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BW Businessworld

Eat, Play, Learn

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Imagine a holiday in Venice that involves a sneak peek into the homes of local aristocrats including lunch with a countess, exploring the backstage of haute couture with a visit to a private shoe museum, and ordering a luxury bespoke bag with your photo — the perfect souvenir to a beautiful trip. All this with your own personal guide whose family has been in the hospitality business for generations, which makes him a host capable of opening doors to incredible experiences, including a private concert by Andrea Bocelli. Throw in a private jet flight from Rome to Venice, a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce at your disposal, a stay in the presidential suite of the Excelsior hotel and you have your dream holiday. Just what Delhi-based entrepreneur Jai Singh (name changed) wanted for his 10th wedding anniversary. The cost: 28,000 euros for a couple for a week.
Tired of run-of-the-mill holidays, Mumbai-based financial consultant Sameer Rekhi (name changed) flew to Johannesburg. Joburg, as it is popularly called, may be a tourist’s delight but Rekhi was not looking at merely staying in a 5-star property or eating gourmet food or even sightseeing. He wanted an experience of a lifetime. So, over the next two weeks, he stayed in a lion-raising centre in Kroonstad (around three hours from Johannesburg), where he helped clean cages, feed the lions and play with cubs. 
Welcome to the world of luxury travel. Staying at the Four Seasons and eating at Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and Paris is  passé. Now it is all about being different and engaging in activities that not only become talking points but also create memorable experiences. And those in search of such experiences are willing to pay top dollar for them. 
Taruna Seth, founder and vice-president, Pearl Luxe Travels, says mature travellers want classic, experiential luxury
(BW Pic By Sanjay Sakaria)
“The true luxury traveller of today has been there done that and is looking for unique experiences,” says Taruna Seth, founder and vice-president of Pearl Luxe Travels, a boutique luxury travel company.
Adds Vikram Madhok, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent: “Indian luxury travellers are buying experiences now, not mere destinations.” Kuoni India Holiday Report indicates that 37 per cent Indians regard ‘Pure Luxury’ as the most important travel trend. The report also reveals that Indian travellers are gravitating towards experimentation.
Even the Technopak Indian Luxury Outlook 2011-12 report says: “The luxury traveller in India wants to experience theme-based journeys, visit unusual destinations and locales set amidst grandeur and opulence.” 
The total revenue in the luxury travel industry in India is estimated to be around $1.7 billion, and industry experts say it is growing by around 20 per cent annually. “Over the next 10 years, the market will grow 15-20 per cent every year,” says Madhok. But, he explains, that is also because the base is low. While there are 12-13 million Indian outbound travellers, those in the luxury space are only about 100,000. 
However, with the number of ultra high networth households (HNH) — those with a net worth of over Rs 25 crore — on the rise, the market is expected to grow further. According to the Kotak Mahindra Top of The Pyramid report 2012, the number of ultra-HNHs in India is likely to increase to 286,000 by 2016-17, from the present 81,000.
In the same report 79.2 per cent of the high networth individual (HNIs) said that travel was not hit by the economic slowdown. On an average, HNIs take two holidays every year — one long (mostly overseas) and one short (domestic). So, domestic luxury travel is also on the rise. The Oberoi group of hotels saw an increase of 49 per cent over last year (till July) in domestic traveller bookings in their Vilas properties . “Even at our Shimla hotels we have seen a 22 per cent growth in Indian guests with a majority staying at the premium Wildflower Hall. At the end of the financial year in March 2012, we had a seen a growth of 20 per cent from the Indian market. We expect this year to close at a higher rate,” says a spokesperson for the hotel group. 
Even at the Taj Hotels, domestic demand contributed to about 50 per cent of business. “On the rise has been the demand for all our grand palaces — Rambagh Palace, Jaipur; Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur; Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur; and Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad — where they feel that they can experience true royal luxury and live like a maharaja and maharani,” says a Taj spokesperson. 
To cater to this expanding market, the Oberoi group has launched Oberoi Experiences, divided into wellness, adventure, romance and family. For instance, at the Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur, you can renew your marriage vows at the 280-year-old Shiva temple in the hotel gardens, get beauty packages for a couple, a champagne dinner, and more, for Rs 1 lakh.
The New Travelling Tribes 
According to the latest report on the Asian travel market by ILTM, the market has seen the emergence of ‘new luxury travel tribes’. These ‘tribes’ include the  ‘new sophisticates’ who are rejecting the tried and tested destinations in favour of Yangtze river cruises, holidays on the Galápagos Islands and high-end safaris in Botswana, demonstrating their newly found connoisseur sensibilities. 
Though this group is still a minority in India, it is growing fast. Says Madhok, “Even when visiting the same destination, they want a different experience. So, they will book a chateau or a gourmet wine and food appreciation week in Tuscany. Their spend per night has risen from £300 per person to £700, and we are seeing double-digit growth in our outbound business.”
If the spending is increasing, so are the service expectations. Explains Seth, “The older and mature travellers who are 45-plus seek classic luxury in the experiential space. Indian luxury travellers are already used to a high level of service right in their homes with personal staff and hired help. They are open to new experiences but are not willing to compromise on the level of service which varies between Asia and the West. Consider the best resorts in the world in the Maldives versus those in the Caribbean — the level of service is strikingly different even when one pays top 
dollar for both.”
Bargaining, a national trait so far, is fading when it comes to luxury travel. “One problem in the past with the Indian market has been the tendency to negotiate prices or services downwards only to find that the resultant product does not meet expectations. Nowadays, affluent clients understand that from a product perspective, there can be a vast disparity even with the five-star market,” says George Morgan-Grenville, CEO of UK-based Red Savannah, a luxury travel company.

