The New Luxury

written by | Posted on May 1st, 2011

Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, Bangkok image

Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, Bangkok

After the beginning of the global economic and meeting industry challenges in late 2008, we heard from many industry leaders that we were entering the dawning of a “New Normal,” which demanded more responsible spending and empirical measurement of a group program’s goals.

So we were curious what the “New Luxury” looks like, and where you can find it. As the economy continues to rebound, more corporations are freeing up budgets for incentives and offsite meetings at more and more upscale hotels and resorts. The reasons are plenty, ranging from increased profits to growing concerns about employee retention.

Except, the word “Luxury” still has a bit of stigma attached to it, as if no one wants to come out and say: “Look, I’ve worked my bloody bottom off, and I want my French champagne, foie gras and truffles, and I want it sooner than later.”

“It’s almost like ‘luxury’ isn’t even mentioned in the conversation anymore; nobody’s targeting luxury, if you will,”

says Jim Schultenover, President of the international DMC group, Global Events Partners, and its sister Krisam Hotel Group.

“But, they are looking for the biggest impact and return for dollars spent—that is absolutely the case. So there’s this sensibility of: Let’s look at the cost but let’s roll that up in the total value. And also, let’s look at the goals of the group, which ultimately gets to the ROI of any program.”

So let’s see if we have this right. The focus is on overall value, and if a luxury property helps best achieve a group’s goals, and it adds up on the balance sheet, then it’s full steam ahead with the booking?

“Exactly. We came into 2011 with 47% more business on the books than 2010—that’s the hotel side—and 20% higher with the DMCs,” says Schultenover. “This portion of travel has become even more powerful and desirable because people have been concerned for their jobs the last couple of years, and they haven’t been able to travel. But now companies are realizing, hey, we need to take care of our people and customers.”

So what is the trend with luxury product sales now, versus ‘08 and ‘09?

“Excess is out. People absolutely want to make an impact but the over-the-top stuff is gone. Don’t even bring that into the discussion. But that doesn’t mean there’s no creativity or pampering. People are just going without the big room gifts and lavish dinners and shows, and golf and spa—every day. You know, they’re no longer trying to cram everything in there.”

Where do you see rates going, Jim?

“We’re on a little bit of a collision course with rates because space is tightening up, and as soon as space tightens up, rates go up. And it doesn’t mean we’re out of it yet, but heading into late 2011, if there’s no other major crisis in the world, rates are going to start to firm up. We’re hearing from our members in Vegas, Arizona, Southern California, Florida and places like Atlantis, that the booking pace is very strong and fewer and fewer peak season patterns are available…. The key resort areas are leading the way out of the recession.”

Where are you seeing strong bookings internationally?

“For early 2011, France is number one. Singapore, Dubai and South America are growing, and Western Canada, African safaris and Turkey are doing well too. And Spain was right up there last year…. Except now, instead of hotels in these places going from $600 to $200 in off-season, they’re dropping to, say, $275-$325.”

STARWOOD LUXE BANGKOK

After interviewing literally hundreds of hoteliers and DMCs every year, the one big trend we keep hearing about to add value to high-end, customized group programs is: “Experiential Travel.” This can mean anything from booking the new crop of designer properties like W Hotels to properties situated in exotic destinations with a wide array of group tours, like those within the Starwood Luxury Collection.

“Starwood’s luxury brands continue to see great opportunity for growth both within emerging markets and more established destinations, such as Europe and the U.S.,” says Paul James, Global Brand Leader of The Luxury Collection & St. Regis Hotels & Resorts. “In fact, 70% of our pipeline for St. Regis and The Luxury Collection is in emerging markets because they are the fastest growing luxury markets…. The Luxury Collection offers a gateway to the world’s most enriching and desirable destinations.”

For example, floors of local marble, yards of gleaming Thai silk, and sprays of fresh orchids set the tone at the 420-room Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, located in Bangkok’s fashionable entertainment district close to downtown.

