If the eternally optimistic Richard Branson's latest predictions come true, 2018 could be the year he ushers in a new generation of luxury travel with the launch of Virgin Galactic's $250,000-per-person flights into space.
But even if the race between Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to be the first active space tourism company sees continued delays, 2018 promises to be yet another year of raising the bar on and blurring the lines between luxury sectors and traveler demographics, as companies scurry to come up with new ways to meet the seemingly unrelenting demand for the unique, the local, the personal and the adventurous.
It's also a year in which travelers can expect to see continued advances in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, from on-demand virtual yoga instructors in their hotel rooms to wearable devices that solve the too-hot or too-cold dilemma by delivering personalized thermal comfort.
"I believe that success in the future is not only going to be based on what you can see but what you can feel," said Matthew Upchurch, president and CEO of Virtuoso. "But it's a balance. It's not like you can stop in one place and put it all in the emotional. You have to keep raising the bar on both."
Indeed, with seemingly countless studies revealing that millennials and non-traditional luxury travelers are willing to splurge for travel that offers real experiences, everyone from hotels to river cruise lines are finding innovative ways to sell destinations by partnering with local chefs, fitness professionals, cultural experts and more, to offer everything from simple guided bike tours and dinners in people's homes to backstage passes and custom private jet adventures.
"Now, it's a lot like being a chef," Upchurch said. "Everyone starts with the same basic ingredients, but it's how you put that together. It's the spices. It's the choreography. So that's why this blurring is really true."
The fast-growing demand for high-end custom and group adventures is driving growth from increasingly diverse demographics at companies like National Geographic Expeditions. To tap into that, Nancy Schumacher, senior vice president of tour operations for National Geographic Expeditions, said the company is opening offices in London, Mexico City and Sydney next year. It also will be adding to its Unique Lodges of the World portfolio, launching river cruise expeditions and growing its private, customizable itineraries program, which Schumacher said has grown 100% each year since it was launched in 2015.
"Luxury is about more than the accommodations these days," she said. "Luxury is about the luxury of the experience."
More traditional hospitality companies are also focused on delivering a lot more than a room. At AccorHotels, luxury brands CEO Chris Cahill said the focus across the company's luxury portfolio is on "creating memorable experiences."
Each of its 90 M Gallery boutique hotels, for example, offers a signature local experience, be it a ride in a Bentley from the Retreat Palm Dubai for breakfast with local Emirati Bedouins, shooting a film and having it professionally edited while staying at the Victory House in London's West End or learning how to make madeleines at Le Grand Hotel in Cabourg, France.
Hilton Worldwide's Waldorf Astoria brand has a similar program, said John Vanderslice, global head of luxury and lifestyle brands.
"The whole theme is 'live unforgettable,'" Vanderslice said. "Every hotel and resort has to come up with one."
AccorHotels also works with the company's John Paul luxury concierge service, which helps businesses and travelers tie into the unusual, the personal and the local.
And while hotels are no longer just selling a room, those accommodations also must be standouts.
At Marriott International, one project at company headquarters is the room of the future, said Tina Edmundson, global head of its luxury and lifestyle brands.
And at Hilton's Conrad brand, which developed the hotel industry's first digital concierge service, Vanderslice said, the company has partnerships with both Cornell University and Intel Capital to develop technological advances for the luxury sector.
For example, Conrad and Intel Capital recently hosted a pitch day for six startups to showcase their technology. Presenters included Chargifi, which has developed a global wireless charging network, and Embr Labs, which has created a device guests can wear to ensure a constant comfortable temperature in their room.
The demand for personal experiences is also expected to continue fueling the boom in private jet travel.
Four Seasons, which now has its own branded 757 for round-the-world and other group tours, last month unveiled a partnership with Net Jets to offer three completely customizable, nongroup excursions packed with activities and exclusive access across properties in the Rocky Mountains, Europe and Hawaii.
And Regal Wings, a first- and business-class brokerage firm that specializes in working with travel agents, said the private jet charter division it created two years ago is booming.
"We've already grown 40% this year," said Alisa Tokushima, charter division manager for Regal Wings. The highest demand, she said, is for midsize jets for business and family travel.
Whether or not luxury flying experiences will extend beyond the Earth's atmosphere this year is anyone's guess. Virgin Galactic, which originally hoped to launch its space tourism program from New Mexico's Spaceport America as early as 2011, suffered a serious setback in 2014 when its SpaceShipTwo broke apart on a test flight over the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one of its two pilots. The company quit issuing predictions for launch after that, but Branson, who has said he plans to be on the first flight, told the Telegraph newspaper in London in April that he'd "be very disappointed" if the program "isn't well underway" by the end of 2018.