From Chile to Bhutan, hotels are no longer just places to stay—they're taking over every aspect of your travel experience. Jeff Wise reports
What is a hotel?If you think it's just a building you pay to sleep in, prepare to have your consciousness expanded. These days, a vanguard of high-end hotel companies are widening their mission to provide an entire comprehensive vacation, from meals and guides and transportation to multiple lodgings and multiple destinations—sometimes in more than one country.
Amanresorts has pushed the envelope in Bhutan, where the company opened Amankora last summer (see the February 2005 issue of T+L). Aman will open two more properties there this year and before long will operate a total of six—a lot of Aman resorts for a nation half the size of Indiana with no real history of upscale tourism. The goal is to offer travelers an all-Aman experience of Bhutan. When guests fly into the airport at Paro, they'll stay at nearby Amankora for a few days, then motor off to several sister properties scattered around the country's rugged valleys, accompanied by Aman staff all the while. "You get your own guide and driver and your own private vehicle," says Amankora's general manager, John Reed. "Along the way, we're providing picnic lunches and beautiful spots to stop and have tea and explore and do some trekking."
Other hotel groups are launching similar programs this year, mostly in the kinds of places that are challenging for individual travelers to negotiate on their own: geographically remote, bureaucratically complex, or both. This January, the South American company Explora launched Travesías, adventure-travel packages that combine stays at its properties in Chile with journeys to off-the-beaten-path areas of Bolivia and Argentina. For instance, Explora has begun selling 10-day trips in the Altiplano, or high-plains region, that start at its lodge in the Atacama Desert and continue across the border into Bolivia, where guests visit the Salar de Uyuni salt desert before returning to Chile. "On our Travesías, you'll hike for several hours and arrive at a luxurious tented camp," Explora's managing director, Felipe Cruz, explains.
The idea of a hotel company offering combined stays at more than one of its properties isn't entirely new. Aman has long sold seven-day Bali Experience packages that include stops at all three of its resorts on the island. Orient-Express has been offering its cruises, hotels, and trains in packages for years—though the company did not start marketing them as such until last year, under the Journeys of Distinction name.
Not everyone in the business, including top travel agents, is entirely pleased by the latest developments. "I have mixed feelings about this," says Barbara Gallay, owner of Linden Travel Bureau in New York. "We know great outfitters, and we like to use our expertise to put together trips that are much more personal." By doing the packaging themselves, Gallay says, hotel companies are encroaching on agents' territory. Likewise, tour operators reject the notion that hotels can play a role they've been filling for years. "The hotels are trying to make an extra margin for themselves, and the consumer suffers," says Geoffrey Kent, chairman and CEO of luxury-tour company Abercrombie & Kent. "[Hotel groups] cannot arrange all the other activities and experiences," he contends, "because they're not set up....They just have good destination hotels."
Companies like Explora, which do have a track record of running excursions for guests, disagree. By entrusting their fate to a hotel, Cruz says, travelers can be assured of a seamless trip: "If you want to cross over to the Salar de Uyuni by yourself, you can, for about forty dollars. But you'll stay in a sleeping bag on someone's floor. Why not do it with us, so you can actually have the full Explora experience, with high standards of gastronomy, good wine, good guides?"
For hotels, the economic appeal is obvious: they can sell a bigger slice of the vacation pie and encourage guests to stay longer. The benefits are even inducing smaller properties to invest in launching their own outposts. El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa, in Taos, New Mexico, offers guests the option of staying at a dude ranch or a tepee camp run by the property. "The idea is to give our guests a fuller experience of New Mexico," says Leila Thorne, El Monte's director of sales and marketing. "And, yeah, it does keep them at the place longer."
Travelers are likely to see this phenomenon play itself out around the world in the next few years. Como Hotels & Resorts, the U.K.-based company behind properties such as Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos, has already followed in Aman's footsteps with its own hotel in Bhutan, Uma Paro, and plans are under way to build two satellite lodges between which guests will be led by car and on foot. Aman itself is currently taking the formula to Sri Lanka, where it offers a package that includes stays at its new properties there: Amangalla, in the historic fort town of Galle, and Amanwella, a beach resort two hours away, both of which were undamaged by last year's tsunami. Even more significant, industry analysts report that several major hotel companies, such as Marriott, Starwood, Hilton, and InterContinental, are also contemplating getting in on the act—a development that, given their size, marketing budgets, and brand recognition among consumers, could revolutionize the way travelers book their trips.
David Williams, vice president of sales and marketing at Orient-Express, says all this is only natural: "[Our customers] are not looking for a traditional group tour. But the minute they arrive, we can take over to make sure that they don't miss their flights, that the transfers are on time, and that there is a staff on the ground to look after them." What clients are ultimately asking for, he says, is the liberty of independent travel combined with the hassle-free qualities of a tour—and the guaranteed niceties of a trusted hotel brand. "They have the security of a company like ours to put the program together for them, but they're not part of a group," he says. "They're individuals."
JEFF WISE is a T+L contributing editor.