Last updated: December 14, 2012 6:00 pm

The Diary: Tom Robbins

Luxury is less about foie gras and buckets of fresh ice, more about having ‘life experiences’, says the FT’s travel editor
An illustration of private butlers by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

If hospitality is about putting in extra effort to make guests feel welcome, then the ITC Maurya in Delhi could be the world’s best hotel. When I walked into the lobby last month, a silk scarf was draped around my neck; a huge bunch of flowers was handed to my girlfriend. A procession of staff led us to our room, where a butler proffered a welcome glass of champagne. I surveyed the room – the chocolates on the table, the bowl of exotic fruit, the big electronic massage chair, the writing table on which stood two wooden picture frames. Double-take! In the frame on the left was a photograph of my girlfriend – someone at the hotel must have trawled the internet to find it. Beside it, in the other frame, was a shot of a rather cool-looking man with a beard and dark glasses. After a few moments’ thought, I recognised him as the American author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (a different Tom Robbins).

Such stunts clearly show a hotel is trying hard to please (although presumably there are potential pitfalls if a guest arrives with someone other than their spouse), but whether they constitute “luxury” is another matter. It is the kind of issue debated by delegates at the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM), an annual trade fair in Cannes that I attended last week. Here 1,347 hotel operators, cruise lines and travel companies from 85 countries came to meet 1,350 “buyers” (travel agents or foreign tour operators who resell to the public), while journalists from around the world looked on.

The question of private butlers was causing controversy. They are becoming increasingly common in expensive hotels but are they more of an annoyance than a help? “I can never think of anything to do with the poor guy – how many buckets of fresh ice does one really need?” said Nicholas Coleridge, president of Condé Nast International.

He recounted a trip to the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, during which he and his wife were hoping to conceive their first baby. “Each time we were ready to get going, the door opened. It was the personal butler – with more fresh ice!”

Coleridge’s other beefs included sealed windows, endless satisfaction surveys, the photo-copied welcome letter from the manager (“that don’t impress me much, as Shania Twain put it”) and the strategically placed bottle of claret, complete with two glasses but no indication of whether it is a present or will result in a €250 charge on your room bill.

. . .

They say if you go into the travel business you’ll never be a millionaire, but you might occasionally get to live like one. ILTM is one such opportunity – away from the serious deal-making in the conference hall are numerous drinks parties, dinners and receptions, where modestly-paid delegates get to experience the champagne lifestyle they spend the rest of the year selling, in hotels and restaurants that would otherwise be empty at this time of year.

Something similar is true for the press pack. On Monday I was among 40 journalists at a lunch on the sunny seafront terrace of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. The hotel is closed for the winter but its owners, the Oetker family (whose interests run from banking and shipping to frozen pizza and ready-made cake mix), had opened for the occasion and flown in five head chefs from their collection of hotels. Rather than pizza, there was crab and avocado tartare, sea bass with fig seeds in argan oil, plus caviar on mashed potato – a signature dish of Le Bristol in Paris that alone costs €160. We cleared our plates – partly because between them the chefs had no fewer than six Michelin stars, partly because there was no supper on the agenda and our expense budgets wouldn’t stretch beyond a bread roll in Cannes.

. . .

The growing orthodoxy in the world of high-end travel is that luxury is less about foie gras and Krug, more about having “life experiences”. Companies in the conference hall sold trips to commune with remote Namibian tribes, watch flamenco in authentic gypsy bars in Spain, camp in the Empty Quarter, bathe in a naturally hot underground waterfall in Iceland. This is “experiential travel” as the (basically meaningless) new buzz-phrase has it.

Against this background Silvio Ursini, executive vice-president of Bulgari Hotels, made a brave, if slightly apologetic-sounding, rallying call for the old school. “These days the talk is all about experience, experience, experience,” he said. “Maybe we are a bit old-fashioned but when you’re sitting in a bathtub, looking at 10 sq metres of onyx that costs £5,000 per metre, that’s an experience as far as I’m concerned.”

. . .

Amongst such frivolity it’s easy to forget that travel is a serious business, something highlighted by the UN’s World Tourism Organisation last week. It calculated that Thursday saw the arrival of the year’s billionth international tourist. It is the first time that milestone has been reached and, says the UNWTO, it underlines that tourism represents 5 per cent of the global economy, surpassing oil exports, food production and car manufacturing.

Of course the growth is being fuelled by the Brics, and expensive hotels have come to rely on rich tourists from these new markets. Now, though, some hoteliers admit they are starting to turn down bookings to avoid being dominated by guests from one country. Olivier Lefebvre, director of hotels at LVMH, which runs the Cheval Blanc in Courchevel, told me they actively manage the mix of nationalities. “It’s about balance,” he said.

. . .

At a reception for Oberoi hotels, I asked one of the group’s general managers if his staff ever framed online photos of guests. He said no, but that they did sometimes circulate photos before key guests arrived, so staff could recognise them. At this point someone chipped in with the story of a friend staying at a five-star hotel who was asked by a member of staff to pose for a photo. He did so, feeling rather important, then asked why they wanted it. “Well, we do already have a photo of you on file from a couple of years back, sir,” came the reply, “but you no longer look much very like it.”

Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor

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