How many creeps can one industry handle?
Hoteliers are well aware of "amenity creep," the endless rounds of raising guest expectations. Back in the 1950s, the Mayfair Hotel in St. Louis decided to differentiate itself by placing a chocolate on each guest's pillow in the evening. Today, the chocolate is as much an entitlement as the pillow.
In fact, in five-star hotels, you'd be disappointed if all you found was a single chocolate. I've come into rooms and found small treasure chests filled with Middle Eastern sweets, or an assortment of freshly made cookies. I have even twice found candy Arnies awaiting me; pastry chefs were apparently instructed to find my likeness on the Web and prepare an edible facsimile. (In both cases, the chef overestimated my sweetness.)
Today, amenity creep finds expression in everything from the mattress to the brand of shampoo to the size of the flat-screen TV. And once the bar has been raised, there's no going back.
But a shift has occurred in recent years. Hoteliers have found that for a growing subset of guests, luxury is not enough. The thrill of seeing a bar of Hermes soap at the sink or standing beneath a rainfall showerhead has faded. No longer are they impressed by comfort and pampering; they want to be amused, engaged and stimulated.
A Michelin-star restaurant is well and fine, but guests want to join the chef on a trip to the local market. In fact, there is creeping involvement in the hunting-and-gathering process: Last summer at Carmel Valley Ranch in northern California, I donned beekeeping gear to help collect honey.
Perhaps it's not surprising that once hoteliers (and tour operators and cruise lines) started down the path of layering experiential texture onto their products, the games of one-upmanship would commence in earnest. I wrote earlier this year about how guests transferring from the airport to Six Senses in Zighy Bay, Oman, have the option of soaring into the open lobby for check-in on a hang-glider (accompanied by an experienced pilot).
With this type of offering appearing so early in the experiential arms race, it'll be very interesting to see how fast and far things can go.
Last week, I had breakfast with the management of Red Savannah, a tour operation at the forefront of the luxury-plus-experience movement. Its CEO, George Morgan-Grenville, had once been global managing director of luxe brand Abercrombie & Kent. He is finding that travelers' hunger for experience has affected even the way he structures his company.
"Traditionally, a tour operator has a product manager who goes off and scouts," he said. "They find the products and work with operations to put together the logistics for a tour, then go back into the field again. They'd never speak directly to a client. But now we have Albee [Yeend, regional manager for Africa and the Indian Ocean] go off and disappear for two weeks, discover new experiences and then speak with travel agents and clients, describing firsthand what we offer."
Guides, too, have evolved, he added. "You want intelligent, educated people, with university degrees. Good raconteurs. Finding them is one of our most difficult challenges."
Unlike amenity creep, moving guests from "the material to the physical," as Morgan-Grenville put it, requires not just expense but creativity. Tasked with finding something unusual for an active group heading to Venice, Red Savannah arranged with a local gondolier school to provide lessons for the clients. (It's unclear if the school also taught them to sing, overcharge and make rude gestures at anyone taking their photo.)
And, with the pressures many travelers experience in their daily lives, Morgan-Grenville has discovered that when it comes to experience, less can be more.
He runs a program to the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India, where guests can charter a simple but comfortable house in a village.
"The beauty is that it's unstructured," he said. "You can do prayers with monks in the morning, mountain bike over a pass in the afternoon or raft on the Zanskar River. Or you can send the guide home and just read a book on the roof."
A defining characteristic of experience creep may be that it creeps in as many directions as there are traveler interests.
And that's a creep with legs.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.