In a quiet garden behind the chic boutiques and galleries of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, an enchanted forest of Christmas trees evokes the festive spirit for visitors to Le Bristol Hotel. Those with a keen eye may even spot the fawn-tinted fur of one of its permanent guests, Fa-Raon, a Burmese cat, slinking between the sparkling branches.
With December being one of the busiest periods of the year for Le Bristol, the head concierge Sonia Papet is preparing a series of once-in-a-lifetime, bespoke experiences for the Christmas guests that go beyond the Michelin-starred restaurants and upmarket spas to which they are accustomed.
These activities might include a helicopter trip to see the Christmas decorations at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte; a private tour of the Legeron House silk flower maker; a bespoke photo shoot at the legendary Studio Harcourt; or an intimate dinner at the Musée Picasso cooked by Le Bristol’s three Michelin-starred chef, Éric Fréchon.
“Customers who come to stay at Le Bristol are regulars so the great classics in Paris they have already done,” she says. “Museums, tours with privileged access to the Eiffel Tower, romantic dinners on a boat, these they know already. They are looking for something else.”
Hotels, history and imagination, all in a picture-perfect setting: in a world where people post their life stories on Instagram, the “ experience economy ” acts as the perfect complement.
For the luxury goods companies, experience has emerged as the latest frontier in their battle to win over the hearts and wallets of the wealthy and aspirational. Euromonitor, a market researcher, forecasts that global expenditure on the experience economy, which it considers as leisure, recreation, travel and food services, will grow from $5.8tn in 2016 to $8tn in 2030. Nearly half of all consumers, and crucially a majority of millennials, say they are buying fewer products and more experiences, according to Bain & Company.
Luxury has always been and continues to be about experience — from the bespoke service at the early haute couture houses, to the 90-minute delivery and AI-enabled virtual stylists offered by e-retailers like Yoox Net-a-Porter and Matchesfashion.com today. But now so-called experiential luxury is driving a new era for the industry.
“Experience has been part of luxury from the very beginning but today there’s a new part of the equation,” says Floriane de Saint-Pierre, founder of a consultant to luxury brands. “We do not need to own something to feel good. There’s a movement around decluttering that’s important: it’s about having fewer things that are meaningful to you. What you really own are your memories and those are sustained by experiences.”
The clearest sign yet of the top luxury groups’ desire to tap into this trend came last week when LVMH, the world’s largest luxury group by revenues, announced the $3.2bn acquisition of hospitality group Belmond. Belmond’s portfolio of high-end hotels, train services and river cruises stretches across 24 countries and includes the Hotel Cipriani in Venice and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train service. The move gives LVMH critical mass in the hospitality sector, where it already owns Cheval Blanc hotels and Bulgari Hotels and Resorts, and adds to other acquisitions that capitalised on the growing travel industry, such as its 2016 purchase of German high-tech luggage maker Rimowa.
Belmond had begun a sale process in August and LVMH saw off competition for the deal from real estate and private equity players. “We paid a hefty price but it is not a financial transaction,” says Antonio Belloni, group managing director at LVMH. “Belmond’s portfolio of assets is unparalleled and there won’t be anything like that on the market any time soon. We like how unique, special and authentic the assets are. That will pay off in the long term.”
The first official Orient Express left Paris on October 4, 1883, bound eastward for Constantinople via Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. Louis Vuitton’s flat-top trunk had been developed a couple of decades earlier, enabling luggage to be stacked on trains and ocean liners, both then new modes of transport. The testimonies of those who made this first Orient Express journey evoke the glamour and elegance of a time when the train was a figurehead of the glorious Belle Époque.
“The bright-white tablecloths and napkins, artistically and coquettishly folded by the sommeliers, the glittering glasses, the ruby red and topaz white wine, the crystal-clear water decanters and the silver capsules of the champagne bottles — they blind the eyes of the public both inside and outside,” wrote one of the guests, the writer Henri Opper de Blowitz, about the inaugural dining car.