Following last year’s brief skirmishes in the spring, Bangkok is now offering some of the best deals in Southeast Asia, combined with a slew of cultural experiences within easy access of Sukhumvit’s front doors.

“Certainly the hotel endured some challenging times during the civil unrest in the second quarter of 2010,” says GM Richard Chapman. “It has taken almost a year for group business to return. However, business travelers began returning before the end of last year.”

Chapman adds that pricing is lower than 2008 and 2009, although that has as much to do with a wide array of new room product coming online in the last couple years.

Another selling point, he says, are two of Bangkok’s hottest restaurants located in the Sheraton. Major props to 110-seat basil, the award-winning venue where planners can organize Thai cooking lessons taught by hotel chefs. Or, groups can conduct business in one of three private dining rooms seating 20, while sharing dishes like Pla Krapong Sam Rod: deep fried seabass with sweet, sour and chili sauces. For Western palates, the 90-seat Rossini’s serves formal Italian cuisine. The steamed swordfish with crispy pancetta looks good. And for more casual dining but no less dramatic, the 120-seat Sala is a local favorite with a poolside setting in a lush tropical garden filled with bright florals and Thai statuary.

“Groups love our downtown location, our oversized rooms—some of the city’s largest—and our efforts to ensure an exceptional local experience,” says Chapman. “We emphasize the cultural atmosphere, from authentic Thai furnishings to our award-winning cuisine and streetside tuk-tuks (Bangkok’s ubiquitous 3-wheeled transportation)…. Our Grande Spa’s indulgent Thai massages and facials have built up our remarkable returnee rate, and the swimming pool is simply an oasis.”

Grande Sukhumvit earns its biz hotel chops with over 18,000 sf of meeting space among eight rooms, and all the personalized service planners can ask for. What’s more, the property is a quick trip from the major convention centers, which attendees can access via the aforementioned tuk-tuks.

“Limos are always available, and we’re directly linked to the clean, safe SkyTrain and other mass transit, but guests love the tuk-tuks waiting outside to whisk them away,” says Chapman.

A few of the highlights include: Grand Palace—a complex containing beautiful royal buildings and the temple of Wat Phra Kaeo—Bangkok’s most important historical site. There’s also the 35-acre Chatuchak Weekend Market for an incredible local experience shopping for handcrafts, exquisite fabrics and Thai antiques. Check out the Jim Thompson House museum showcasing the American who was instrumental in creating the global Thai silk industry. Lastly, the Vimanmek Mansion is the largest teak structure in the world, blending both Victorian and classic Thai architecture.

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JW Marriott Cairo

JW MARRIOTT CAIRO

The ancient, always magical nation of Egypt is undergoing a massive political metamorphosis following the recent overthrow of the government. Naturally, the major players within Cairo’s business infrastructure are actively trying to woo groups back to the capital with some incredible group rates this year.

Nestled inside a gated community seven minutes from the airport, the 436-room JW Marriott Cairo prides itself on stress-free business events with their 30,000-sf exhibition area, 19 meeting rooms and spacious banqueting ballrooms. The gated environment and location go a long way to creating a blissful meeting experience that provides both quietude and quick access to the business and leisure attractions.

Furthermore, group rates have been reduced by 20% through the fall. Pricing starts at $120 plus tax.

“Most of the activity in January and early February centered in and near Tahir Square,” explains June Farrell, VP, International Public Relations for JW Marriott. “There was relative calm in and around the rest of Cairo and definitely in the posh neighborhood where the JW Marriott Cairo is located.” (June points out that the Cairo Marriott in the Zamalek area was similarly unfazed by the protests.)

Regarded as the region’s best convention hotel, the property boasts a 30,000-sf exhibition area, 19 meeting rooms and spacious banqueting ballrooms. The jewel here is the newly renovated, 2,200-pax pillar-free Tutankhamun ballroom, divisible into three sections. One of the largest such spaces in Cairo, Tutankhamun opens out to an outdoor reception area.

