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Can luxury get authentic?

A couple of weeks ago, Four bgb attended Aspire’s Brunch Club on the latest buzzword in travel, authenticity, to find out whether luxury travel can ever be truly authentic. 

Led by Aspire, the luxury travel arm of trade magazine Travel Weekly, the Brunch Club provides those in the travel industry with an insight into the latest trends via an expert panel. The panel for this session included the likes of Serge Dive, who created ILTM in Cannes and founded Beyond Luxury Media, Tim Winkworth of adventure travel company Intrepid, James Jayasundera, managing director of Ampersand Travel, and Michael Vance of Six Senses Hotels Resorts & Spas. 

Although authenticity is a word that is used more and more by marketing and PR professionals, the panel agreed that both the travel trade and consumers struggle to define the concept of authentic travel. Suggested definitions of authenticity, mooted by the experts, included participation in what would happen whether you are there or not, and non-commercial and spontaneous, real-life experiences. If we accept these definitions, then it seems difficult for a luxury hotel to offer authenticity, as the hotel itself would not exist without the paying guests, and more often than not, high-end travel is distinct from the, often poor, local community. What’s more, authentic experiences where travellers may blend in are very often unpleasant and thus, not even what consumers are looking for from their holiday. With these challenges, how can the luxury sector achieve authenticity?

Michael Vance argued that the people at a hotel can make certain experiences authentic, even if total authenticity is difficult to achieve in a luxury environment. Employing staff from the local area and providing experiences that reflect the surroundings (e.g. food, shops, architecture) provide a feeling of connectivity with the destination itself and glimpses of authenticity without the unpleasant side of the truly authentic. James Jayasundera then argued that authenticity does not necessarily mean poverty and can mean luxury too – a visit to the palaces in Rajasthan in India, for example, are an authentic experience of the life of the Indian upper class.

Several members of the panel noted that there is currently too much information in travel, and that travel should be spontaneous and unexpected to allow a person to be totally immersed in a new and authentic experience. Serge Dive added that the travel trade tends to give too much information and too few surprises. The real value of this spontaneity, he also pointed out, is in the authentic emotion that it generates and the fact that it engages the imagination. He proposed that, rather than focussing on authentic experiences which can often be unpleasant, those in the travel industry should aim to produce authentic emotions from guests/visitors in response to their experiences.

However we define it, the achievement of authentic travel in the luxury sector has certainly moved on in the past 20 years from hotels purposefully offering an experience very much in contrast to the destination to experiences that provide an insight into the destination and achieve authentic emotions. From hearing a staff member’s passion for their culture in a luxury hotel, to taking a helicopter ride around the Maldives to learn about the geography of the islands, to the authentic emotion of joy of a spontaneous proposal on a sandbank, the travel trade are beginning to take a deeper interest in what the consumer really wants when it comes to authenticity and luxury and thus, with small steps, are beginning to prove the authenticity of luxury travel.

 

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