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Robot butlers, self-check-in desks, pocket-sized portable maids … the travel industry has, to quote travel agent Ron Booth, “found itself the guinea-pig for innovations in information technology.”

And it’s understandable why. If you’ve ever stood in a three-hour customs line at the airport or sat by idly, waiting for a tube of toothpaste or hairdryer to be delivered to your guest room, you’ve fantasized about making your precious vacation time as smooth and as kink-free as possible.

But as Robyn Pratt, Managing Director of Impacting Consulting Ltd., points out in an article in Hotels Mag, these technologies will never replace the role or desire for human engagement in high-end hospitality experiences. To exercise this point, Pratt opens her article by asking the reader to think of “the last hotel that made a real impression.” Sure, the fluffy pillows may have stood out as exceptional and yes, the luxurious bathrobe may have been particularly memorable, but Pratt suggests, “it was another special ingredient that really made the difference”: human touch.

“People need more than ever … a handshake, a smile, a personal welcome, and a conversation,” she writes.

Her article echoes the central argument in Nellie Bowles’ recent New York Times article, “Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good.” Bowles argues that in a world of automation, human contact — ironically the most wildly “available” commodity out there — has become a status symbol among the wealthy, the single cohort that is most suspicious of the meddling and pernicious effects of technology.

She writes, “The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass,” paving the way for the “luxurification of human engagement.” To substantiate this claim, Bowles turned to Milton Pedraza, the chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a consultancy that advises the wealthy how to live and spend.

Pedraza and his time have discovered that one side effect of the increasing ubiquity of devices is the growing trend of experiences as luxury goods — a movement we’ve unpacked in greater detail here.

Bowles writes, “Anticipated spending on experiences such as leisure travel and dining is outpacing spending on goods, according to [Pedraza’s] company’s research, and he sees it as a direct response to the proliferation of screens.”

Ultimately, the human difference that Pratt alluded to all comes down to personalization. Not the level of “personalization” that is discernable to a machine — a tube of whitening toothpaste or a high-wattage hair dryer, for example — but in a hyper-tailored way that aligns with a customer’s values. She argues that customers need to connect, “not just with the service you offer but with the values that underpin everything your company was built on and what it strives to achieve each and every day.”

In the travel space, some of these “new” values might be the protection of the environment, the preservation of local cultures, the desire for personal enrichment and transformation, and the need to be immersed in nature.

Hotels are responding to traveler’s desires for connection by adding programming that is human-intensive — for example, a bird-watching expedition with a naturalist (as is offered at Abu Camp) or a local-led group excursion to a local village (as is an activity at Belmond Eagle Island Lodge).

As lower staff-to-guest ratios are becoming prevalent in an increasingly automated world (think: food kiosks replacing serviced restaurant and limited-service hotels usurping their full-service counterparts), the addition of more staff members for specialty services will be central to high-end hospitality experiences. If a hotel has an art gallery, for example, this could mean the hiring of a gallerist or artist-in-residence. Meanwhile, a property with a wellness focus might consider tapping a high-octane personal trainer or healer to attract travelers looking for that extra level of customization and sophistication. In short, the higher staff-to-guest ratio, the more luxurious a hospitality experience will be.

This personalization phenomenon is more important than ever, according to Alyssa Auberger, Consumer Goods & Retail Industry Group Chair, who urges companies and retailers to make their mission statement loud and clear for customers to rally behind.

“The increased consumer desire for personalization — whether around a product or an experience — is one aspect brands need to be sensitive to, as is the desire to share values with a brand — to trust a product and feel a connection.”

Luxury Frontiers, which specializes in experiential lodging concepts that bring consumers back to nature, reminding them of their values and what makes them human, has been giving hotel owners and operators this personalization edge since day one. Whether it’s developing tented camps that plunge guests into the wilderness or integrating programming that teaches them about animal conservation, Luxury Frontiers is enabling its clients to do what a robot can’t — and then a whole lot more.

Photo Credit: Seet, Ken / Four Seasons


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