Private elevators, personal shopping assistants, six-bedroom suites with their own postal codes. Even helipads. This is what the super-rich have come to expect from hotels.
For others, vacation now means renting someone’s apartment, a spare room, maybe just a couch – anything to save on the cost of a hotel.
As the gap between the wealthiest travelers and everyone else has widened, so has the way people are experiencing vacations. The wealthy are looking for ever-more pampering. Many others are seeking new ways to economize.
And the lodging industry is adapting – at the high and low ends – to meet the diverging needs.
Luxury hotels are catering to financial elites from Russia, China, Brazil or the Middle East who now routinely hop around the world and don’t mind dropping $20,000 a night for a glamorous accommodation.
“High-end travel in the air, on the sea and on land has never been more robust,” says Steve Carvell, an associate dean at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “There are more people with more concentrated wealth.”
Luxury hotels are arising even at iconic middle-American tourism spots such as Walt Disney World. Four Seasons will open a 444-room resort there in August with 68 suites, including a nine-bedroom royal suite sporting a 1,000-square-foot private terrace with views of the park’s nightly fireworks.
During the Great Recession, many resorts dropped “resort and spa” from their name. The idea was to appeal to corporate organizers who didn’t want trips to seem extravagant. Excess now appears back in style.
In November, Four Seasons added the phrase “and residences” to its mountain resorts in Vail, Col.; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and Whistler, Canada. It’s pursuing families seeking a residential experience with the pampering of a hotel staff.
The six-bedroom suite in Vail fetches $15,000 a night. You get three living rooms and a movie room. The suite includes a dedicated assistant who can arrange airport transfers, private ski lessons and after-hours shopping.
The return of extravagance reflects one characteristic of the recovery: After paring their vacations along with everyone else during the recession, the wealthy have rebounded with force. Since 2009, hotel spending by the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans has risen about 6 percent, according to inflation-adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The middle 20 percent are still spending nearly 3 percent less.
To stretch their discretionary dollars, middle-income vacationers are fueling one of the industry’s growth areas: “limited service” lodgings. At Marriott’s Fairfield Inn, Hyatt Place and Holiday Inn Express, you get free Wi-Fi and breakfast. But there’s no bellman, concierge or restaurants.
The idea is to draw travelers who feel priced out of full-service hotels. People can still say, “I’m staying at the Marriott,” even if it’s the Fairfield Inn, says Bjorn Hanson, dean of New York University’s hospitality school.
But many people are seeking deeper savings through increasingly popular sites such as Airbnb that arrange for people to rent rooms or apartments. The number of listed accommodations has soared since Airbnb’s founding in 2008 to 550,000 – not far below Hilton’s 685,000 rooms worldwide. Some studies suggest that Airbnb -- whose hosts typically don’t pay accommodation taxes or have to meet safety or disability regulations -- could be cutting into budget hotels’ revenue.
High unemployment and flat paychecks have spurred more people not only to stay in Airbnb rooms but also to list their own homes.
Eric Worley, 30, and his girlfriend stayed at an Airbnb home in Columbus, Ohio, for $59 a night – half the lowest hotel rate they could find.
“Not only am I saving money, I’m also helping out another person … by giving them some extra money,” he says. “I’d much rather do that than have a corporation overcharge me for what is essentially the same service.”