The ultra luxury segment was already an emerging trend in the premium travel space, but it has gained momentum in the post-lockdown era. Private island buyouts, charter planes, and remote destinations are the buzzwords among the affluent. By Riaan Jacob George
Billionaires, movie stars, and oligarchs tend to prefer anonymity and exclusivity on their holidays. Sample these vacations: a leading Indian business family (names withheld on request) chartering a plane to Cheval Blanc’s private island in the Maldives, Shah Rukh Khan renting a INR2.2 lakh-a-night luxury villa on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills through Airbnb, and Lady Gaga’s INR7.3 lakh-a-night Airbnb villa in the California desert. The pandemic may have hit pause on everyone’s plans for a bit, but this ultra luxury segment has only seen a discernible spike around the globe post the lockdowns. Big spenders are choosing to fly private, avoid cookie-cutter five-star suites, and travel to exclusive destinations. This spike in demand makes sense at a time when people are seeking physical distancing more than ever before.
According to industry experts, the prevailing trends in India—while the super rich wait for European luxury getaways to open up again—involve private charters to domestic destinations (especially Goa), island buyouts in the Maldives, exclusive properties on island destinations and driving destinations around the major Indian cities.
Aparna Manghnani, director of East West Travels & Tours, caters to some of India’s leading HNIs, including Bollywood celebrities. She reveals, “What we are looking for these days is ‘back of beyond’ properties, offbeat experiences, where my clientele can go incognito and ﬂ y under the radar of social media.” There is even a ‘no social media’ caveat that she signs with her UHNI clients, which means that for certain hotel recommendations, they cannot post on social media in order to retain the ‘secrecy’ of her offering and as a general courtesy to other UHNI clients.
Commenting on the increased demand for private charters post lockdown, Siddharth Bhatia, director, FSR Travels, says that the prices have increased by three to four times because of reduced supply. Bhatia, who manages the travels of leading business families in the country (he is not at liberty to divulge names), adds that the length of stays has gone up, and people want only direct flights. “From three to four nights in the Maldives, my UHNI clients now tend to stay for six to seven nights.”
The segment’s demands manifest in the form of island buyouts, super premium all-suite hotels above the five-star positioning, heritage wings, private entrances, exclusive transfers (read helicopters, private jets), butlers, and a strong brand credibility for hygiene. Where, then, are these celebrities, sportspersons, heads of state, and industrialists holidaying?
Maldives is synonymous with this clientele, and at the top of the spectrum is the understated Cheval Blanc Randheli Private Island, a four-bedroom villa where you are the only one on the island (a Google search indicates a tariff of `3.6 lakh per night in early October after taxes). Similarly, One&Only Reethi Rah’s three-bedroom Grand Sunset Residence with pool shows a tariff of `4.6 lakh (including taxes) per night in early October on Booking.com. Hotelier Sonu Shivdasani, the blue-eyed boy of hospitality and the man behind Soneva Kiri in Thailand, requires you to take the hotel’s own plane and land on the private Soneva landing strip before enjoying one of the villas. The top end of Soneva Kiri’s offerings is a six-bedroom villa, which shows an early October price of INR9.9 lakh per night on Booking.com. Private islands like the Four Seasons Private Island At Voavah, a seven-bedroom experience, are also sought after.
Bhatia shares some examples of Maldives itineraries that he has organised—a five-night full-board stay at Soneva Jani in the Maldives at INR19 lakh for a couple, and a seven-night stay at the same property with charter from Mumbai at INR22 lakh per couple. “Now, we are also working with 55-seater private jets where we are able to offer Maldives packages starting at INR12 lakh,” Bhatia says, adding that there are many takers.
This increased demand for ultra-luxe hospitality echoes with other nationalities as well. The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Thailand is one of the most exclusive all-villa properties from the Canadian brand. Long considered to be the favourite spot of global political leaders, Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul boasts a heritage wing with lavish suites, which is disconnected from its five-star property. Presidents, kings, and Hollywood stars have arrived here by chopper or the wing’s private jetty, and enjoyed the comforts of a restored Ottoman suite, private dining experiences, and a royal hammam. Airbnb, too, is seeing takers for its top-end offerings, such as a five-bedroom Parisian apartment close to the Arc de Triomphe at INR7.8 lakh a night, and a three-bedroom villa on Dubai’s Nikki Beach at INR6.2 lakh a night.
Marketing And Investing
This area of hospitality also seems more resilient than others, especially in the current challenging times. Madan Prasad Bezbaruah, secretary general, Hotel Association of India (HAI), says, “Even during the pandemic, there have been openings of luxury hotel properties, which is an indicator of consumer demand on the back of increased spending capacity. While the pandemic significantly dented the industry, the continued resilience of the sector helped in attracting investments within the ultra luxury segment, which was seen as a durable space. We are highly confident in this upper upscale sector of business as it tends to be more recession-proof.”
Yeishan Goel, CEO at Travel and Hospitality Representation Services, also sheds light on the post-lockdown consumption behaviour of the UHNI community. “The purchase decision of the uber luxe traveller is obviously influenced by heightened COVID-19 safety protocols, possibility of fast-track transits, availability of contactless experiences, private dining, and dedicated service staffing as much as possible. It is almost paradoxical that responsible tourism and private jet vacations are gaining traction at the same time,” he says.
While a major chunk of UHNI bookings comes from brick and mortar travel agents and specialised itinerary curators, a luxury-specialised online travel agency such as Luxury Escapes India, too, has seen a market shift. The country head, Arun Ashok, offers some perspective, “While the travel sector as a whole has taken a beating, Luxury Escapes India recorded spikes in certain categories. Private pool villas have seen a 160 per cent jump in purchases, since most resorts are operating sans swimming pools. Small luxury boutique resort buyouts are par for the course. And flying private to remote spots like Madagascar and the Faroe Islands is the new equivalent of being spotted at the Cannes Festival.” Jeorg Dreschel, board member at Relais & Châteaux, insists that a niche, filtered marketing strategy is required to target this segment. He is quick to explain that “the criteria of an ultra luxury traveller goes beyond luxury and branded hotel comforts to something authentic and unique.”