve been referring to it as her executive gap year. Seeing our industry through her eyes is enlightening. Fittings and service are a given – and only noted in their absence – but special moments like hugging a baby orang utan or being taught to cook Tiramisu by the head chef of the Villa San Michele are prized.

Galleria

* This is Milan’s Galleria Hotel – self proclaimed 7-stars

First can I say how I hate the attempt to add more stars – Dubai’s Burj al Arab started it and the Galleria has taken it further. I think the trend is in reverse: high degree of comfort is no longer limited to 5-star properties. Some 4-star resorts now offer a standard that would have been 5-star a decade ago. And why is it new hotels that think they might be 6 or 7 star: what about grand, established hotels like Monaco’s Hotel de Paris that could probably lay a better claim?

And, anyway, many of us would forego the front door being opened (or yet another chandelier) in exchange for free high-speed internet or the chance to make a cup of coffee and tea in the privacy of our room.

So what makes a property or travel experience truly special? There are three possibilities:

  1. The destination itself is enough
  2. The travel experience itself is enough
  3. The experience maximizes the location

1.       In some rare cases, the place itself is enough.

Simply being there is a luxury. And here I’m talking about discerning, experienced travellers. For the first timer in London, a dodgy hotel in Kensington might seem like paradise – it isn’t.

What’s a destination where the privilege is simply to be there?

Paro

  • Bhutan Paro Festival © David McGonigal

I was fortunate enough to go to Bhutan some 15 years ago. The food was terrible, the accommodation basic and the roads were shocking. But the richness of the culture – and its lack of cultural pollution from modern pop culture – left all of us, all very experienced Himalayan travellers, saying that we had found Paradise. And, then and now it wasn’t cheap.

But what’s the impossible dream? As a boy, I always thought I’d go to the moon but never thought I’d visit Antarctica.

Breaking Ice South of the Antarctic Circle DSC0727

  • Antarctica © David McGonigal

I now work in Antarctica as an expedition leader – I’ve been there more than 100 times and feel privileged every time. Passengers will pay the fare for a basic cabin on a Russian icebreaker that would give them five star accommodation for the same duration anywhere in Europe: $60,000 for two weeks.

The luxury to travel to Bhutan or into polar ice is at least as special as 5-star luxury.

Lunar

Space remains the ultimate travel destination and it looks like I won’t make it there. Space travel is coming but affordability might be a problem. Mike McDowell popularized Antarctica as a travel destination – and his Space Adventures have arranged all 8 people who have paid (a lot) to go into space.

Virgin Galactica

Virgin Galactica says it’ll have first flight on Christmas Day this year. Cost for 2.5 hr flight to 360,000 ft is $250,000. Not bad value for 110 km up.

This is the category where indulgence doesn’t correlate with luxury. There are people prepared to pay $1/4M to throw up in a capsule a long way from home.

2 What about creating the unusual? Manufacturing the whole experience from scratch?

castlebuilding

In the non-luxury market, it’s hard to go past Disneyland then DisneyWorld as places that create their own need. While you’d go to London or Paris regardless, would you go to Anaheim or Orlando without Walt’s worlds?

MONA

© David McGonigal

Closer to home – both in terms of location and audience – we have David Walsh’s MONA that has brought a whole new travel group to Hobart. When a gallery is talked more about in tourism stats than in the Arts pages you know it’s significant. Amazing and confronting, too.

Dubai

Creating something from nothing is hard. Yet that’s what Dubai has done – taken a small fishing village and turn it into the world’s hub of luxury hotels and shopping.

us on eles

© David McGonigal

I go back to the Anantara because it epitomizes the luxury in the experience. And it drew us to a place we wouldn’t have visited. We signed up for a three day mahout course – and we were allocated our own elephants for the duration. Having your own elephant is absolute luxury – coming to understand the likes and dislikes of this giant gentle creature was very special. We still dream of elephants.

Oasis

*Oasis of the Seas

The modern cruise industry has done it, too – created a huge growing industry out of nothing. Of course there were cruises before but ships were mainly a form of transport not entertainment.

Fat DuckFat Duck © David McGonigal

Then we have the modern phenomenon of food tourism. Perhaps it has always existed in a small way. nearly always directed towards France.

But now Noma has as much drawing power as the Little Mermaid, El Bulli rivals Sagrada Familia and The Fat Duck has put Bray UK on the map. Even in my suburb of Balmain, many hear the name and think Adriano Zumbo’s macarons.

When you are creating something from nothing, you are limited only by your imagination. Here luxury can be indulgence and the experience.

3      Finally we have the experience that works to enhance the location – the most common scenario

Cipriani

  • Cipriani Hotel © David McGonigal

Every company that delivers a travel product needs to be thinking “what next?” There was a time when just having been to the rim of the Grand Canyon was enough. Then people said “what next?” So now we can raft through it, hike to the bottom or walk out on a glass platform. Likewise, Sydney Harbour Bridgeclimb changed the bridge (and Sydney) from a static setting to an experience.

