Throughout much of the world, hoteliers are feeling good. America has just completed its 44th month of consecutive growth in revenue per available room. Elsewhere, the pipeline for new development is filling nicely, with year-over-year increases as high as 5.9% in the Middle East.
I spent last week at the LE Miami conference, held in a city that, with pending inventory of an additional 2,442 rooms, ranks No. 2 in the country for percentage of growth in properties under construction.
I toured some recently opened venues there. Development in South Beach/Miami Beach is fueled by high occupancy and buoyant average daily rates: The operations manager of the Metropolitan by Como, a 53-key property that opened three months ago, told me he has already commanded as much as $900 a night for a standard room that bottoms at $250.
But I began to think that, overlaying these positive statistical indicators, the hospitality community was challenged in at least one important aspect. Some hoteliers I spoke with were contemplating new directions and wondering, thoughtfully, where do they go from here.
The theme of LE Miami was "Defining the shift in luxury." But for some general managers, it seemed to go deeper than that. Not exactly soul-searching, but searching for next year's soul.
They have good reason to do so. The G.M. of every restored Art Deco hotel on Ocean Drive can tell you what makes them different, but in too many instances, they have to tell you. It's not readily apparent.
And even when they tell you -- well, one public relations rep said his brand was driven by "food, drink, design and wellness." Aren't these the entry-level requirements for any property aspiring to a lifestyle or boutique profile?
Some hotels are innovating at a tactical level. The Palms Hotel & Spa's chef, Julie Frans, leads 40 guests a week on a visit to her on-property vegetable garden.
"In Florida, you can't be a farm-to-table chef year-round, but you can grow some of what you serve," she said, as she showed off her staked wild Everglades tomatoes and Caribbean spinach.
Other properties participating in LE Miami are contemplating change at a more existential level. Christophe Chauvin, the general manager of the 47-year-old Byblos hotel in St. Tropez, is guiding his celebrated five-star through a spiritual evolution as he attempts to retain core elements while positioning Byblos for tomorrow's guest profile.
"I'm 40 years old, but I'm already the older generation," said Chauvin, who took the G.M. spot when he was 32. "I have to adapt to what will be."
He has his eye on the rising collaborative economy as well as the changing sensitivities of today's luxe traveler. He recently hosted his first "Saudi American" family, a label given to the growing ranks of fracking millionaires, often farmers who became incredibly rich overnight. These particular guests were a "very nice" mulitgenerational family from Nebraska who were refreshingly excited about being wealthy.
He described an initiative in which he brings guests off property to meet Ian, a local farmer in Provence who is, for lack of a better word, "authentic." ("He does his labor with a horse. He doesn't like to wear shoes. He likes to feel the dirt, to know whether the soil is too dry.") Ian, who also supplies the hotel with produce, will break off artichokes for visitors and let them sample what the vegetable tastes like raw and fresh.
I told Chauvin this struck me as the type of activity that a collaborative travel initiative could market, as well, and cut out his middleman role.
He searched for the words to define why what he was doing could not be duplicated in the sharing economy.
He described, in detail, how much he loved Provence. I suggested that perhaps what he was doing was helping his guests connect to the area.
"Yes!" he said. "That's it. Connections. That's the future of our industry: to share your life and experience with others. It's not about comfortable beds, the TV and air conditioning. You have to find the right strings to make the connection both efficient and give a real experience. We are just at the beginning of it. The goal is to make clients happy, to let them say, 'I've been to Provence and know the taste of an artichoke.'"
Or a wild Everglades tomato in South Florida. Chef Frans, too, is seeking connections.
In some regards, what Chauvin is describing is simply experiential travel, which is not exactly a "shift in luxury." The term "experiential travel" has been around for about a decade.
But "connections" is a worthy subgenre to experiential, and one that puts the hotelier more in the role of facilitator than tour guide.
Connecting adds value. When a hotelier loves his location and knows what is truly authentic, the best he can do is to connect guests to it and then stand back. That's possibly the shift: taking a step backward rather than forward. Merely making an introduction and letting the connection unfold without further intervention.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.