There used to be, in a time in the not so distant past—that is to say January—when the hotels spread all over your Instagram feed were touting luxury amenities like Frette sheets, movie theaters, and their perennially full Michelin-star restaurants.
Fast-forward a few months to the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and top hospitality brands are advertising their available facemasks and plethora of purell. At any other time, this might sound like a funny April’s fool joke. But it’s not. The global hotel chain Kempinski recently sent an email with the subject line “Kempinski White Glove Service” that announced the launch of their 50-page guidebook for how they are going to address health and hygiene concerns amidst a global pandemic that has infected nearly 4.5 million worldwide, as of mid-May. “Internally we have been saying that cleaning protocols are the new marble bathrooms,” said Misty Belles, Managing Director of Global Public Relations for Virtuoso, a luxury travel advisory agency.
Kempinski noted measures such as how they are rearranging furniture in public spaces to replacing cloth towels with one-time usage disposable towels. Similarly, Breckenridge Grand Vacations, which manages more than 800 units in Breckenridge, Colorado, announced they had partnered with a groundbreaking UV disinfection technology. And the Four Seasons just announced they will have a Hygiene Officer at each property—part of the larger initiative the brand has with John Hopkins Medicine International on a COVID-19 advisory board to inform health and safety decisions. The gold standard cleaning arms race is on. Welcome to the future of luxury travel post-coronavirus. But does that mean it will be all disinfectants all the time?
To some degree, yes, but according to industry insiders while much has changed about the five-star travel experience it won’t be completely unrecognizable. “Travel is going to be more complex and it will take longer to plan the details,” said Amanda Dyjecinski, Chief Brand and Marketing Officer for onefinestay, a luxury home rental service with properties across North America, Europe, and Asia.
Part of the new travel puzzle is the jet-set mindset is now focused on social distancing, one of the cardinal guidelines for slowing the spread of the coronavirus. And those who can afford to buy privacy and space, the most sought after travel amenities right now, will pay big bucks to get as far away from other people as they can. “Villas rentals are up and private jet is stronger than it was before. So is the interest in private islands,” said Belles. Before the current global pandemic, Belles says clients used to inquire about fully staffed villas with housekeepers and private chefs. Those requests, she says, are dwindling as many look for ways to minimize exposure to other people, even at the expense of certain creature comforts that used to be de rigueur for anyone spending tens of thousands of dollars on a vacation. “There will be things we see as inconsistent with luxury, such as turn down service because it will be seen as unnecessary to have housekeeping come in twice a day,” said Belles.
File this under questions luxury hotels and cruise ships never thought they’d be asked: “Can you tell whether you have high efficiency particulate air purifiers?” Otherwise known as HEPA filters, these air purifiers may help reduce transmission of the coronavirus, and are part of the discerning traveler’s new pandemic checklist. (While there is no direct evidence about the impact of HEPA filters on the coronavirus, it can be inferred from what we know about similar viruses, like SARS, where they have shown to be helpful, according to Jeff Siegel, an indoor air quality expert and who has researched portable air purifies with various airborne particles.)
Onefinestay now publicizes that every one of their properties is ventilated, the number of hours housekeepers spend on cleaning a two bedroom home (six), and they have launched a webpage explaining their housekeeping procedures. And at The Ocean House, a Relais & Châteaux property in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, as part of their OH Well Program, they have added Molekule air purifiers, which are proven to destroy airborne viruses and bacteria, in all guest rooms.
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Luxury travel will now be about balancing industry standards of safety with a satisfying guest experience—a still somewhat elusive middle ground Boby Haryadi, General Manager at The RoundTree, Amagansett, a boutique property in the Hamptons where high season nightly rates are around $800, is trying to achieve as he prepares for the property’s grand opening next month. What that looks like in practice is this: temperature checks, changing sofa covers, offering grocery shopping and laundry services for extended stay guests, serving breakfast privately, and giving guests access to Netflix. “We are reevaluating what luxury means at this moment in time and making our hotel their home while they are staying here,” Haryadi said.
Right now it’s hard to imagine even the most intrepid wanderluster wanting to be shoulder to shoulder in small alleyways or crowding into an opera house or popular museum. Destinations that have not suffered from over-tourism and are less about bling and more about meaningful personal experiences may become more popular, said Keith Vincent, CEO of Wilderness Safaris, a luxury ecotourism operator with locations across Africa. “Access to space and nature will be more highly sought,” said Helen Smith, Chief Customer Experience Officer of the Dorchester Collection, which includes some of the most luxurious hotels in the world, such as the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property.
Even with all the enhanced steps and vigilance around health and hygiene in the top echelon of the hospitality industry, the luxury market is trending toward renting homes, says Brent Handler, CEO of Inspirato, the travel subscription service that has a large inventory of luxury homes and hotels. Handler says that Inspirato has seen a surge in domestic bookings. “We could easily quadruple the number of homes we have in certain coastal and mountain towns in order to meet demand,” Handler said. Part of the appeal of these homes, Handler says, is that it’s like staying in a Four Seasons, with top of the line amenities, a concierge, and the kind of rigorous cleaning that is standard practice at hotels.
For now, travel industry experts say the luxury market will remain more local with people not wanting to venture too far from home. When they are considering more far-flung destinations, for instance a small Caribbean island, jetsetters may find some of those places are much harder to reach. “The days of 12 non-stop flights to the Cayman islands are over. Luxury travel is predicated on air life and I think we’ll see a cut in the number of flights and routes to destinations, especially secondary routes,” Handler told Departures in a recent interview.
Still, the desire for high-end travel is there, even though it may be a slow and arduous process to convince travelers it’s safe to pack their bags. One glimmer of hope is the positive response to online tutorials, such as the ones The Dorchester Collection is offering with their craftspeople—from chefs to florists. “It creates a little bit of the Dorchester Collection in their own homes. Our guests are longing for what they remembered,” said Smith.
Overall, the definition of luxury is going have to expand, says Daniel Hostettler, General Manager of The Ocean House. Previously, he says, it may have meant attention to detail, unparalleled experiences, quality and service excellence. “It will now have an added layer that speaks to trust, flexibility, and safety. These qualities will remain paramount for the foreseeable future as we make our way out of this crisis into brighter days ahead,” he said.