Sector: Luxury: Travel Weekly

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Next year is expected to be another year of booming growth and evolution for luxury as travelers of all ages seek out the adventure, the local, the unique, the personal and transformative experiences that have come to define today's upscale travel.

It's an evolution that has been ongoing now for some time, forcing hoteliers and luxury travel companies to continue raising the bar not just on the physical products but on service and experiences.

And it's working. Luxury travel continues to lead the sector's growth as consumers increasingly report their intention to spend on travel and experiences more than on things, with quality and customization being key elements in their decision-making.

Virtuoso member hotel bookings were up 29% in 2018 over 2017. Cruise bookings were up 13%, tours 10%. Advance bookings for 2019 are up, as well, with Virtuoso reporting a 15% increase for cruises and a 9% rise for tours.

And while all the same buzzwords are driving today's luxury travel growth, most agree that the overriding theme for 2019 will be personalization.

"Everything is being customized, and I mean everything," said JoAnn Kurtz-Ahlers, owner of Hidden Doorways, a luxury travel consultancy.

Indeed, Virtuoso has defined 2019 as the year of "ultrapersonalized travel," noting that its latest adviser survey showed clients are seeking a deeper level of personalization and one-of-a-kind experiences.

"From specific seat numbers on planes and hotel room numbers to particular rental car types, travelers are more vocal about their precise preferences," Virtuoso stated in a news release about the report. "Nothing is left to chance, as increasingly clients ask for prearranged meals and appointments. They are seeking not just restaurant reservations but exact tables at in-demand hot spots as well as preordering wine to accompany the meal. They also ask their advisers to book hairdressers, massage therapists, even tattoo artists."

A survey of travelers conducted for Virtuoso by YouGov also showed that 80% will spend more on a brand that customizes products for them.

The Four Seasons Resort Maldives Landaa Giraavaru offers ayurvedic retreats.
The Four Seasons Resort Maldives Landaa Giraavaru offers ayurvedic retreats. Photo Credit: Ken Seet/Four Seasons Resort

Travelers are also increasingly looking for more unique local experiences at every level, whether that's a private tour of a museum or designer shop or special passes to concerts or sporting events.

In other words, luxury travel companies can no longer offer just a room and a plane ride; they must be prepared to provide top-level experiences.

But not every experience has to involve high-dollar add-ons. For example, AccorHotels' luxury brands have been making a concerted effort to include local experiences throughout the hotel stay, said Chris Cahill, CEO of Accor's luxury hotels portfolio. One example: The Lobby Lounge at the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver has been converted into a venue for local musicians.

When it comes to luxury hotels, old is also becoming new. Properties like the Savoy in London and the Peninsula in Hong Kong are bustling with life as travelers stay or just stop in for tea or a drink to experience their one-of-a-kind lobbies and personalities.

In 2019, another icon, the Raffles Singapore, got an extensive renovation, and Hilton insists plans are on track for reopening the Waldorf Astoria New York in the next year or two.

That "old is new" theme is also evident in lists of top global destinations for 2019. The Virtuoso top five, for example, is led by the classics of Italy and France, followed by South Africa, the U.S. and Iceland. Italy is the top millennial destination. Top cities are Paris, Rome and New York.

Wellness continues to play a huge role in luxury travel, and there are no signs that will change. Spas are no longer just spas. The Four Seasons Resort Maldives Landaa Giraavaru, for example, offers ayurvedic retreats and special master sessions with visiting gurus.

Six Senses, one of the early leaders in wellness tourism, is looking beyond its Asian roots to South America, where CEO Neil Jacobs said the company has "begun to dabble" in programs built on traditional Amazonian energy medicine.

Developing the programs, Jacobs said, will take a while, because like everything else in luxury today, "wellness can't be about a template; it has to be very individual."

Building on wellness, girlfriend trips are also taking on a new meaning as luxury tour operators partner with renowned female artists, authors and experts to lead small groups.

The growing interest in theme and culturally immersive itineraries might also be driving increased interest in river cruising. Two recent reports from AAA and Virtuoso identify river cruising as a top new trend for Luxury Travelers.