Vikram Madhok, MD, Abercrombie & Kent, says their spend per night has risen from £300 per person to £700
(BW Pic By Sanjay Sakaria)
For The Young And The Old 
The young travellers are leaning towards adventures — a trip to the South Pole and other relatively unexplored parts of the world. India is a young country and the booming economy of the past few years has seen a growing tribe of youngsters with enough money to spend on travel. The average age group of most luxury travellers in India is 35-44 years. “The young Indian luxury travellers are more open to experiment. Year 2012 saw the maximum number of Indian travellers to Myanmar,” says Seth, who has organised everything from a spin in the skies in a real fighter aircraft to a track day on a frozen lake with the ultimate race cars. 
 “Adventure by day and luxury by night is the mantra for this group,” explains Madhok, which means that they are willing to stay at whichever is the best and most comfortable property there is in that region, even if it is a three-star hotel. Adds Vishal Suri, deputy chief operating officer of SOTC, “Young Indian travellers are leaning towards eco-friendly ways to explore the world without compromising on comfort and style.”
 Tui India has introduced i-to-i packages for young travellers looking for that unusual and unique experience. The lion camp in South Africa is part of this. The packages are 90 per cent travel and 10 per cent volunteer work. “Rich parents are increasingly sending children in the 20s to places like South America and Cambodia to volunteer at orphanages, schools, etc.,” says Sunil Hasija, executive director of Tui India. 
 Another segment of travellers is of the ‘ultra honeymooners’ with huge wedding budgets. “For many, the honeymoon is the first holiday that a young couple really gets to splurge on. In many cases it is a gift from the parents so people do tend to go all out to plan a memorable getaway,” says Seth.
Antarctica is among the popular destinations for luxury travellers
(Courtesy: TUI India) 

Travelling with the family has always been popular in India. The ‘luxe pack’ travellers often have multiple generations travelling together. “Intergenerational travel has seen an upward trend. More families have been organising luxury holidays with three generations spanning grandparents and grandchildren,” says Seth. 
Adds Hasija, “Cruising is a popular option. We organised a private yacht for a family of eight who took a two-week cruising holiday around the French Riviera to celebrate the grandchild’s 10th birthday.” 
And like all things luxury, travel, too, is moving from the big metros to tier-2 and -3 cities. Seth says she gets customers from places such as Ludhiana and Ahmedabad. “They are successful business owners; they have the means but not the exposure to high-end travel.”
For luxury travellers, the world is their oyster. Hot destinations include Antarctica, Baku (Azerbaijan), Kiev (Ukraine), St Petersburg (Russia), Galápagos Islands (Ecuador), Botswana and Myanmar. Have money, will travel to the ends of the world is the new mantra for luxury travellers.
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 24-09-2012)