The cure for five-star ennui? Texture.

By Arnie Weissmann

Arnie WeissmannWhere does luxury go from here?

There are hand-sewn mattresses in some Peninsula Hotel suites that cost $20,000 each.

Will five-star one-upsmanship compel a competitor to purchase the $59,000 mattress made by the same company, Hastens, or even the $1.6 million Janjaap Ruijssenaars Floating Bed? (Rather than resting on a frame, its mattress is suspended 16 inches off the ground by industrial-strength magnets.)

I'm guessing there's a point of diminishing returns for those seeking incremental improvement over "extremely comfortable." There may be value in being the first property to expose a guest to a Kohler infinity bathtub that teases the skin with gently rising Champagne-gauge bubbles, but what do you do for an encore?

"I think the world has changed," said Neil Jacobs, the newly installed CEO of Six Senses, a luxury chain that has 10 hotels in Asia and the Middle East and plans to open another six, including three in the Western Hemisphere, by 2016.

Jacobs takes over at an interesting time for upscale hospitality. Since the founding of Six Senses in 1995 by Sonu Shivdasani, the company has always had strong luxury, wellness and culinary offerings, with an overlay of sustainability.

Shivdasani sold to Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private equity firm, last June. The transition from a visionary founder to a more operationally driven owner by necessity results in adjustments. Some are strictly back-of-house, but others include changes that will likely be noticed by guests who have grown loyal to the brand.

Jacobs will oversee the transition. He comes to the job with a solid pedigree in luxury hospitality, having spent most of his career at Four Seasons. He also helped Barry Sternlicht flesh out the concepts for the Baccarat and 1 Hotels brands.

His experience has given him an appreciation for the importance of training and building a unique culture. But in a recent conversation, he also acknowledged to me that consumers of luxury are changing: While today's wealthy travelers expect comfort, an amenities arms race is not the way to win their business.

Jacobs quickly went through a list of well-known five-star hotel brands.

"I don't want to come across as patronizing, but it's getting harder and harder to distinguish between them," he said. "I think there's a level of boredom that exists today among travelers. It's not exciting anymore. Those companies have raised our expectation about what a luxury property can be, and because they've done it well, I'm used to it."

He believes he's not alone in finding traditional luxury somewhat boring.

"Do you really want to eat in another three-star Michelin restaurant?" he asked. "I don't. I don't really want to spend four hours and 1,500 euros on that. I really don't. And I think there are a lot of people like me who have been fortunate enough to have experienced this but don't want to do it anymore."

Jacobs then used a phrase I hadn't heard applied to hospitality before, but it seemed to perfectly sum up what it was he is seeking to change: "the texture of experience."

Six Senses, he said, should be a luxury product with service levels commensurate with the hotels he had rattled off earlier, "but which can have layers of experiences that are exciting and quirky and unusual. Customers at that price point have everything they need. How do you delight them? How do you surprise them? It's about the texture of the experience."

As an example, he described an option that Six Senses in Zighy Bay, Oman, offers its guests on their way in from the airport. On a mountain road above the resort, guests are given the option to strap themselves into a hang-glider with an experienced pilot and soar into the open lobby to check in.

Now that sort of experience is certainly going to wow guests more than another 20 square feet in the room or a larger plunge pool will. But Jacobs also cited something that is perhaps even more daring for a luxury property to offer: stays at the homes of local residents.

"It can be for an hour or overnight," he said. "That's what creates memorable experiences. And it's so much more fun."

In other words, Six Senses in Zighy Bay offers guests the opportunity to sleep on a mat in a local home rather than on a $20,000 mattress.

Guests might indeed notice a difference in texture. 

Correction: A previous version stated that Neil Jacobs was with One & Only Resorts, but he was not.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 

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