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Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel.
“On Experience” dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
The pace of hospitality is moving fast, and brand positioning can quickly turn into something commodified.
The idea of luxury moving from traditional white glove notions into something experience-driven and sustainable makes sense. We live in a visual culture, where social currency gets derived from documentation and oversharing.
Consumers increasingly care about the provenance, background, and sustainability of both the products they consume and also their trips. But suddenly, we see many brands, including some of the more prominent, classic names, repositioning themselves accordingly. In many instances, it is a marketing hoax, and upon double-clicking, there isn’t much under the hood.
A legendary hotelier told me one of the best anecdotes on the actual power of cohesive experience. He mentioned that you need to think of the entire experience at one of his properties as a Rolex. He was both alluding to the financial buy-in, as the property isn’t cheap, but more poignantly he meant that it is something guests can feel and carry with them long after the experience ends. The weight of the experience, and the manifestation of it in the mind. Something substantial, something durable and impenetrable.
While the words experience and sustainability attached to luxury may be losing some luster due to opportunism, a few innovators are emerging from around the globe — notably in Thailand and South Africa — that are approaching this with sincerity and depth.
They are not just paying lip service to the vanity side of the experience, but they follow through and create incredible and meaningful experiences all the way down to their corporate strategies and balance sheet. There is weight behind their actions.
Anantara HOtels, Resorts and spas
Anantara is not yet a household name. But it should be, as it is in the forefront of defining what experience-led luxury will be in the future. Owned by the holding company Minor Hotels, and run by Thailand’s version of Richard Branson, William Heinecke, the brand has been launching new properties that connect to both specific location, and social mission.
An example is Anantara’s most significant corporate social responsibility initiative: helping sustain the Asian elephant population in Thailand. The efforts are based at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Rai. Established in 2003 as a traditional mahout, or elephant keeper village, the camp works alongside the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to rescue both elephants from Thai streets, as well as provide jobs for their trainers and a sustainable way to support themselves.
Guests get to interact with the creatures that were previously living in rough, austere conditions and the meaningful thing here is this isn’t some simple animal visit experience, the brand has engineered an entire charitable ecosystem from end to end and made it sustainable over time. Elsewhere, Anantara has opened a property in Oman, the Al Jabal Al Akhdar, overlooking the country’s Grand Canyon, arguably one of the best vantage points anywhere.
Singita, based in Cape Town, South Africa, runs meticulously designed lodges in South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. It is a well-known brand within certain echelons of travelers, but its conservation work in antipoaching, and other conservation programs are worth noting.
As its head of sustainability told Skift in an earlier interview, “[Younger] guests will question our practices, food offering, and community involvement; and we welcome this. Guests are practicing sustainability at home and so expect us to provide the opportunities to carry on their good practices (such as recycling) while they are on vacation.” Singita’s 100-year purpose manifesto, outlining these initiatives, is required reading for any brands that are looking to add depth and soul to their offerings.
Launched in 1995, Six Senses represents luxury with the tie loosened a bit. There’s a sense of wit and humor. It is also an agenda-setter for sustainability in the hospitality industry. The experiences are unique: You have the option to paraglide into the Zighy Bay resort in Oman on arrival (007 style) but also, it has also built environmental and responsible business strategies into the core of its business.
Led by Amber Beard, vice president of sustainability, the brand does everything from supporting local and cultural heritage where it operates, promoting domestic production and small business, as well as helping local animal life. It is not a bolt-on or public relations afterthought. It has the same rigor as a brand like Patagonia, where the mission is built deeply into the culture. With an increasingly savvy traveling audience that sees through flimsy, public relations-centric initiatives, this rigor is important for the brand.
Some research and development around experience and sustainability takes time. The French cruise operator Ponant is known for tours around the Arctic Circle. It recently announced an electric hybrid icebreaker ship slated to launch in 2021, operating on both electric and liquified natural gas with almost zero emissions.
While the launch would be sustainable, it will also allow the brand to take visitors into the extreme regions of the northern and southern hemispheres; the hull will have the capability to safely cut through ice floe that is more than eight feet thick. While not online to book yet, it is an interesting view into the future of both sustainability and experience-led access to previously unexplored places. The stakes and expectations keep getting higher.