Luxury boutique hotels and resorts seem to be a hit with a new generation of travellers who are prioritising personalised experiences
What makes a five-star hotel stay memorable? The little things. When we travel, it's these little things that the property has to offer, from the range of services to the small touches such as a soothing colour palette, hotel slippers, or perhaps heated floors in the bathroom. But given the recent changes in the travel landscape, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is the aura of a five-star experience slowly fading?
The YouGov Travel & Tourism Report 2022—which sheds light on the travel perspectives, considerations and preferences of Gen Z travellers—reveals that high costs are a major barrier to travel among 18-24-year-olds. Data from the report shows that more than a third of Gen Z travellers (37 per cent) identify travel costs as a hurdle, compared to the global population (32 per cent). The price of accommodation is also flagged as an important concern by the Gen Z traveller. Sensitivity to price can be seen in the accommodation types preferred by 18-24-year-olds. Over a third (35 per cent) choose a standard 3-star (or below) hotel or motel, making it the most popular accommodation type.
Although price is a sore point for many in the Gen Z demographic, luxury (4- or 5-star) hotels and resorts still rank among their top three travel accommodations (21 per cent). Around two in ten (19 per cent) of 18-24-year-olds are also likely to opt for the independence of a rented apartment or house. This could mean, though they are looking for budget-friendly alternatives, some Gen Z travellers do not mind splurging on a comfortable, high-end experience.
"While leisure hauls and boutique getaways are leading the opt-in trends, the upside to this woke-travel culture is the shift in the mindsets of travellers that have carved a share of the pie for all hospitality operators. A certain flexibility in work style has given a lift off to homestays and boutique resorts. Still, larger MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions)/weddings/corporate and business leisure travellers continue seeking five-star hotels for more dynamic and high-traction travel plans. Unlike consumers visiting boutique hotels for a local experience, those leaning toward five-star hotels simply intend to indulge in luxury. Whether it is leisure travellers looking to experience high-quality services through spas, fine dining restaurants or rooftop bars, or business travellers wanting a comfortable stay during their company conference—the root desire for luxury is a common factor," says Atul Bhalla, area manager (West & East ITC Hotels India), and general manager, ITC Maratha Mumbai.
Since the pandemic, travel has become more localised, with more and more Indians opting to splurge on travel within India instead of the pre-pandemic trend of booking a vacation to North America or Europe. In fact, one of the main beneficiaries of this sudden tourism spurt is the Union Territory of Ladakh, with the total tourist arrivals reaching 304,077 in 2021, of which 303,023 were domestic tourists, and 1,054 were foreign tourists. In 2020, total tourist arrivals in Ladakh stood at 7,869, of which 6,743 were domestic and 1,126 were foreign tourists.
Rigzin Wangmo Lachic's plant-based restaurant Tsas, and boutique resort, Dolkhar, which she started in June 2022, is now on Time magazine's recently-released World's Greatest Places Of 2023 list is a testament to the power of an experiential stay. Dolkhar, the seven-villa property named after Rigzin's grandmother Dolkar ('khar' means ‘palace’ in Ladakhi), stands where her grandmother's orchard and small house once were. In a recent interview with The Hindu, Lachic says she aims to change the mindset of the 'fast traveller' who views travel as just another vacation. But she hopes her boutique property will pander to the traveller who prefers to explore Ladakh for its rich heritage.
The Rise of Boutique Hotels
Successful boutique hotels in India provide bespoke hospitality, authentic Indian décor, tailored menus, luxury services, refreshing greenery and other amenities. In the case of Bijapur Lodge, located in the Jawai region of Rajasthan, which is referred to as the 'leopard country of India,' the boutique property offers travellers the opportunity to commune with locals (the hotel employs men from the indigenous Rabari tribe). "We only have seven rooms in total, allowing us to cater to our guests' specific needs and wants. If they want to go on a leopard safari, they can. We also give them a tour of the surrounding village and introduce them to the local Rabari tribe, thereby allowing them to soak in the place's culture," says G. Vishnu Vardhan, one of the resort's owners.
