The promise of a luxury hotel has always been to deliver the best of everything — from services and atmosphere to rooms and amenities. But what guests expect from these top-tier properties is constantly changing. A new generation of well-heeled travellers is prioritizing intangible qualities, such as experience and authenticity, over material features such as choice bath amenities and eye-catching design.

From immersing guests in transformative locations to creating personalized itineraries, luxury hotels are adapting to the changing desires of affluent travellers and redefining what it means to offer guests the very best.

Today’s travellers seek authentic, local experiences and luxury hotels are finding new strategies for connecting with guests who want something more profound from their visit than beautiful accommodation. “Just having amenities is the price of entry in luxury,” says Don Cleary, president of Marriott Hotels of Canada. “What people are paying for now is to have deeply memorable experiences that leave lasting impressions.”

Cleary says each of Marriott’s eight luxury brands has a different approach to offering these meaningful moments. The St. Regis properties, for example, feature a series of “signature rituals” that take place at all of the brand’s locations around the world. While the rituals are similar at every property, each adds its own spin to convey a sense of place for guests. For example, every St. Regis property serves its own locally inspired take on the brand’s signature Bloody Mary cocktail.

St. Regis’ butler service is also a valuable part of creating personalized experiences, says Cleary. “People that love this brand look forward to that butler and make these connections with that butler.” Cleary says every guest is looking for something different, so Marriott’s luxury brands ultimately aim to offer a platform for guests to build their own ideal vacations.

“Travellers have become active participants in the trips that they’re taking,” says Cleary. “No longer is it just about luxury travel brands putting forth a specific experience and saying ‘come, everybody try these one or two things’ — it’s about allowing these people to create their own experiences.”

Andrew Shepherd, general manager at The Malcolm Hotel — a newly opened, four-star property in Canmore, Alta. — agrees it’s important to give guests space to personalize their experiences. “We realize that adventure to you or adventure to me may not be the same,” he explains. “To some people, adventure is climbing to the top of that mountain, but to others, adventure is taking a picture of that mountain from Main Street [in Canmore] while they have an ice-cream cone in their hand.”

For the luxury demographic, Shepherd says the goal is balancing these genuine, local experiences with the high-end comforts guests expect from a four- or five-star property. “[They’re] looking to get away, but still have the things that make their stay enjoyable,” he says. “They want to go walking and wandering and just get lost during the day; but they want to come back at night and be able to sit down to a 42-oz Tomahawk steak.”

Operators say standing out in the luxury-hotel market today means getting strategic about location. For Marriott, the number and diversity of its locations has helped establish the company’s position at the forefront of the luxury segment.

“The power of having eight brands in this space and the distribution we have allows people to gravitate to whichever brand is going to serve the purpose of that trip,” says Cleary. Regardless of the destination, a luxury traveller chooses across the country (and around the world), they’ll probably find a Marriott there, which goes a long way towards fostering brand loyalty among guests who appreciate the consistency of a trusted brand.

One of Marriott’s most recent major openings is the St. Regis Toronto — the company’s first St. Regis-branded property in Canada — which debuted in November 2018. The company also has additional properties in the pipeline, including JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District, which is slated to open this summer.

“Luxury is a big focus of our development efforts in Canada,” says Cleary, hinting at another yet-to-be-disclosed luxury property in the works for Toronto.

Location is also king for smaller luxury-hotel brands, but, rather than leveraging wide distribution as bigger chains such as Marriott can, they rely on their one-of-a-kind locations to draw visitors. This is true at The Josie Hotel, a four-star property located in B.C.’s Red Mountain Ski Resort, which launched in 2018.

The Josie is the only ski-in, ski-out property in the area (and one of the first new ski-in, ski-out properties to open in the province in almost a decade) and that gives the hotel a unique entry into the luxury market, says Will Farrow, general manager at The Josie. “The other options for lodging [in Red Mountain] are a hostel with single bedrooms or shared bedrooms with shared kitchen space, or condos,” says Farrow. “For someone who wants that high-level experience, we’re the only place to get it.”

Farrow also notes collaborating with local tourism boards and businesses is important for properties with location as a main selling point.

“Partnering with the destination is the biggest key a lot of people miss,” agrees Shepherd. “They build a beautiful destination and we put a beautiful hotel here, so it’s basically a partnership with the environment and with the tourism organization.”

Ingrid Jarrett, general manager and VP of Business Development for Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos, B.C., agrees partnerships are fundamental to success, particularly for seasonal properties looking to boost occupancy in the low season. “We promote the destination in partnership with all kinds of businesses in town to ensure there’s enough going on and enough things for people to do that they want to come to Osoyoos for the winter,” says Jarrett. “We work closely to develop that, so it’s successful for all of us.”

One such partnership is with Covert Farms. Together with the farm, the resort offers a tour called “A Culinary Journey through Canada’s Desert,” which gives guests a chance to spend the day touring the farm and learning about the region’s distinctive desert climate before returning to the resort’s restaurant for a farm-to-table dinner paired with local wines. “It’s a really immersive experience,” says Jarrett.

Ultimately, luxury travellers still want the high-thread-count sheets and posh on-site restaurants, but the properties making a real impact on guests (and turning first-time visitors into regulars) are also succeeding in delivering something more heartfelt. “Authenticity is absolutely everything,” says Shepherd. “Travellers want to peel back the layers of a destination and become local for that 48 hours or 72 hours [they stay with us].”

Cleary notes most luxury guests are looking for more than a chance to indulge and relax. The challenge for luxury hotels now is to cater to guests who expect a meaningful experience, rather than just a vacation. “Today, luxury travellers aren’t just travelling to discover the world; they’re also trying to discover something about themselves,” he adds.

Written by Jessica Huras


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