How to Keep Up With the Always-Changing Definition of "Luxury"

We indulge ourselves differently these days. Many of the things we once wanted no longer hold appeal.

This is especially true of our desires when we travel. Thomas Kochs, the new managing director of Corinthia Hotel London, has seen that trend evolve over the past few years. He says that bottle of expensive wine and rare caviar that once spelled “luxury” could now be replaced by a single glass of fabulous wine, poured by the actual winemaker as he explains the story behind the vintage. And that caviar? Today’s guest might prefer to sample product raised in a sustainable manner that doesn’t harm the fish, Kochs said.

Ruthanne Terrero

I asked three luxury travel advisors how they’ve seen the meaning of indulgence change. We caught up with Kay Merrill of Are We There Yet Adventures as she arrived in Paris, a city known for indulgences on many levels. “We all used to come here for the best wines, Michelin Star restaurants and shopping for expensive couture,” Kay told me. She says that of course, Paris still offers all that but her clients now want more active experiences and simpler food. Case in point: Kay’s guide brought a picnic lunch to her hotel, which happened to be the luxurious Plaza Athénée. “We had fresh sheep’s milk cheese, a baguette, sliced carrots and humus, and of course, a little Champagne,” Kay said. “We spoke about this very thing — she has a couple new full-day tours around Paris where clients bike with a private guide. They start with breakfast in a traditional bakery — they make croissants and then eat them. They bike around on cobbled streets to have lunch or go to their choice of museums. Then, they may go to see the artisans she has access to in their studios or have a Renaissance history tour or one on whatever their interest is.”

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We caught up with Jim Strong of Strong Travel just as he and his wife, Kay, were enjoying a healthy retreat vacation at Rancho Valencia near San Diego. He said his clients’ perception of indulgence is all about spending to ease their way through the crowds and airport craziness. “This is done via VIP services, using the backdoors and private SUVs that drive directly to the plane, and all the way up to the use of expensive private jets,” says Jim. 

His clients are seeking smaller boutique hotels, he says, and fully staffed villas, and they’re even opting for a host to travel with them from beginning to end to deal with drivers and transfers, to ensure they get the best tables at restaurants and, in some cases, to handle tasks like retrieving lost cellphones. So ultimately, what’s their true indulgence? 

“They’re looking for a truly seamless experience,” Jim told me.

John Clifford of International Travel Management reports that some of his clients have opted to sell their million-dollar vacation homes and use that money for a travel budget for their retired years. “Their real indulgence is having the opportunity to visit multiple destinations vs. the same one year-after-year,” John said. 

Clients are also seeking boutique hotels that can handle just a handful of couples. John calls this new breed of uber-small and uber-exclusive, new properties (such as Single Thread Farms in Healdsburg, CA), “microtique” hotels.

“Exclusivity is the new luxury; mass-luxury is old-school,” said John, who offered some sage advice. 

“Indulgence is very personal, so it’s important to really get to know your clients and create long-term relationships by asking questions like, ‘What are you passionate about?’ ‘What is your unfulfilled travel dream?’ and, ‘What is your ultimate destination and why?’”

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