“We are your only address for business success in Cairo, 10 minutes away from city center to keep our 5-star serenity, and yet close enough to be thoroughly Cairene,” says Marketing Manager Yasmine Sheri. “We blend personalized business service with sumptuous relaxation—lots of sunlight and golf, a massive spa, a man-made beach and truly restful rooms.”

Meanwhile, the 160-seat Mirage Café is encircled by floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the championship golf course and lovingly landscaped lakes.

Sheri explains, “For us, luxury is simple elegance where guests feel welcome, pampered, and comfortable to be themselves. No detail is too small to overlook. We orchestrate experiences that reflect our surroundings and suit each guest.”

No one goes to Cairo without visiting the ancient pyramids, and JW’s staff provides free transport and English guides. They also provide rides to the beloved old Silk Road caravan stop, Khan el-Kalili, bustling with vendors of spices, fabrics, carvings, and papyrus. Tourists and locals here gather at cafes to sip Arabic coffee as the world passes by.

INTERCONTINENTAL LATIN AMERICA

Just outside the cosmopolitan capital of Buenos Aires, the 4,000-acre Nordelta community is Argentina’s largest real estate project, located 20 miles from the city center. This gated development is dedicated to health and well-being, set inside high-end, starchitect-designed residences surrounded by wooded lawns and large lakes.

This June, the 140-room InterContinental Nordelta Buenos Aires Hotel & Spa brings a 5-star hospitality touch to the luxuriant landscape. The property also includes 225 residences ranging from 800-1,900 sf, a spa and fitness centre, and indoor/outdoor swimming pools. Six meeting rooms will host a capacity of 600 delegates.

Agent provocateur of hotel design, Philippe Starck put together the overall interior decor vision. The Jack Nicklaus golf course is ranked second nationally. And there’s a full-service marina where groups can charter large yachts.

“We’re located in one of the country’s most affluent and protected neighborhoods,” says Roberto Brizuela, Director of Marketing/Sales, “and the surroundings are beautiful, like a water-bound sanctuary…. This is the new luxury: to have direct access to the river so guests can arrive via sailboat or yacht, making it the only hotel in Argentina with a marina and dock space.”

Foodies are excited too.

“Another element in our definition of luxury is ingredient-oriented cooking at our 100-seat restaurant Root, which selects only the very best products from the region.” Root has two 10-seat private areas, one solely for tapas and wine soirees.

InterContinental is also on the move in South America. In 2013, one of the oldest cities in the Americas will welcome the new 280-room InterContinental Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia. Location is beachfront on the nightclub/shopping street, San Martin Avenue, just two miles from the historic walled Old City. Full of grand churches and wonderful colonial fortresses, Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1533.

The hotel is an anchor of a 215,000-sf mixed-use project that includes a luxury casino, upscale retail, movie theaters and restaurants. The property itself will include more than 16,000 sf of meeting space, as well as a spa, fitness center and restaurants and bars.

ST. REGIS DEER VALUE

Park City’s sports tradition began in the 1920s when silver prospectors rode mining cars to the mountaintops and then skied down the virgin slopes. The silver’s gone now, and in its stead are three distinct mountain resorts, of which Deer Valley is regularly voted the best in North America.

Two years ago, The St. Regis Deer Valley opened with the purpose of satisfying both the hardcore skiier, outdoor adventurer and the staunchest demands for refined service, cuisine and amenities. Of the 181 accommodations, over a third are suites.

Groups have cheered the Rocky Mountain panorama, 8,000-bottle Wine Vault, 14,000-sf spa, and the year-round infinity pool on the new “ski beach” outdoor venue where groups can gather for private events and celebrations. A swanky Swiss-built funicular runs from base camp to hotel. And the five eateries are winning raves. Fondue dinners at Jean-Georges’ 160-seat J&G Grill have been described as “epic” in the local papers.

“Park City is the Aspen of Utah, and we offer the first ski-in, ski-out luxury brand property,” says Carmen Martin, Director of Sales. “We offer great attention to detail throughout from thread count to slopeside views. So for us, luxury is bespoke service that’s not contrived or formal.”

