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Has Luxury Travel Put Itself Under a Cloud of Shame?

traditional red pagodas with mountain backdrop

I recently read a Skift article titled, “Conscious Travel Emerging as Yet Another Hot Luxury Trend,(opens in a new tab)” written by Deanna Ting.

Ms. Ting’s article is thought provoking in-and-of-itself, but I think it also exposes two issues the travel industry seems to currently be enmeshed in – “what is trending and “what is luxury.” While these are effectively two different issues, what the article sheds light on is the luxury discomfiture currently trending in the luxury travel sector.

I’ve always understood “trending” as something that is fleeting or temporary. This seems to be supported by the opening line of the article which reads, “For at least the past year, the travel industry, and especially the luxury sector, has latched onto the idea of “transformative travel” as the new “experiential travel.”

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the concept of transformational travel and go as far as trying to incorporate the theme into the journeys my own company plans. The question I have though is, “Is the concept of transformational travel trending or is it the word ‘transformational’ that is trending? Travel, at its root, is intended to be experiential and transformational and always has been. I believe what we are seeing in the travel industry is a return to the incorporation of that core principle, regardless of what buzzword it currently comes in. However, what that experience, and ultimately, the transformation is, is determined by the degree to which we participate in our journey. But by no means is that a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. We choose anything from a “hop-on, hop-off’ experience, to the regime of an itinerary in which every moment is planned out for us, or if we prefer, a journey that allows us to get off the proverbial beaten path and engage with local communities for authentic connections that aim to genuinely build a sense of global community and not just sightseeing tours. We, as an industry and travel advisors, can lay the right foundation for the latter, but ultimately the choice lies with our guests and clients as to what extent they wish to participate in creating their experiences that result in their personal transformation.

So, how do we get from “transformational” to “conscious” travel being the emerging trend? I’m afraid I am confused on that as the former would seem to be a result or outcome, where I would classify the latter as an approach. I believe many of us in the travel industry are seriously working to implement a conscious travel approach but are doing so from a baseline perspective rather than a trend to jump on board with.

Citing several industry execs, Ms. Ting’s article exposes the challenge we face in the travel industry on unilaterally defining what conscious and/or responsible travel is. One states it is “human rights and sustaining communities, and not just sustainability,” while another believes it is corporate social responsibility, sustainability, equal rights and gender equality. If we are not necessarily on the same page as to what it is, how can we begin to disseminate a universal definition and/or approach to our consumers that will bring the positive results we are collectively seeking? It seems a bit like building a house with six different sets of blueprints; not much is going to get accomplished until we all work together – a trend I hope comes soon.

Referring back to the discomfiture currently trending in the luxury sector, aside from seeing other social media discussions on this exact issue recently, comments made by two prominent industry executives in Deanna Ting’s article seem to be indicative of a trend by some in the luxury travel sector of being embarrassed to be identified as a luxury brand – a seemingly self-inflicted “luxury shaming.”

One of the gentlemen states, “We try really hard not to use the word ‘luxury’. It’s evolving into something that has a certain connotation around it that doesn’t sit so well with us. There’s this connotation of excess. I don’t want to be about excess. I want us to be about community and connectivity. . .”

With no intent of being contentious, I am genuinely puzzled by these comments. The organization is a luxury brand with a stellar reputation, so my question becomes, “Why hide or shy away from it?” It’s a bit like zebras saying, “We try really hard not to use the word stripes.” You are who you are, and if you intended to be a luxury brand, then be a luxury brand because the only pejorative connation around it is the one you assign to it. I don’t see the value in trying to portray yourself as less than you are, be it an individual or an organization. And, with no disrespect intended, I completely disagree that luxury is “evolving into something that has a certain connotation around it . . .” It is not evolving into anything we don’t want it to be. And for certain, luxury can be about, or inclusive of, community and connectivity, no one ever said they had to be mutually exclusive.

Another executive quoted, echoed similar sentiments and what unfortunately seems to be another example of “luxury shaming.” The gentleman is quoted as saying, “Having been in the business this long, I really see the missing ingredients. It’s almost like luxury is a compensation for feeling inadequate rather than luxury is a sense of abundance. I would love for us to be an industry of abundance and that we are spreading wellness, goodness, and kindness.
It’s about what people don’t have enough of. Imagine if the luxury business stood for caring for the less fortunate, using our platform and maybe once a year, closing for a week and welcoming others who may not have the opportunities to access. Wouldn’t that be great? We share our abundance, rather than create exclusivity. It’s like building a wall versus building a bridge.”

I believe these comments were well intentioned, but I question how realistic they are. An executive from the luxury travel sector stating luxury travel is “compensation for feeling inadequate” seems misguided. Regarding the statement of, “I would love for us to be an industry of abundance and that we are spreading wellness, goodness, and kindness.” It is perplexing to see another executive who believes the luxury travel industry isn’t or cannot posses or demonstrate those qualities, yet many of us in the luxury sector are currently striving to make them core components of our businesses.

What I must unfortunately take real exception to is the idea of “maybe once a year, closing down for a week and welcoming others who may not have the opportunities to access.” While I again understand the idea is well intended, I believe the reality is something entirely different. How is this to be implemented exactly? And I can’t quite connect the dots as to how this is “bridge building.” It would seem to be effectively inviting the less fortunate to come into see what’s behind the walls. It sounds as if the intent is to open the castle doors, lower the draw bridge, and hang a sign that reads, “Welcome Poor People.” I realize that might come across as crass, but it serves the need to say the proposed approach is fundamentally flawed. If we are to spread “wellness, goodness, and kindness,” we don’t invite people in for one week a year to show them what they don’t have and think this is a positive approach. I fail to see how this would benefit anyone. In my opinion, it is just the opposite. We open the proverbial castle doors every day and go out into the communities we are a part of, and/or visiting, and authentically engage with them doing everything we can to support and empower them.

I don’t believe there is a reason for anyone in the luxury travel to be grappling with, or promoting, the idea that being a luxury brand is mutually exclusive of being about community, connectivity, kindness, goodness, and inclusivity. It is not. Again, we are who we are, and do not need carry or project an air of shame about it. We simply need to understand that we, and the affluent clientele we cater to, are often people of privilege and, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility.” By assuming that responsibility, our experiences, actions and deeds when traveling can not only be empowering to all concerned in regard to building a sense of global community, but truly transformative on a multitude of levels. Ms. Ting very astutely stated, “With conscious, or responsible travel, travelers are seeking more than just a feeling of being transformed or achieving some sort of personal fulfillment. They want to know that their travels are, in some way, just as fulfilling for others, too. It’s also an erosion of the traditional barriers of exclusivity that once defined luxury.” I couldn’t agree more and so it would seem the task, or goal, is providing the opportunities in which our guests can accomplish their personal objectives – for the benefit of all concerned. I don’t believe we can’t legitimately do this if be are not being authentic ourselves about who we are.

Justin Smith

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