It was partly this nostalgia for a golden age of travel that was behind the decision by shipping entrepreneur James Sherwood to buy two old Orient Express carriages at auction in Monte Carlo in 1977.
A year earlier he had bought the lossmaking Hotel Cipriani in Venice on a whim from the Guinness family for £900,000. Mr Sherwood believed that he could refurbish the Orient Express and use it to transport British passengers — who adored both trains and Italy — from London to Venice, where they would stay in his Hotel Cipriani, via Paris. At the time, “people thought I was slightly crazy”, Mr Sherwood recalled in a 2012 interview. “They said it was a fun idea but it wouldn’t work. The common wisdom was that luxury train travel was dead.”
The Orient Express logo became the branding for a series of hotel acquisitions that Mr Sherwood made over the next three decades that stretched from the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town and Portofino. Orient Express Hotels was rebranded Belmond in 2014 after Mr Sherwood’s retirement.
The luxury travel market has huge growth potential, driven by demographic trends in emerging markets and rising disposable incomes, with travellers increasingly opting for exotic and unexplored destinations. The global luxury travel market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.4 per cent between 2016 and 2022, to reach about $1.1tn by 2022, according to Allied Market Research. And almost half of luxury goods purchases are made by customers who are travelling, says Deloitte.
LVMH’s Mr Belloni says its customers are “looking for travel experiences that are authentic and allow the discovery of the beautiful diversity of the world”. He adds: “They want to live and breathe that history, and dream like people did 100 years ago on that train.”
Like other companies, LVMH is worried about future demand from China, the largest and fastest-growing market for luxury goods, which accounts for a third of luxury sales. LVMH’s share price is down 20 per cent this year from its May peak, reflecting concerns about a slowdown in China because of tighter controls by Chinese border authorities and a trade war with the US.
Mr Belloni says the Belmond deal offers LVMH a “big opportunity” to capture the “desire to travel” from newly-rich Asian consumers. He says half of Belmond’s clients are in the US and only 10 per cent of its client base is from Asia.
Legend has it that Frédéric Boucheron chose in 1893 to move his Paris jeweller to number 26 Place Vendôme because it was the sunniest corner of the square, and he thought that the diamonds in the windows would sparkle all the more.
Walking into Boucheron’s flagship store — which was recently renovated to coincide with the brand’s 160th anniversary — the impression is of entering a grand private residence. The jewellery displays and private consultation salons that make up the ground and first floors are decorated with a mixture of vintage, contemporary and one-of-a-kind furniture, and finished with artworks lent from the private collection of François-Henri Pinault, whose luxury group Kering owns Boucheron.
As part of the renovation, Boucheron has transformed the second floor of the townhouse into a private apartment, where its most VIP clients are offered the opportunity to spend a night — or several — each year.
Past the library, through a dining room and then a sitting room, the apartment culminates in a bedroom and adjoining bathroom that looks out on to Place Vendôme, the tip of the Eiffel Tower just visible in the distance. Guests of the apartment, which is neither for sale nor for rent, will have their own butler from the nearby Ritz Hotel on hand, and be able to use the hotel’s spa, concierge and restaurants.
Meanwhile, the Hôtel de Crillon, a Rosewood hotel close to the Ritz, is this Christmas offering guests a package that starts at €150,000. It includes a helicopter transfer from Paris to Château de Chenonceau, a 16th century fairytale castle in the Loire Valley that was the home of Catherine de Médici. There is a gondola tour of the château, a performance by the Opéra de Paris ballet, a Renaissance-inspired dinner by a Michelin-star chef and a night in a bespoke suite. The next day guests will return by helicopter to the Hôtel de Crillon, to stay in the Marie-Antoinette suite where the French queen spent her early years.
The list of possibilities stretches as far as the imagination — and the wallet — will go. “We want to create a unique experience that will be remembered with emotion,” says Ms Papet, Le Bristol’s concierge. “We all need to dream.”
Get alerts on Luxury holidays when a new story is published