How Luxury Travel Is Being Reinvented -- And What It Means for You

by  Karen Gardiner | Jul 31, 2014
Butler / urfingussi/iStock

At the beginning of the boutique hotel boom, luxury was defined by money; how much of it you had and what it could buy you. But that has long since changed. The emergence of creative "lifestyle" hotels have transformed the industry -- as the annual LE Miami trade show in South Beach pointed out -- with rising demand in experiences that are unique and culturally connected. These days, rather than high prices, luxury is about authenticity, storytelling, and innovation.

Luxury Has Become More Affordable
For one of the best examples of thoughtful, modern design at palatable prices, citizenM is a Dutch-based hotel chain that prides itself on offering affordable luxury "for the people." Its website reads: "We sold the hotel clichés and used the money to make your stay cheaper." True to its word, as it prepared for the opening of its first U.S. property in New York's Times Square this spring, citizenM emphasized doing away with superfluous amenities -- as well as check-in desks and concierges -- in favor of keeping prices reasonable. The brand believes it's disrupting the travel industry by offering style alongside great location and affordability, with a big design focus and with high-tech amenities such as in-room tablets to control lighting, temperature, and drapes. The chain also boasts free WiFi, complimentary movies, a grab-and-go canteen, and (in New York) rates that start at $199. They also democratize the guest experience by offering only one room category (i.e no suites), so that all "citizens," as the company calls its guests, are considered equal. citizenM has also just opened in Paris, and the brand is already at work on a second New York hotel on the Lower East Side, with plans to expand in a number of other cities including Istanbul and Taipei.

But citizenM is just one example of this trend. Other hotel brands operating in a similar vein include Yotel, currently in New York, London, and Amsterdam; Z Hotels, in London, Liverpool, and Glasgow; and Qbic, in London and Amsterdam, which sells 100 rooms priced at £1 ($1.70) each month.

Hostels Are Welcoming Grown Ups, Too
Bedding down in a hostel used to be a last resort, when affordable hotel options are scarce. But nowadays there's a new wave of upscale hostels that may make booking a hostel your first, not last, option. Downtown México, which occupies a renovated 17th century palace in Mexico City's Centro neighborhood, is part of design-savvy Grupo Habita's collection (they're also responsible for the Hôtel Americano in New York City). As well as a 17-room hotel, Downtown operates a hostel annex, Downtown Beds, where rates start at $15 per night in an eight-person dorm, or $42 for a private room ($46 if you want your own bathroom). Either way, guests enjoy the same contemporary design, restaurants, and rooftop bar as traditional hotel guests, not to mention the chance to take part in fun activities like tequila tasting and movie screenings.

Back in Miami, The Freehand carries similar architectural clout; it's designed by Roman & Williams, the team behind New York's Ace Hotel, Standard, and Viceroy. Fifteen of the 60 brightly colored rooms are private, and rates start at $22 for a bed in a mixed dorm to $109 for two-room private suites. Whichever category you spring for, you'll be able to enjoy handcrafted cocktails at the hip (and James Beard Award-nominated) Broken Shaker bar. Freehand have plans to open 10 hostels across the U.S., including one in Brooklyn and another in Chicago.

In Europe, you'll find even more "luxury hostels" to choose from, such as the Independente in Lisbon, PLUS Berlin, and Hlemmur Square in Reykjavík (the most recent project from hotelier Klaus Ortlieb, of New York's Hotel on Rivington and Gotham Hotel).

Contemporary Hotels Are Offering a "Lifestyle" Experience
Luxury is nowadays less about white glove-style service and more about a memorable, authentic experience. To that point, contemporary hotels are offering guest experiences that go deeper than the usual hotel stay and, at the same time, opening up to welcome the local community, says LE Miami's trend-focused Leadership Lab. Think of, for instance, the buzzy lobbies of the Ace Hotels, the in-house nightclub at the London EDITION, and Andaz Hotels' Cultural Insiders. As author and marketer Seth Godin observed, "rather than focusing on keeping people out, contemporary travel brands are curating unique experiences to connect a disparate yet creative and open-minded crowd."

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