The Outlook for Luxury Travel Through COVID-19 and Beyond

By Julien Surget  

As we approach the one-year mark since the COVID-19 pandemic began, hospitality leaders everywhere are reflecting on how the industry has pivoted to meet new standards and consumer behaviors, and whether or not the changes will linger long-term.

Luxury travel in particular provides an interesting glance into how the expectations and intentions for guests who are willing and able to plan trips in 2021 have evolved through the last year. In a way, the pandemic simply sped up what was already on the horizon, and now is the time to adapt if you haven’t already.

Remember the Purpose
Right now, the purpose of travel is heavily centered around making up for lost time or milestones that were missed, celebrating togetherness for those that have been separated and escaping from day-to-day mundanities. Despite a collective eagerness to get back to regular vacations, the fear of being exposed to an environment that may not be wholly clean or safe has been an undeniable limitation.

Luxury clientele have the means and resources to travel safely, so the drive for them boils down to that purpose, which as of late has shifted to provide deeper, more personal meaning. They know that an elevated experience can still be achieved and they are prepared to pay the price knowing the hotel will have the means to do things correctly. With that in mind, it is our responsibility to establish and execute a collection of best practices for sanitation and social distancing that not only meets, but exceeds these demands to ensure that purpose can be fulfilled.

Take It a Step Beyond the Standard
In response to enhanced cleanliness protocols, it seems that the industry’s general consensus so far has been to take the human element out of the guest experience entirely. We’ve seen this elsewhere through the implementation of QR codes in restaurants and rooms, digital room keys only, the elimination of valet and turn-down services, so on and so forth.

The disconnect is that guests still want the wholesome, world-class offering they’re accustomed to, but in a way that’s appropriate for the time, so the challenge is to reconcile the intersection between utilitarian and elegance. The goal shouldn’t be to minimize touch points, it should be to reinterpret the existing touchpoints with sanitation perceived in a different manner.

A number of thoughtful efforts have been made at Amangiri to ensure these new standards are met in a way that still adheres to the personalized “arrive as a guest, leave as a friend” environment we’ve worked tirelessly to cultivate. Prior to the pandemic, everyday cleaning services or housekeeping would never be publicly visible, but that has totally shifted. “Housekeeping Theater”—or the open sanitization of restaurant menus, cars being valeted, common areas, etc.—is crucial now for reassuring guests of our commitment to them, so we’ve made those processes more observable. Where generic, common-use hand sanitizer bottles would typically be found, lemon sage-scented cactus displays that are more on brand with the rest of the property are accessible instead. To keep as many elements in use as possible, the common areas at the Aman Spa like the hot tub, jacuzzi and steam room have been privatized, and the main restaurant’s menus are presented in disinfected plastic covers versus disposable sheet paper.

In short, it is feasible to maintain a strong level of standard and execution even in an environment like this. Disregarding the experience in favor of easy alternatives is unnecessary and will inhibit you from adding value in a time when it makes all the difference.

Embrace the New Direction
The demand for venues and activities that boast exclusivity has been building consistently amongst affluent markets for some time now. That has been especially evident through the pandemic as destinations that inherently afford distance and privacy, whether by location or design, took center stage in the media.

For those who haven’t evolved yet to suit that form of hospitality, now is the time to do it.

Being a leader is about adapting to the circumstance and setting realistic expectations despite facing an unpredictable future. Trying to squeeze an old way of doing business into a new set of circumstances is ineffective and will yield disconnected results.

Long after COVID-19 has faded from daily consideration to memory and pent-up travel cravings have been satisfied, the modern luxury traveler will still be tuned into what new, bespoke experiences are on the rise. Embracing and leaning into those expectations early will only prove beneficial when all the pieces have fallen.

Julien Surget is general manager of luxury resort Amangiri in Southern Utah. 

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.