The private pool on the private, 2,500-square-foot terrace of the new $11,200-a-night Presidential Suite at the InterContinental in Hong Kong is constructed in the popular "infinity" style, and thus appears, from certain angles, to share water with Victoria Harbour. If it had regular edges, a man could rest his scotch and his elbows on one of them, gaze through the mist at the jostling skyscrapers of the city, and ponder the condition of humanity in these luxurious early moments of the Third Millennium. As it is, I rise dripping from the pool and pad across the talcum-soft sandstone to my Jacuzzi, the one with the black-glass tiling, not the Hansgrohe Pharo Whirlpool Lugano 340 in my cavernous bathroom. The panorama erupts in Hong Kong's nightly Symphony of Lights, lasers and neon smeared by the tropical humidity, and I busy myself with wondering how it came to this. Who are we?Where are we go—
It's Tatsuo, one of my two 24-hour personal butlers. (The other, Pang, is inside—upstairs, to be specific, as opposed to downstairs—infusing the other Jacuzzi with aromatherapy oils.) Is it possible, Tatsuo wants to know with a bow, that my $6 Hanes T-shirt had a hole in it before I sent it to be laundered?Otherwise he bears tidings of an incident that is as regrettable as it is mysterious. I set his mind at ease. Tatsuo bows and departs. I resume my cogitations.
The concept of the presidential suite dates back to 1880, when Ulysses S. Grant, despite no longer being the president, despite such a thing not even yet existing, apparently demanded he be housed in one during a stay at the New York hotel that later became the Hilton. The experiment was a success, and over the course of the next century other hotels built presidential suites, some of them acquiring individual reputations for extraordinary opulence. One thinks of the Presidential Suite at New York's Waldorf, or the 6,000-square-foot Penthouse Suite at the Fairmont in San Francisco, where Secretary of State Edward Stettinius holed up during the drafting of the UN charter back in 1945.
But in the past few years a new beast has emerged: the purpose-built, insanely extravagant "supersuite." Commonly sprawling over many thousands of square feet, if not an entire floor, and leaving the occupant, usually, with no change at all from $10,000 a night, these lavish new spaces have become de rigueur for the world's best hotels. "It's a curious thing, to tell you the truth," says Priscilla Alexander, travel agent to the super-rich and a T+L A-List All-Star. "There were always top suites, but this emerging group of people, who are spending money in a fashion that's quite"—she pauses—"exemplary, is a new phenomenon."
To Jean-Jacques Reibel, managing director of the InterContinental Hong Kong, whose 7,000-square-foot Presidential Suite opened in January, the supersuite phenomenon is about uniqueness. What customers seem to want for their five-figure-a-night investment is not merely luxury, but unique luxury. "People are looking for an original and exclusive experience," he tells me. "They want to have something that not many people can have."
For Reibel's guests, this means a living room in which you could inflate a hot-air balloon, a truly IMAX view of Hong Kong, a private office where one works overlooked by nine specially commissioned Kowloon dragons wrought from backlit sculpted glass, the aforementioned sprawling terrace, a conference/dining room with video communications facilities, toilet seats that rise automatically when one enters the room, an en-suite gymnasium, an en-suite sauna, and an en-suite steam room. (It's embarrassing to admit but I didn't actually know there was a difference between a steam room and a sauna until I saw the two of them side by side, leading away from my upstairs bathroom. I almost had to lean on one of the hand-carvedfrom-a-single-block-of-marble sinks, I was so taken aback.)
Given the intensity of the supersuite arms race between hotels, however, these outrageous features are merely the price of admission to an increasingly crowded pantheon. At the Westin Excelsior in Rome, residents of the $24,000-a-night Villa La Cupola suite have, since 1998, been availing themselves of a private en-suite cinema. In the $23,000-a-night Imperial Suite of the Hôtel Président Wilson in Geneva, they've been riding a private elevator, enjoying a game of billiards, and then gazing serenely at the Alps through a set of bulletproof windows.
For these are the kind of people who do occasionally get shot at. All the hoteliers interviewed for this article were commendably tight-lipped on the question of who's actually renting these suites, but all agreed the trend owes a lot to that segment of the population one might inelegantly call Newly Rich Foreigners. Of whom there are a lot. This year's Forbes survey unearthed a record 793 billionaires, up from 476 in 2003, many of them hailing from such hitherto unluxurious corners of the world as "Asia" and "Russia." For this sort of client, Priscilla Alexander says, it's often the Presidential Suite or nothing. The matter doesn't even need to be discussed. And why should it be?If you're the kind of person who has recently come into possession of the Russian steel industry, there are far better uses of your time than inquiring aloud whether the toilet seats in the suite you're booking raise themselves automatically when you enter the room. And so, of course they do. Once an oligarch has had his first taste of supersuite living, furthermore, a return to the tawdry world of mere bridal or executive suites is unthinkable. "It's like flying in the front of the plane," Alexander says. "If you've done it enough, the experience is so corrupting that ever returning to the back of the plane is an assault on the senses."