Here’s the big value if a group’s dates are flexible: Off-season rates are up to 70% off high-season, starting at $199 nightly.

“Park City isn’t known for anything but ski season, so we provide real value in summer and fall because the demand isn’t there—yet,” says Martin. She explains that the spring to fall seasons bring arts and music festivals, fantastic river fishing, 380+ miles of mountain trails, and scenic chairlift rides up the mountain for exquisite slopeside lunches.

“Basically your program is built in,” she says.

For meetings and events, there’s 8,500-sf of indoor function space. For teambuilding and recreation, there are seven nearby golf courses (the dry air that makes the snow so fluffy here helps golf balls soar too). We like the fantasy training camp at Olympic Park, built for the 2002 games. In warm weather months, meeting professionals can create events revolving around the 70 mph Summer Comet Bobsled.

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Mission Inn Hotel & Spa

HILTON ANATOLE DALLAS

Things are looking up at the 1,606-room Hilton Anatole Dallas, and so are guests. Its 110-ft high glass atrium now features a new 5-ton floating sculpture made of 10 miles of aircraft cable and 4,500 amber crystals. The kinetic “cluster of stars” is the cherry atop last year’s $125 million renovation.

For culture buffs, Nebula is just a star amid a galaxy of art located throughout the hotel—the largest art collection in any American property.

“The Nebula has received both international press and sightseers,” boasts Jay Best, Director of Sales/Marketing. “We wanted a park-like setting for guests and it worked. People gather around the reflecting pool and hang out on cell phones and laptops; it’s like a town square.”

Located on 45 acres just north of downtown, most of the property’s five restaurants and seven lounges are arranged around the atrium. A current hotspot in town, the 265-pax Media Bar is an LED-lit, high-tech fantasia featuring an i-Bar, ginormous flat-screen TVs, and a Saturday Night Fever-style interactive dance floor. Up on the 27th floor, the panoramic 170-seat Nana Restaurant is winning national kudos for cuisine. Planners love its five private dining rooms with the largest seating 55.

Outside, among the koi ponds, tennis courts and jogging trails, there’s a regulation croquet court and 7-acre sculpture park. Even the meeting rooms are dressed out with fine art.

“Dallas prides itself on being a great business destination, and the Anatole has 344,000 square feet of meeting space—the most of any hotel in the Southwest. That includes eight ballrooms ranging from 4,500 to 45,000 square feet.”

MISSION INN HOTEL & SPA

Delighted by secret passages, mission-style cupolas, and 4-foot doors to nowhere? Check out the 239-room Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, a rambling castle-like hotel that’s one of California’s most dramatic National Historic Landmarks. For luxury lovers, this 4-diamond resort, comprising a city block in Riverside, specializes in the kind of comfort that movie stars and Presidents (nine, at last count) prefer.

“Guests love our hidden steps, winding hallways, terraces, courtyards and mysterious doors,” says owner Kelly Roberts. “Planners love our nine distinctive, flexible meeting spaces totaling 20,000 square feet for 10 to 310. And the art treasures!”

Mission Inn could practically be considered a museum. Try meetings in the 2,700-sf music room, the underground catacombs, a Tiffany-windowed Galleria, a Spanish Art Gallery with over 100 paintings, or the Ho-O-Kan Room featuring an 8-foot, 18th century gold and lacquer Buddha.

For wining and dining, a jazz lounge and four restaurants include the Inland Empire’s only 4-diamond eatery, Duane’s Prime Steaks & Seafood.

Kelly’s naturally proud of Kelly’s Spa, with hand-picked treatments, baths and wellness programs designed for a “personal Renaissance.” She’s added two mini Tuscan villas to the 12 treatment rooms for ultimate pampering. Meanwhile, daughter Casey Reinhardt (former reality star of Laguna Beach) runs Casey’s Cupcakes. Since her win on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, expect a bit of a line. Better yet, schedule a sweet tooth teambuilding event: Cupcake Decorating Parties.

