STAMFORD, Connecticut—Luxury travelers are an eclectic bunch, with preferences and tastes on all ends of the spectrum. But for all their differences, there are a few common elements on which they almost unanimously agree, according The Luxury Collection’s Paul James.
First, they demand excellence. Whether checking in, dining at a property’s in-house restaurant or returning back to their guestrooms after days of fun and sun, luxury travelers tolerate only the best during their stays.
Those expectations have always been there, although they’ve intensified somewhat as consumers became more value-conscious during the downturn, said James, who serves as global brand leader for the 80-asset portfolio in Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide’s high-end brand.
What’s changed, however, is the guest’s search for authenticity.
For a lot of upper-end assets, luxury was defined by the conspicuous thumbprint of trendy designers or hip, often-distracting trends. But today, guests want to experience historic properties as they once were, James said.
It’s something he and his team at the Luxury Collection learned as they surveyed travelers before beginning renovations on some signature properties across Europe.
“The response—whether it was the 25-year-old whiz kid or the 65-year-old art collector—was do as little as possible,” James said. “Keep the authentic art. Keep the authentic furniture.”
Of the 80 hotels in The Luxury Collection portfolio, Starwood manages nearly 50% and owns approximately 10%. The company declined to share specific numbers.
The experiential traveler
Part of what makes The Luxury Collection special are those authentic and unique touches at each hotel, James said. What first began as a small group of luxury properties in 1906 under the Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi name has emerged as a dynamic collection of high-end assets with different looks throughout the world.
Starwood plans to open nine properties by year end (see sidebar), four of which have already opened. With the exception of two hotels opening or re-opening in Spain, the majority of the focus during 2012 will be in the Asia/Pacific. The Luxury Collection will welcome three hotels in China, two in Australia, one in India and one in Indonesia.
Expansion is both strategic and organic, James said. Company management might target specific regions or cities in which they want to be represented, and its company representatives on the ground will scout potential additions.
But other opportunities emerge without a specific directive. The Asia leadership team, for example, might learn about a top-tier asset opening and suggest it as an addition.
However the growth comes about, James is adamant about two things. First, The Luxury Collection draws strength from the quality of its assets, and thus it never grows for the sake of growth. (The brand averages about 10% growth per annum.) Second, each and every asset must offer an immersive experience for guests.
“They want to really have an experience,” James said. It’s no longer just about a luxurious room or stay. Guests want to learn about the hotel, its history and the culture surrounding it.
It goes back to that demand for authenticity, he said. And it’s why Starwood is spending time and resources trying to better understand the various settings and locales of each asset. The resulting insight is being packaged into Destination Guides designed to teach guests about the surrounding culture, history, cuisine and noteworthy destination and excursions.
That effort is paying off, James said. Guest satisfaction at The Luxury Collection has remained consistently high during the past years, and performance bounced back quickly from the recession.
The year 2011 was “our best occupancy year since 2007 last year across the portfolio, which was fantastic,” James said. The collection also ranks consistently above its competitive sets in revenue-per-available-room penetration.
Of the brand’s success and pace of expansion, James said, “I see no reason why we can’t continue like that.”