Beyond luxury, beyond experience: the new frontier of hotel differentiation

For more than a century the apex of hospitality was luxury. Ornate buildings. Gilded interiors. White glove service. The Waldorf New York. The Taj Palace Mumbai. Savoy London. Raffles Singapore. Ritz Paris. Only the best.

But then came the backlash. Luxury was stodgy. Luxury became a concept burdened by so much: culturally, politically, psychologically. Conspicuous consumption became the root of all evils – an opinion voiced by far more than just the Occupy movement.

Criticism is coming from an unexpected corner of the market: the rich, the taste makers, and even the Louis Vuitton Don himself, Kanye West. “My goal in lifestyle, in everyday life—to change the idea of what luxury is,” said West. “Because time is the only luxury…These brands …are somehow selling our esteem back to us through association….They want to make you feel like you less than who you really are.” [Time]



As the golden era of luxury began its decline, a new one was rising in the late 1990s. “Welcome to the emerging experience economy” – wrote Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in the July 1998 issue of Harvard Business Review.

An experience is not an amorphous construct; it is as real an offering as any service, good, or commodity. In today’s service economy, many companies simply wrap experiences around their traditional offerings to sell them better. To realize the full benefit of staging experiences, however, businesses must deliberately design engaging experiences that command a fee. …Unless companies want to be in a commoditized business, they will be compelled to upgrade their offerings to the next stage of economic value.

The tides changed. Distinctive, boutique, original, bespoke, tailor-made, popup – these are the labels of a new generation of hotels. But even these can become the mundane. So many hotels that constantly try to out-do each other with luxurious amenities, celebrity designers, more exclusive bars & clubs, lifestyle upgrades and EPIC experiences.

Diminishing returns eventually kick in for any experience. It’s harder and harder to out-do the next hospitality group or travel experience provider, and harder and harder to make the same “WOW” impression on someone as the bar gets set higher and higher in luxury or distinctive design.

While the “Experience Economy” is still very much in effect, a new frontier for distinguished hospitality seems to be emerging. Travelers who not only want to have more, not only want to experience more, but want to be more.


Chip Conley wrote about this in his must-read book for any hospitality professional, Peak. “Peak experiences create lasting impressions.”

Providing these can happen a number of ways, including:

(1) helping customers meet higher goals, (2) allowing customers to express themselves more fully through using this product or service, (3) connecting the customer with a larger cause, or (4) offering something completely different that the customer never imagined was available.

Using an example from his company:

Essentially, in making a purchase decision, our Hotel Vitale customer is sending a message to herself like “I’m not getting older, I’m getting better.”

Cayuga Collection founder Hans Pfister reflects on how the “new luxury” looks at his hotels and resorts:

…The real luxury is created by…the interactions with the local culture and people. Our guests comment that for them it is a luxury to be so close to wildlife, without disturbing their natural habitat and behavior.   They love experiencing the elements and spending time being active outdoors.  They love the connection created with our staff by participating in local soccer games or going fishing at the beach with them during their afternoon break.  They define luxury as eating fresh tropical fruit for breakfast, having fish tacos and a cold local beer for lunch while their bare feet touch the warm sand and taking part in a cooking lesson (preparing fresh ceviche) with the kitchen staff before dinner.

My wife and I were able to experience this first-hand on our recent trip to Costa Rica, where Cayuga’s approach to sustainability – moving far beyond hotels’ typical “we’ll-only-wash-your-towels-on-the-floor-to-save-water” – and towards creating a flourishing community through backing socio-cultural activities and financially supporting the wellbeing of people in the neighborhood and surrounding communities.

Cayuga works towards creating a flourishing community and surrounding area, but they also work towards the flourishing of their guests as people.

Their physical wellness.
Their sense of connection.
The sense of awe and wonder at the natural surroundings.
The sense of home.
The sense of belonging.
The sense of mental clarity.

…And that’s what I remember weeks, months, years after I stay there.

I’d like to see more hospitality and travel companies aim beyond luxury, beyond experience to setting the stage for a flourishing heart, mind, body and soul for their guests.

Fostering relationships, and acting as embassies of beauty and creativity in their neighborhoods. Facilitating personal breakthroughs. Acting as a catalyst for transformation that not only changes the travel experience, but changes me as a person long after I’ve left the hotel. That is something I will not be able to forget, because I am the one who has changed.

Remember, luxurious design and superior service are only one part of what your guest will experience during their stay on your property. The guest’s mental and physical state play an equal, if not larger, role in what they remember their encounter with your brand.

Luxurious privilege becomes hollow unless you feel nourished in your heart, soul, and mind. And that’s why investing in guest wellbeing is one of the smartest activities a hospitality company can do.

Let’s compete on making our guests better people, more in-tune and in-touch with themselves and their surroundings – and helping them thrive personally and we work to create thriving brands and businesses.

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Best regards,
Josiah Mackenzie