With their personalised service and attention to detail, boutique hotels offer more intimate and tailor-made experiences beyond traditional hotel chains. Keeping in mind consumers' growing interest in wellness and self-care, particularly after the pandemic, some boutique hotels are becoming wellness-driven and choosing a well-tailored approach to cater to this trend with a strong focus on healing and sustainability. By offering amenities such as yoga classes, wellness services, cuisine, and much more, they provide a holistic experience that appeals to travellers hand-picking their destinations as they seek a healthy lifestyle.
Building a bond
Siddharth Yadav, vice president at MRS Hospitality, which owns and operates Suryagarh in Jaisalmer, Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner, and Mary Budden Estate in Binsar, Uttarakhand, believes the boutique hotel experience is a medium to showcase a love for and fascination with distinct landscapes, people and extraordinary stories. "Through us, our guests engage with our worlds in intimate ways—which we believe sets them on incredible personal journeys. For us, hosting a guest isn't just about ensuring they have clean sheets and food; it's about building recall, introducing them to a way of living far removed from what they consider the normal way of life while also learning about their reasons for choosing the property and keeping in mind their specific quirks so that when they visit a second or third time, we know what they expect of us," he says.
In light of how Indians view travel, how does a legacy brand like ITC reinvent itself amid the influx of newer boutique offerings nationwide? "We have taken many steps to keep our offerings across the brand portfolio relevant to the changing demands. For instance, when we took the massive decision to extend our celebrated dine-in restaurants to the home-delivery experience through 'Gourmet Couch' offerings, extensive research was conducted on combination menus, price points, logistics to technology with the single goal of extending a seamless culinary experience for guests at home. The group deep-dived into the landscape by understanding the business models adopted by cloud kitchens and standalone restaurants to ensure we stayed relevant," says Bhalla.
Change in focus
Lohono Stays by Isprava, which specialises in creating and curating luxury holiday homes for rent globally, operates quite uniquely. Their brand promise is clear: Best-in-class properties integrated with seamless service. "From turndown services twice a day to a full-blown F&B programme to a 24/7 concierge service, we provide our guests a deep level of engagement. When you have beautiful, social media-worthy properties on your platform, ensuring that service matches up to the villa is important. We take this aspect of our business seriously and go over and above to ensure that service is consistent and efficient," says founder and group COO Dhimaan Shah.
Globally, the vacation rental market is around US$85-95 billion. In India as well, as per research by Axon Developers, the industry is sized at US$1.394 billion and will reach over US$4 billion by 2026. The industry's supply side is thriving, with an increase in the volume of second homes, rental villas, serviced apartments, farmhouses and other gated communities. This helps increase market stocks, making the segment more accessible and available even in remote terrains and locations with underdeveloped hospitality markets. "Luxury villas tend to have a more intimate feel, with features such as private pools, gardens and kitchens, which give guests a sense of home away from home. The personalised experiences offered by luxury villas are a major draw for travellers, allowing them to create a tailor-made vacation that is unique to their preferences," says Shah.
At a time when the contours of tourism are shifting, and there is a growing convergence of tourism, hospitality, wellness and real estate, the alternative rental space is well-positioned to make a bigger impact. While hotel and resort occupancy rates have increased, indicating a market recovery, the alternative space is also doing well.
The wellness industry is growing at a CAGR of 25-30 per cent and is expected to be worth US$140 billion by 2030. A larger market share of India's growing wellness business can be captured by systematically developing complementary facilities such as Ayurveda centres, massage centres and spas, yoga studios, naturopathy cottages, rental villas and homes. It has the potential to combine tourism and wellness and open up new opportunities.
At Atmantan Wellness Center in Maharashtra's Mulshi, Nikhil and Sharmilee Kapur have created an oasis of calm, offering a wellness-centred experience to their patrons. “Personalised experiences are certainly a key factor in the success of boutiques. While five-star hotels also strive to provide exceptional service, they cater to a diverse clientele, making it more challenging to offer personalised experiences on a larger scale. Additionally, the sheer size of many five-star hotels can create a more impersonal and less intimate atmosphere, which may not be as conducive to building lasting relationships with guests," says Nikhil. On the other hand, says Sharmilee, "by providing bespoke services to meet a consumer's requirements and expectations, boutiques curate a distinctive and unforgettable experience that also helps foster loyal customers.”