by Jonathan Vatner | October 01, 2006

Luxury.It’s a descriptor so overused in the hospitality industry, by all rights it should have lost its meaning years ago. When every steak, pillowcase and miniature bottle of shampoo in the United States is being called luxury, it must be time for a new term.

Yet the word persists -- and travelers still seem to recognize the difference. Consider these statistics: In the first six months of 2006, the average daily rate for luxury chain hotels in the United States was $271.68, fully 80 percent higher than the $151.28 average of the upper-upscale market segment, according to Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research. That luxury rate is up 9 percent from the year prior, and occupancy is up a few points, as well, to 72.3 percent. Clearly, individuals and corporations are willing to pay a premium for the luxury experience.

Those who can afford luxury, however, require more than just a pleasant stay. The needs of these travelers -- including attendees seeking a topflight experience outside the meeting room -- are the most exacting of any, which means luxury brands that want to thrive among strong competition must also work constantly to improve their product. M&C spoke with some of the youngest, smartest luxury travel brands around -- along with meeting planners who appreciate what they offer -- to find out what luxury is and where it’s headed.

One&Only Resorts

Henriette AttardThis exclusive chain is known for its small, celebrity-friendly properties all around the world. Henriette Attard (right), director, group and incentive sales, was hired in 2004 to sell to the meetings and incentives market, to prove to customers that the company is serious about groups. Up next for the chain is One&Only Capetown, to open in 2008 in founder Sol Kerzner’s home country of South Africa. The resort, designed by Adam Tihany, will feature 130 guest rooms and three meeting rooms.

M&C: What defines a luxury meeting?

Attard: I think it really is all about the service levels and exceeding the expectations of the guest. It’s not just about the meeting itself -- it’s the complete experience: having a successful meeting, followed by a superb meal by a celebrity chef, and a butler who packs your bags so you can enjoy a last-minute swim. It’s about attention to detail. At One&Only Palmilla [in Los Cabos, Mexico], when the butler unpacks for you, he matches the sewing kit to the colors of your clothes.

M&C: How is luxury different today from what it was 10 years ago?

Attard: Luxury is no longer about big chandeliers and marble. Modern-day luxuries are time, space and privacy. Luxury is more about creating moments.

M&C: How is the group market for you?

Attard: It’s very healthy and buoyant. We’ve seen a huge increase in our groups globally in the past couple of years. Our market mix for groups is 11 percent, whereas it was probably only 3 or 4 percent a few years ago. And 2007 looks to be one of our best years yet.

M&C: Where are U.S. groups going?

Attard: Our clients are becoming more adventurous. They’re looking for something different, something that sets them apart from their competition. People are spreading their wings just a little bit farther, which we’re delighted about.

M&C: From which sectors do you realize the most business?

Attard: Automotive is very strong for us, because they do a lot to incentivize their dealers, and the financial sectors as well, especially private banking. But the market sectors we attract are really quite varied.

M&C: Does the hotel brand matter to the luxury meeting?

Attard: The brand is very important to people because it gives them reassurance; even though all the resorts are very different, they know what to expect in terms of service and experience. I think a trend we’re seeing is that the resorts themselves have become destinations in their own right. For example, we have a lot of clients who choose to hold an event at One&Only Le Touessrok [in Mauritius] instead of first choosing Mauritius. People actually go to the hotel regardless of where it is in the world.