I experienced this first hand in Venice last year. Once it would have been enough to have Venice as my destination. And for luxury it’s hard to go past the legendary Hotel Cipriani. But then the Cipriani raised the stakes into the stratosphere – “come stay with us and kayak the canals of Venice.”

kayak Venice

© David McGonigal

This was luxury at all levels – the pampered indulgence of the hotel and the experiential indulgence of seeing Venice from my own kayak. I fondly remember the Cipriani – especially breakfast on Easter Sunday – but I’ll never forget paddling under the Rialto at sunset then turning to glide under the Bridge of Sighs.

It’s hard to up the arms race in hotel amenities. Better champagne – but when you get to Krug vs Dom, what’s next? Better beds? More service? If you want to stand out you have to think laterally and offer the unusual – as the Cipriani has done.

David Bowie

Luxury can simply be service. A great concierge is there to realize your dreams. A couple of weeks ago I was London for the day and wanted to see the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A but it was sold out. So we contacted Red Carnation Hotels where we had stayed the last couple of times we’ve been in London and Egerton House Hotel provided a couple of passes that they were offering their guests. They have our loyalty.

Summer Palace

  • Summer palace, St Petersburg © David McGonigal

The ultimate luxury is not more brocade but rather “Access All Areas”. So a cruise that features a private dinner in one of Catherine the Great’s palaces has special appeal. Or a Danube cruise that includes rare tickets to Oberammergau Passion Play. In Sydney you’d hope a hotel has some Springsteen tickets in a drawer. Think big – come to LA and we’ll take you to the Academy Awards. Who would say “no”?

Hugh Jackman

“Access All People” is a luxury for the sociable. I spent a weekend at Gwinganna Health Retreat when Hugh Jackman was there (he’s a part owner) and that’s been good for a few stories afterwards. The lesson I learned was don’t try to hold eye contact with any woman when Hugh is heaving himself out of the pool behind you. I always thought the ultimate would have been on the Antarctic cruise that had the reclusive Neil Armstrong on board.

&Beyond

There’s also the wonderful experience when the environment and the property perfectly interlink. I first discovered this in South Africa where game parks like &Beyond’s are luxurious but have strong links to not just wildlife conservation but also the local community. Luxury for visitors is feeling part of the place not a casual observer.

Turtle Island

Things change. Many years ago I was asked to give Bernie Eccleston suggestions for a tropical Australian resort with no expense spared. I suggested he go to Fiji instead. Places like Turtle Island gave a better experience because you are immersed in local culture while being treated royally. Australia has evolved – today I’d say to Bernie – have a look at the website of Luxury Lodges of Oz.

Southern Ocean Lodge

  • Southern Ocean Lodge

We’ve come a long way from the days when Australian tourism culture was a reflection of Crocodile Dundee.

Bulgari Bali

It’s predicted that more hotels and resorts will align themselves with luxury brands – think the Armani Hotel in Dubai, the Missoni Hotel in Kuwait and the Bulgari resort in Bali. I hear even Vogue is considering moving into the area. Of course, the name gives instant cut-through but I think it’s lazy.

Doing the hard yards to find a way to offer a unique experience that provides your property with an authentic, memorable life moment that ties to its location will result in enduring success.

Easter island

  • Easter Island © David McGonigal

A recent report  by the Adventure Travel Association and George Washington University  defined adventure travel as any trip that includes at least

2 of

a)    physical activity,

b)   interaction with nature, and

c)     cultural learning or exchange

It valued the industry at $US263 billion pa, with 65 per cent annual growth since 2009. There’s certainly money in experiential travel.

But, if I can distill a lifetime of travel into a few words – For me luxury is not about limos or five-star fittings and glamorous furnishings, it’s about taking time to create a memory that’s held in my heart and stands out among all others. In our privileged world we can always buy ‘luxury’ things but access and experience stands out as the ultimate luxury!

Hindu devotees travel on a crowded passenger train in Goverdhan

Sadly, there are a lot of ordinary travel experiences being sold. Exceptional ones stand out – from the time you hear about them to the moment you do them. It doesn’t have to be grand –

Cafe Tartufi

© David McGonigal

I smile when I think of Café Tartufo in Florence where we had perfect truffle paste rolls and good red wine for lunch on a rainy day – it was the perfect Florentine experience.

Bora Bora

© David McGonigal

It was a highlight as much as snorkeling with stingrays in Bora Bora lagoon or

Mig 21

flying a Mig 21 jet fighter as a paying guest of the Slovakian Airforce.

It’s no coincidence that it’s 2013 and we are here at an event called Luxperience. We’re in a Golden Age of Travel and you are at the cutting edge of it. Thanks for the experiences you offer – and the wonders that are yet to come.

If you have special vision – please come and tell me about it. Meanwhile, please “like” iTravelTree on Facebook or bookmark the webpage to follow us as we develop.

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