Blame it on Affluenza!

The world is in the grip of a luxury ‘fever’, the movers and shakers at ILTM 2004 tell SHAFQUAT ALI
Grand Amiri Suite at Ritz-Carlton, Doha

IT’S too late. Affluenza has spread its tentacles throughout the world, leaving in its wake a new band of “uberluxurious”.

But the good news is that no one’s complaining. Whether it’s the customer – who is clearly king – or the people in the hospitality and travel industry who make it all happen, everyone is keen to be in the business of buying and selling fantasies.
Hardly surprising then, there’s no cure for affluenza. The point is: the more you get, the more you want. Hotels are becoming more and more hi-tech, airplanes are becoming homes in the skies and, generally, everyone is clamouring for a piece of the luxury cake – with icing et al!
And, if you please, that’s straight from the mouth of movers and shakers of the luxury travel industry, who once again descended at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France, for the third edition of the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) last month.
“If anything the phenomenal growth of the show – after a dramatic second year growth of 75 per cent, the 2004 event recorded a 66 per cent increase in stand space sold and exhibitor number – proves that the world of luxury is growing at a rapid pace,” says Serge Dive, ILTM’s CEO. “This growth represents the industry trend as a whole to compete for the top end of the market. Luxury travel is an industry in its own right. It has a $90 billion market – this is 50 per cent more than all the luxury goods industries put together.”
Dive is right. By all accounts, this industry is growing so fast that it has forced luxury goods companies like Armani, Bvlgari, Cerruti, Versace, Ferragamo, Shiseido, Guerlain and Ralph Lauren to move into the hospitality business. And all that because they have realised that, in terms of consumption patterns, the rich and famous and everybody else in between are craving for an “experience”.
“In keeping with the growing demand for experience tourism, a number of companies are now entering into the space and gravity free market and, at ILTM for example, we have the first products offering Siberian Safari,” adds David Hammond, managing director, ILTM. 
“People who understand money spend in luxury,” points out Gregory Furman, executive director and chairman, The Luxury Marketing Council. “And, for most, luxury is aspiring for something that nobody has. For the luxury market, the sky is the limit as people are thinking of going to all sorts of places where no one has been before to spend a holiday.”
Travel then, as a lifestyle experience, is not only emerging as one of the most glamorised businesses but also among the most profitable. Not surprising then that the ILTM 2004 was busier than ever with more than 2,400 delegates hobnobbing with the best in the luxury industry – it covered every aspect of the industry, including space travel, Antarctic and sub-aqua travel, in addition to the most luxurious hotel, safari, cruise, train, and aviation products – and exchanging ideas or striking deals during the course of the 25,000-odd pre-scheduled appointments that were arranged.
ILTM, which has been managed like a private club since the participants are handpicked and there is even a “black list” of undesirable companies or individuals, is becoming the ultimate meeting for the crème de le crème of the luxury industry. Since potential attendees are carefully targeted and wooed, the show’s organisers play matchmaker between the invited and the prestigious industry suppliers they’ve lined up and keep a watchful eye to ensure attendees keep their appointments with suppliers – going as far as to reprimanding agents who don’t keep their appointments and warning them that they may not be invited the next time around!
Moving on, Dive would like to further evolve ILTM into something more than an exhibition. “I want ILTM to develop into a real festival, where the best in the luxury industry can not only come and strike deals but also have great time with the best parties and fashion shows and what have you,” he says.
It’s true that luxury spending in the world has been growing four times faster than overall spending and the best part is that this necessary consumption of the unnecessary is cutting across all but the lowest layers of society! Not only are the rich growing richer but the middle-class now boasts an increasing spending power to match their aspirations – thanks to a host of factors like easy finance, loyalty programmes and, that magical piece of plastic that has done away with the proverbial divide between the haves and the have-nots: The Credit Card!
“What we see today is a merging of fashion and travel or, what I call, the democratisation of luxury,” says Jean Marie Healy, vice-president, Strategic Partnerships US Leisure Travel Division, American Express. “In other words, clients who may not be able to buy Bvlgari jewellery can now go and stay in a Bvlgari hotel and enjoy the experience of being associated with that brand.”
Adds David McDonald, marketing director, Air Partner Plc: “One should never underestimate the spending power of nameless people – many of our clients are people who we had never heard of before but they turned out to be the biggest spenders.” And these big spenders also have ‘big demands’, which people like Richard Sitomer, CEO and founder of Blue Jets, go all out to satisfy. “I believe in giving my customers whatever it is that they want,” he says. “Not only do we offer them a luxury jet but from putting masseurs onboard to serving lobsters and caviar to booking limos and hotels, we take care of all their needs.”
Still, there are certain things that money can’t buy. Quality service, for instance. That’s something that all major hotel chains in the world are selling but, more than the hi-tech facilities, the wifis and the glass-and-concrete towers, they have now woken up to the fact that it’s the human element that keeps the guests coming back. A happy employee means a happy guest. And a memorable experience!
Concurs David Crowl, vice-president, sales and marketing, Europe Middle East and Africa, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. “Service is the key. Especially as customers are becoming increasingly aware and sophisticated and they understand what quality is all about. Most times, they are looking for authentic experience and service from the heart. Not surprising then that there times some of us go to mediocre restaurants simply because they offer great service. Since the customer is the most person in the hospitality industry, we should do everything possible to give him the recognition that is due to him. And, at Four Seasons, we know what it takes to keep customers happy.”
Crowl should know. Take, for example, my first meeting with him in Dubai. Despite the fact that he had spent the better part of the day at the airport, he took the effort to go up to his room to get his business card for me before settling down for lunch. Needless to say, that meant a lot to me and reinstated the fact you will always know when a gesture is coming from the heart.
“What money hotels do is very easy to copy,” explains Georgia Kirsner, vice-president, travel industry sales, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. “Certainly physical products – rooms, linens, facilities, etc. – are very easy to copy. But the one thing it is more difficult to emulate is the service and the attitude – that has to come from the top and that has to be a very integral part of the organisation. Some people spend a lot of money in building a good property and they don’t invest in the human element. They fail to realise that the human element in the hotel is what distinguishes a good hotel from a not so good one. The thing to remember is that good service never goes out of style.” She couldn’t be more right.