HOLLYWOOD ROOSEVELT

In 1936 in the penthouse of Los Angeles’ luxurious 300-room Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, rising star Clark Gable and down-to-earth starlet Carole Lombard began a secret affair that would transform into one of the most beloved relationships in film studio history. Gable’s stardom was about to explode with the debut of Gone With the Wind when he was still married to oil heiress and socialite Rhea Langham. Three years later, the clandestine couple eloped and the hotel’s star was born.

Today, the 300-room Hollywood Roosevelt, A Thompson Hotel celebrates the golden era of cinema by preserving these chunks of Hollywood history. Groups can book the gorgeous 3,000-sf Gable & Lombard Penthouse, fitting 200 pax for elegant receptions. The highlight of this jaw-dropping suite is the open-air rooftop, resting at the foot of the hotel’s original red neon sign with glittery vistas of Tinseltown.

Across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Roosevelt recently underwent a major multi-million dollar renovation. Cool venues for groups include 60 updated poolside Cabanas, one of which Marilyn Monroe lived in for several months at the start of her career.

There are also three new haute F&B spaces favored by a smattering of local celebrities.

Public Kitchen & Bar serves New American cuisine and hooch crafted by Executive Chef Tim Goodell. Gargantuan, black walnut tables and cabernet leather booths complement the Spanish Colonial architecture. The brass chandeliers anchored by the hotel’s original 1927 ceiling fresco were saved, melding old-time beauty with the modern menu.

The Spare Room is a tricked out gaming parlor with two vintage bowling lanes, a custom-built backgammon table and secret black-and-white photo booth. So lots of fun networking opportunities to keep groups entertained as they sip on cocktail concoctions from “Punch Bowls.” These huge glass goblets are served with small glasses and a ladle for sharing.

Yes, it may be a stretch but you could call that teambuilding.

Beacher’s Madhouse is a Vaudeville-inspired theater where you immediately feel like a Prohibition era socialite, blessed with the privilege to indulge in some giggle water. The scarlet red theater’s entrance is low-key, hidden behind a library bookcase. And the 3,000-sf venue showcases a 1920s repro main stage with red velvet curtains and antique brass accents. Groups will marvel at the live acts that range from burlesque dancers to fire breathers and contortionists suspended in air.

BATTLE HOUSE HOTEL

Built in 1852, the original Battle House Hotel was the finest hotel south of New York. Rising from the site of Andrew Jackson’s camp during the War of 1812, it has since relished its place in local and American history. After thorough renovations and a reopening in 2007, the 238-room Battle House Renaissance Hotel & Spa features guestrooms that are twice as large, an outdoor rooftop pool, tennis court, driving range and 30,000 sf of meeting space.

The architectural lines celebrate Southern graciousness and grandeur. The lobby is capped with a show-stopping Tiffany dome above whispering arches, and there are many trompe l’oeil paintings and fine reproduction furniture pieces spread throughout this most welcoming 4-diamond hotel.

“We are once again the ‘Living Room of Mobile,’” says VP of Sales, Kevin Hellmich, “which is both popular with locals and crucial to visitors for meetings, conferences and Mardi Gras.”

Mardi Gras? Kevin explains that American Mardi Gras started in Mobile, and citizens know how to do it up.

“The Battle House balcony, which is available for rental for 100-person groups, is a choice place to get bling from passing floats,” he says. For those who miss the celebration, the nearby Carnival Museum featuring scepters, masks, robes and floats can be rented for special events.

For fine dining, the 90-seat Trellis Room Restaurant was recently awarded 4-diamond status. How does caramelized day boat scallops with mushroom risotto and white truffle oil grab you? The Mardi Gras-themed, 70-seat Joe Cain Café hosts live Gulf Coast bands.

And whether this is “new” or “old” luxury, we’re not sure, but it’s luxuriating all the same. The 10,000-sf Renaissance Spa has been ranked by some in the spa industry as one of the top five “must-do spas” in the country. There are eight spa rooms with a fire pit in the center of the aptly named Quiet Room.

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