Supercars rolling up to a glittery hotel. Magnums of champagne. Diamonds and sequins. What we’ve traditionally associated with luxury—or a standard night at the Gatsby residence—is fading quickly.
Marine Debatte, head of events APJ/China at BI Worldwide, indicates that five-star hotels and events have reached ‘peak luxury’ where things like quality service and Nespresso machines are now a given.
“If you’re going to Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental, you expect five-star service, a concierge or maybe even a butler. There is no question there, only expectations,” she says. “What we are asking our partners today is what our clients are asking us as agencies: ‘What can you offer me that others won’t?’”
This paradigm shift isn’t something that’s exclusive to events—the luxury industry at large, whether travel or retail, is seeing a change in perceptions. And inevitably, this reaches the events industry, which in itself has adopted the personalisation megatrend.
Change is in the air
“If we are looking back 10 years then it’s not only luxury that has changed, it’s society and the luxury consumer,” says Nick Cakebread, managing partner for Reuter Communications, a luxury intelligence and marketing agency based in Shanghai.
“The changes in the Asia-Pacific region—driven by China’s rapid growth—have created a new segment of Asian luxury consumer. Today’s luxury doesn’t simply mean fancy afternoon teas or the typical luxury labels, it can mean new lifestyles and tastes.”
These new lifestyles Cakebread refers to are pervading the industry; elements such as wellness, adventure, family and culture are strong themes among today’s luxury consumer. “Luxury for the affluent Asian consumer means breaking away from the luxury of previous generations and pioneering something in their own way,” he says.
“Successful brands have to fully embrace changes and not just cling on to ‘heritage’ or ‘how things have always been done’. The agencies and brands that are winning are those brave enough to reinvent themselves, to fully understand the new luxury consumer and not just adapt, but to evolve in new ways. Inventive cross-overs with unexpected brands, innovative use of new technologies and adopting regional nuances, or ‘hyper-localism’ as I call it.”
Taking from examples of Fendi hosting a fashion show on the Great Wall of China or Burberry hosting a first-ever 3D holographic catwalk, consumer expectations are high as attendees seek ‘newness’ and ‘exclusivity’ in a way they never have before.
Ironically, it’s luxury events where delegates crave money-can’t-buy experiences. “It’s not necessarily about expensive stuff, it’s about having experiences that nobody else can have,” says Patricia Silvio, global marketing manager for destination management company Pacific World. “Clients wants exclusivity and the access to specific places and experiences. For example, going into a remote area to join a yoga class.”
Localisation—to a point
There was a time when luxury carried a largely Western connotation and was considered something to attain among Asian consumers. Today, localisation and luxury go hand-in-hand as more delegates seek on-the-ground, hands-on experiences away from their cushy hotel rooms.
“What strikes me in the industry is how we went from providing the same thing all over the world to how local we are,” BI Worldwide’s Debatte says.
“You look at the messaging from agencies or just on the hotel side, the shift is quite striking. If I am going to a new destination, I want to see it through the eyes of the hotel, the colours, the paintings, the breakfast. I may go back to my scrambled eggs in the end, but I want to have the freedom to taste and smell what this country is all about. And at the same time, I want the freedom to stay in my comfort zone.”
Debatte’s point about “staying in one’s comfort zone” is key here. While delegates expect hyperlocal experiences, they also want the option to disengage whenever they feel the need. This flexibility is part of what defines the new-age luxury experience.
Engaging with local communities too is becoming increasingly important, as expressed by Mark Wong, VP, Asia Pacific, Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH).
“Beyond the cliché of throwing in some local dances, delegates want to be more community-based, they like to be involved. They want to see more of the local artisans, they want to taste something that is locally produced,” he says. “It used to be about the production of the event or how you wow guests with entertainment. But now, they think about what local experiences they can take home instead of a gift bag of sponsored stuff.”
Evidently, hotels too are adapting to this. Take Marriott, for instance. While the group’s hero sub-brands such as The Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis remain rooted in a homogenised, Anglicised rendering of luxury, newer brands such as Moxy and Aloft pride themselves on being in touch with the local scene. This means that each property around the world is different.
“Each brand should have a personality, a DNA that sets it apart and is locally relevant, tailored to a specific audience,” says Debatte. “Like Shangri-La and [signature restaurant] Shang Palace, for example. It will keep that as its core DNA being an Asian brand, but the breakfast restaurant will have local names and a different spread.”
One of Marriott’s most hip brands, W, is no stranger to localisation. The newly launched W Kuala Lumpur, for instance, is part of Marriott’s new meetings campaign where themed meetings mean Malay kuih (snacks) in traditional bamboo or teh tarik (local pulled tea) instead of lattes.
“Event planners are getting increased requests for local experiences from clients, and hotels and venues are getting more creative and flexible in their offerings,” says Christian Metzner, general manager at W Kuala Lumpur. “Some establish collaborations with local vendors to create
a 360-degree experience with local food.”
Metzner also points out the rise of the ‘bleisure’ trend. “It is a trend that has picked up over the years, and business travellers, especially luxury ones, are always looking for curated local experiences,” he says. “We have a unique role called the W Insider, an ‘in-the-know’ tastemaker who can provide luxury experiences to guests.”
On the production and design side, agencies too are kept on their toes keeping up with luxury trends. What may have been regarded as opulent 10 years ago can be replaced with almost anything that is customisable—handwritten notes, an arcade machine that speaks your name, or perfume to match your favourite foods.
Whatever the medium or the message, one thing remains: delegates want to take photos of their experiences. “In addition to elegant product displays, brand experiences should feature chic engagements and digital interactivity,” says Flor Demarco, executive director, Asia, for Luxury Makers by Auditoire. “They should be highly ‘Instagrammable’ scenes meant to inspire attendees to share them socially.”
Because luxury is still very much a niche market, she says that details have to be meticulously curated, so as to make delegates feel ‘special’. “It’s important that the event is rich in creative content and music entertainment, and has a contemporary and timeless design. Audiences are looking for experiences that are memorable and that can arouse surprise,” says Demarco.
She adds that creating dynamic moments and “snappable” experiences help to attract influencers and KOLs who can help with conveying brand messages.
Her sentiment is mirrored by Florence Paget, managing partner of luxury events agency Twist of Parti Pris. She says: “Since the beginning of last year, the sentence which appears in all [our] briefs is “it needs to be ‘Instagrammable’.”
However, in the vein of personalisation and luxury, one person’s version of what’s ‘snappable’ could vary vastly from another’s, so knowing delegates’ demographics and preferences in advance is key to cracking the code. If luxury events are less about logistics and scale, and more about the microscopic study of details, agencies and venues have a task ahead of them.