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What Is Luxury Travel and Who Calls The Shots?

This is one of those cases where a term is used so often that it loses its meaning: "luxury travel." Almost anything today can be "luxury": travel, cars, apartments, food, spirits, clothes, Jacuzzis, rehab centers, and on Airbnb I found a listing described as a "luxury church." Thomas Aquinas is spinning in his grave on that one.
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This is one of those cases where a term is used so often that it loses its meaning: "luxury travel." Almost anything today can be "luxury": travel, cars, apartments, food, spirits, clothes, Jacuzzis, rehab centers, and on Airbnb I found a listing described as a "luxury church." Thomas Aquinas is spinning in his grave on that one.

The danger here as that when everybody is using the term, nobody no longer knows what the term connotes We all (should) know the difference between a car and Jacuzzi, and certainly between those two and a church, but when they all use the same adjective, what does it mean?

For the sake of argument, let's just stick with travel for now. The path of least resistance is easy: star power. If a hotel or cruise liner has five out of five stars -- or whatever the maximum is -- it is safe to say that the experience will be luxurious. Zagat, Michelin, and even Tripadvisor and Yelp are quick, easy, and reliable reference guides for all things top-shelf. There are just a few problems...

1) Too Much of a Good Thing
Some of these guides are beginning to lose their allure. Sometimes people are "being nice" and gush over what is something of a mediocre establishment. Other times, it is far worse and even more confusing.

User-generated sites can be their own worst enemy; Yelp suffers from a low-level but on-going PR disaster with its reviewers threatening restaurants and other local businesses with abysmal reviews unless they got comp'ed over vague claims of a "bad experience." It's a brave new world out there, and it even has a name: Cyber-extortionism! Don't believe me? Check out this Eater.com article from 2008, or another from 2013, or, hey, how about this one from Uproxx in 2014, or...

But even the vetted guides can, with the very best of intentions, shoot themselves in the foot. A 2015 article in Vanity Fair detailed how some chefs do not want a high Michelin rating. Bernard Loiseau, arguably one of the most accomplished chefs in modern times, was quoted as saying, "If I lose a star, I'll kill myself." And guess what? He did kill himself. The irony was that he hadn't even lost a star; there was just a rumor he might.

That is an extreme example, but it highlights an old story: Once you reach the top, the pressure to stay there mounts non-stop year after year, and there is nowhere else to go but down. So indeed, there are some business and individuals who are perfectly happy staying out of the guides and letting good ol' word of mouth do the talking for them. Some of the best restaurants in the world, like Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, or El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, are, outside of a tight circle of well-informed foodies, virtual unknowns.

2) I Want More...
I run a travel business; I've seen how things can change, and that change isn't slow. With the rise of GenX and the Millennials, high thread- or star-counts are slipping into obsolescence, or at least, they are becoming seen as too simplistic a rating system. Are you really going to let a bed sheet be the deciding factor?

Comfort, decor, and accommodation is always going figure into the luxury scale, but younger travelers, now connected to the larger world through so many social media platforms and other venues, increasingly want to experience a place "for real." Cultural immersion, personal experiences, and anything outside a pre-packaged, homogenized tour (We're walking! We're walking!) are inexorably gaining ground on fabulous menus and vacations that never leave the hermetically sealed, Western-style hotel grounds.

It is the hotels, in fact, that are seeing the shift. Traditional accommodations like ryokans in Japan or riads in Morocco are easy-access windows into their respective cultures and are increasingly popular with travelers looking for more authentic experiences. The layout, decor, and food will only remotely be touched by Western conventions, but even the bathrooms may be in the local style (although not always; a flush toilet is one of the West's most successful exports). In the United States the "quaint B&B" can often be more reflective of its surroundings and foods than even the most meticulous chain hotel.

3) ...Or Not
Then there is the problem of too many glowing reviews, which translates into a particular place being absolutely swamped. This includes restaurants, bars, and even cultural sites -- I remember having to get up at the crack of dawn to visit the ruins of Tulum in Mexico near Cancun. It is an excellent detour, well worth the trip, but by 9:30 AM is so overwhelmed with tourists it becomes a Mayan theme park. Once a place is discovered, it runs the risk of being "done," with price-gouging and made-in-China key chains soon to follow.

The threat of touristiness is making a lot of travelers look not to conventional luxury, but exclusivity. To the savvy traveler, this sounds an awful lot like bespoke travel, a niche in the industry that tailor-makes vacations specific to a traveler's wants, needs, hobbies, etc. A trip to Antarctica aboard a science vessel? No problem! A culinary tour done by a master chef of India's spice trails? Not a problem! It sounds great until you start looking at the price tag for such personalized service. Bespoke costs.

For regular mortals on the luxury lookout, authenticity can trump exclusivity. The best resource for this is a surprisingly underused resource: The hotel concierge. Admit it, there are those of us that just "wing-it" on a vacation, or do just the briefest of Internet searches for local highlights, or have the trusty guidebook book (the same of which a lot of other people probably have). The thing about guidebooks, and even Google, is that rarely can they cover EVERYTHING. Esoterica often gets overlooked.

Here's where the concierge comes in, and where luxury, now in full-blown semantic change, can sometimes mean a little personal attention. It is a concierge's job to know not only the hotel top to bottom, but also the destination, including those oddball attractions that make a vacation spot, even one long on the tourism radar, into a truly unique experience. And if the hotel doesn't have a concierge, get in contact with the local tourism bureau, which, again, will far better know the local lay of the land than guidebooks that by their nature tend to be brief.

Luxury is changing. And oh what a ride it is!