Today’s luxury traveller is far more interested in exclusive experiences than the square meterage of their hotel room. Sue van Winsen spoke to industry experts to find out what is driving this trend.

Luxury travel is booming. With an estimated 48% increase in global luxury travel, this segment is growing twice as fast as other types of travel, according to research released by ITB Berlin and IPK International. But, to tap into this ever-growing demand, it is vital that tourism suppliers and operators adapt their offering to the changing definition of luxury.

Dr Martin Buck, Messe Berlin’s Director of Travel & Logistics said: “Many travellers define luxury differently today to previously. Instead of magnificent hotel furnishings or so-called ‘bling-bling’, an experience that is priceless in its own way can be enormously valuable. Luxury today means unique experiences combined with the highest levels of comfort and individual services.”

The 2016 Virtuoso Luxe Report also pointed towards the changing definition of luxury. According to the results of its annual survey of elite advisers, the most sought-after experiences were those that allowed travellers to discover untouched, unique places, as well as those that provided the opportunity to cross items off their bucket list. Interestingly, the same report showed that South Africa was the top destination for luxury adventure travellers in 2016.

According to Chris Anagnostellis, Director of An African Anthology, the growing interest in experience and exclusivity is a result of increased competition in the luxury market, which has forced the industry to offer more value for money, exclusive offerings such as fine dining experiences and smaller bed numbers.

“At the same time, the travellers in the wealthy bracket have more disposable income and are looking for more privacy and exclusivity – and are prepared to pay more for a personal experience,” he adds. “Perhaps another very logical reason is that our exchange rates are extremely favourable to the inbound traveller, where their money goes a lot further than it did a few years back, allowing them to access better offerings and, in turn, properties capitalise on this opportunity. At the end of the day, everyone who is graded five-star has a wonderful offering and the only other way to differentiate is by offering an exclusive experience through innovative ideas,” adds Anagnostellis.

Suppliers get experiential

Tintswalo Lodge CEO, Lisa Goosen, agrees, and says the growing amount of information online has resulted in a more educated traveller who makes choices based on their specific needs and desires. She says Tintswalo has developed specific offerings to cater for this new breed of luxury traveller, such as children’s programmes for multi-generational groups, and activities such as guided walks through the Cape fynbos at Table Mountain National Park for guests staying at Tintswalo Atlantic.

The Fancourt in George has also opted to focus on introducing a greater degree of personalisation in its offering, particularly for guests staying at its boutique hotel, The Manor House. While the property is extremely luxurious, this is taken to the next level with its personal butler service, which provides tailor-made experiential suggestions to guests depending on their personal interests – from foodie tours of the Garden Route to escorted eco-rider tours around the Fancourt estate. 

Carl du Plessis, Head of Sales and Marketing for Kapama Private Game Reserve, says privacy and flexibility are also aspects to consider when dealing with luxury travellers. “At Kapama Karula, the need for privacy is met by offering private dining experiences for guests at their suite, facing the river where they may have the opportunity to sight some animals from their private deck, or in the winter months, enjoy meals in front of the gas fireplace in the suite.” He adds that other features that create a sense of privacy and flexibility include Karula’s private heated swimming pools and the option of private vehicles for guests with specific interests or for those who prefer not to stick to the usual game drive schedule.

Getting the balance right

US-based tour operator, Betty Jo Currie of Currie and Co. Travels Unlimited, says while there has been a growing demand for experiential luxury travel, it is a demographic her business has traditionally catered for over the last 20 years. “Botswana has captured this market beautifully, along with some properties in South Africa,” she says. “It is a discerning difference – experiences and exclusivity are key, and luxury within reason where it makes sense, but not to the degree that it seems contrived.” Instead, she says, the focus is on fewer people, more choice, better quality food and beverages and, most importantly, access to the finest guides and trackers. “This is what distinguishes one camp from another. Rather than decoration, one focuses on the overall experience.”

In terms of suppliers who are getting the balance right, Currie mentions Wilderness Safaris, The Royal Malewane and Singita. She says these properties’ habit of separating sides of the camp so that it feels more intimate is a smart move. “Smaller is always better and limiting numbers is a sure sign of luxury in the bush,” she adds, “as is focusing on the entire experience ensuring casual luxury and amazing wildlife.”