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Notes from 2019’s HICSA, AHIC and NYU Hospitality Investment Conferences

For Luca Franco, Founder and CEO of Luxury Frontiers, another day at the “office” often involves jetting halfway across the world to scout an exotic new destination or meet with investors at VIP hospitality conferences. On the heels of a recent trip to India, the United Arab Emirates, and New York City, where he attended the Hotel Investment Conference South Asia (HICSA), the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC), and NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, respectively, we caught up with him to get the lowdown on these events and learn about the emerging trends in these destinations. Read on for the full interview.

Three hospitality conferences from April to June? It sounds like you’ve been busy.

Indeed. For one week, I was in Delhi and Mumbai, where the HICSA conference was hosted, then I was in Saudi Arabia for few days on business, and from there, I went to Dubai then on to Ras al Khaimah for AHIC. In June, I met my Luxury Frontiers colleague JamieRose Briones in New York to attend the NYU conference.

What were the key takeaways?

India is ripe for experiential travel, as it’s a part of the country’s DNA and heritage. Camping in the desert, communing with nature as a way to recharge and rejuvenate — these are activities that people have been doing in India and the Middle East for ages. So it makes sense that the pendulum has swung back to the model where being out in nature is considered the ultimate luxury, not sitting by the pool simply taking in the view and reading a book.

What was LF’s involvement in the HICSA conference?

HICSA invited me to come and speak about what we’re doing at Luxury Frontiers and how it aligns with the tremendous travel consumer shift we’ve witnessed over the past decade. Because experiential travel is so deeply ingrained in the travel consciousness in India, there’s a lot of affinity and alignment between what LF is doing and the state of tourism there. That is why we couldn’t be more excited to announce that we’re designing our first project there, a 30-room tented resort, in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Exciting! We’ll stay tuned for upcoming announcements. How is experiential travel in India different from experiential travel elsewhere?

India has a rare combination of intense natural beauty, rich and diverse cultural heritage, and a certain element of mysticism. So experiential travel in India leans heavily toward transformational travel. It’s about taking a journey to see yourself in a new light. To illustrate what transformational travel looks like, I like to use the example of the Six Senses Zighy Bay, in Oman. Obviously, the resort is not in India, but the hotel does such an excellent job that it bears mentioning. To get to the resort, guests must paraglide to the hotel’s reception. It’s an exhilarating journey and one that allows guests to experience this amazing sense of accomplishment and arrival.

This seems like a good segue for discussing travel trends in Arabia. Tell us about AHIC.

I was invited to AHIC to talk on a panel about the “edge of wildness – adventure tourism luxury concepts” — so everything related to sustainability, responsible tourism, and eco-adventures. The wilderness is not necessarily the first thing that springs to mind when talking about the United Arab Emirates. But developers and investors in the region, and specifically in Ras Al Khaimah, are starting to realize that there is a worldwide shift toward more responsible, more experiential tourism. So there is a newfound interest in this model.

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Luca on AHIC’s “Edge of Wildness” panel with fellow speakers James McBride of Nihi Hotels and Adrian Gardiner of Mantis Collection. Photo courtesy of AHIC.

In what ways are we seeing this shift in the region?

We all know that the “go higher, go bigger” model in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is not sustainable going forward. We also know that consumers aren’t responding as much to this way of thinking as they might have, say, ten years ago. But there are other Emirates — specifically, Ras al Khaimah — where a different approach is gaining traction. Last year’s AHIC was dedicated to highlighting the eco-sensitive movement in the destination, where there is an array of outdoor adventures, sustainable resorts, and the longest zip line in the world. So this year’s event was about tracking the progress of these projects in the Emirate.

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Luca with HH Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi, the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, at AHIC.

Why should the other Emirates follow Ras al Khaimah’s lead?

Because — and this is something I covered in my panel —  sustainability is not only sexy but also profitable. Guests are interested in environmentalism, so it’s generally good for business and translates to more heads in beds. With sustainability, you also see a reduction in cost associated with energy consumption and waste management. But most importantly, sustainability is inspiring. Your staff will be proud and passionate, and you’ll see higher productivity and dedication toward providing superlative service to your guests.

What were some of the key takeaways of the NYU conference?

Takeaways from the NYU conference ran the gamut from how different hotel brands and industry players are vying to connect and forge lasting relationships with guests to how the demand for travel remains strong as ever. InterContinental Hotel Group’s CEO, Elie Maalouf, said something very encouraging: “If we go back 20 years and look at what’s really driven our industry, [one of the factors is that] when people get more income, they do one thing predominately: they travel. When they travel, they do a couple of things; they eat, sleep and drink. All of us take care of those quite well.”

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Photo by NYU.

What was particularly memorable at NYU?

What was also really interesting was the Beyond the Boardroom session, during which the founders of Nobu Hospitality spoke. It was fascinating listening to Robert De Niro, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, and Meir Teper discuss the success and growth of Nobu from one city restaurant to a worldwide restaurant, hotel, resort and lifestyle brand, which I especially admire as a fellow entrepreneur.