What the New
‘Ultra-luxury’ Means
for Hotels

By Piers Schmidt

Luxury Branding enables luxury brands to stage elevated service and transformative experiences. Although we serve organisations in the tourism, travel, real estate, wellness and financial services sectors, hospitality is our sweet spot.

Opinion Piece

It’s the industry most purely defined by service and with the highest potential for delivering transformative experiences. It’s also a lifelong passion.

Historically, within hospitality at least, our clients have been mid-sized, entrepreneurial enterprises and legacy operators seeking to catch the next wave of innovation. Moreover, as its name suggests, the focus of Luxury Branding has been hotel groups positioned in the ill-defined “luxury” segment. Pre-2008, unequivocally luxury meant 5-star deluxe – reaching for the stars metaphorically and not infrequently literally as well. This era was the age of One&Only, Dorchester Collection and the audacious translation of haute couture brands such as Armani into luxury lodgings.

As we came to terms with the present age of austerity, a new variant of luxury emerged. ‘Affordable’ or luxury ‘de-luxed’ offered newly cost-conscious travelers 5-star service delivered at properties developed with reduced capital budgets and lower operating costs. October 1 sees the launch of an excellent example of this ‘luxury for less’ genre from Constance Hotels and Resorts. C Resorts is a vibrant upper-upscale ‘lifestyle’ offering targeted at mainstream Gen X vacationers who can neither afford the real thing nor desire the offer made by the elder sibling brand.

Now, from our privileged position as concept designers, I sense things are changing again. Engaged early in the development process, advisory firms such as ours, in common with architects and interior designers, get to interrogate projects and their nascent propositions very soon in their genesis. Consequently, the inquiries that we receive from innovative promoters provide a fascinating bellwether or long-range radar that’s an interesting indicator of emerging trends. And when it comes to what lies beyond, our pipeline of projects reveals much about the future shape of hospitality.

Despite the individual circumstances of the developers and notwithstanding the diverse geographies of their settings and unique attributes, these new projects share two remarkable similarities that combine to represent a challenging, experimental ambition.

Beyond Luxury
First, it becomes apparent that true (ultra) luxury is back in demand, but only if it is reincarnated. No fewer than five of the proposals we have written for potential clients in the last 12 months have been designed to determine what lies beyond luxury. These are private projects or nascent brands imagined by maverick UHNWIs or renegade family offices. Invariably, the backers have experienced every genre of luxury hotel in the current canon, and still, they say they are left wanting.

Listening carefully, we hear that gilded suites, exquisite service and the familiar trappings, offered by Aman et al. no longer tickle the taste buds of the global elite. It’s the realization that something’s missing, therefore, that has motivated these successful entrepreneurs to enter a new business they know only as customers.

Also, let’s be clear just how elite we are talking: Generally, these projects are targeted not, as one might assume, at the infamous ‘one percent’ but rather at the top (as defined by wealth) 20% to 25% of that uppermost tier! Such clear and narrow market focus results in a group of no more than 18 million potential customers worldwide, which surely brings new resonance to the notion of “niche.” We are targeting one proposition on which we are currently at just 1.8m people, which represents a sliver segment indeed.

As we listen to the founders of these early-stage propositions, we quickly elicit the disappointment that’s driving their new ventures. Almost universally, these conversations reveal that luxury in the various incarnations we have known it (e.g. palace, deluxe, de-luxed, affordable, conscious, whispered, eco, barefoot) is no longer satisfying or desirable to the highly experienced – too experienced, even – luxury traveler.

What makes the challenge supremely interesting for those of us involved in searching for something meaningful to replace conventional luxury is that few if any of our clients can put their finger on what should replace it. While the diagnosis is definite, the treatment remains undiscovered. Together, therefore, it’s our task to locate and articulate a new expression of hospitality that more profoundly addresses the needs and wants of the worldly wealthy.

Of course, there may be more than one method of cracking the nut and potential solutions will undoubtedly lie in different territories and may be influenced by the promoters’ points of origin. With some, we are heading in the direction of wellness – for them, longer health-related quality of life is the ultimate luxury. For others, it’s simply about finding an effective antidote to the “been there, done that” syndrome that’s poisoning so many luxury travelers. For others again, future enjoyment will rely on a skilful paring back of all that is superfluous until only the essential remains, a vision of luxury of which surely Dieter Rams would approve.

Beyond Hotels
The second shared characteristic of this new wave of hotel ingénues is that the final product of the ideation and subsequent development will almost certainly not be a hotel or a resort.

Although there’s still a growing general market for familiar hotels, offering comfortable bedrooms, original and healthy F&B outlets and immersive local guest experiences to boot, at this rarefied echelon of the market, the target customer seems to be “over” hotels.

It is likely that the propositions we develop and the products and services we provide to this discerning elite may still enact a form of hospitality. However, I predict that we will no longer constrain the environments in which these new offerings are organized within the envelope of what we currently refer to as a hotel.

This revolution in the very form of the hotel requires that those of us involved in the conception of such progressive projects dismiss what we have spent a whole career learning. Architects and designers – in fact, every type of conceptual project consultant – must be prepared to rethink what it means to be hospitable beyond hotel.

It’s not easy to let go of years of experience, especially when you probably secured the appointment from your track record in the first place, but perhaps that’s why the most far-sighted and demanding clients in this emerging space are from outside the industry.

It’s unlikely that, even in their final form, any of these entrepreneurial projects will upset Marriott, Hyatt or Accor in the way Apple knocked Nokia and BlackBerry from their legacy perches. Nevertheless, we also know that niche innovation has the potential to go viral and become mainstream quicker than ever before, so I don’t rule anything out.

If ‘Beyond Luxury’ and ‘Beyond Hotel’ do prove reliable indicators, then the nights of the hotel, as we know it, may be numbered.

This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.

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With a unique blend of ‘calculated creativity’, Luxury Branding helps ambitious organisations to define and express how they are special, different, and better: special for their affluent customers, different and better than the competition.

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Piers Schmidt and Ian R Douglas of Phoenix Global are the co-founders of Kingham Leigh. This dynamic new partnership has been created to design, develop and operate innovative hospitality projects in Europe and beyond.

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