Walpole Editorial | Next Stop for Luxury Travel by Max Olesker

Tomorrow’s travel is about enjoying the experience – making memories and leaving only (non-carbon) footprints, writes Max Olesker, contributing editor at Esquire – in his essay for the 2020 Walpole Book of British Luxury.

On board the British Pullman, the iconic 1920s steam train lovingly restored to golden-age glory by Belmond – the brand behind the Royal Scotsman, the Orient Express and a growing portfolio of similarly heart-stopping heritage hotels around the world – fine-dining cuisine is served on bone china plates, accompanied by exquisite wines and flawless cocktails, as the English countryside rolls by.

It’s a company that represents the past – and future – of luxury. But the question of what luxury means in 2020 and beyond, is something that Samantha Strawford, Belmond’s global brand communications director, has put much thought into answering. “Ultimately, the principles of authenticity, which put the experience at the centre of the offering, remain at the heart of luxury,” she explains. “However, there have been developments in the values that underpin ‘luxury’.” Strawford has identified a general shift towards slower travel: “Train travel is the new private jet.”

This shift in values comes as the luxury industry finds itself facing a twin set of challenges. Firstly, in a digital world increasingly saturated with ‘luxurious’ imagery, what makes something truly unique and special? “Experiences, or ‘vanishing luxury’, are becoming the new status symbols,” says Strawford. “The need for immediate gratification is giving way to an appreciation of things that cannot be rushed.” After all, to luxuriate in something almost always involves taking time over it. “These are the meals, the hotel stays, the travel experiences that, once consumed, live on only in your memory,” she adds.

These days it’s almost inevitable that they’ll also live on in one’s Instagram account, but the power of the experience itself has to be the driving factor. All manner of companies are embracing this ethos. For example, take Cheshire-based travel specialist Carrier, endowed with an uncanny sixth sense for curating extraordinary holidays and recent recipient of both Luxury Tour Operator of the Year and Luxury Team of the Year at the 2019 Aspire awards. “It’s about how we make people feel” is the company’s mantra, and as infinitely Instagrammable as their handpicked destinations may be, it’s little surprise that digital detox holidays are among the company’s most popular offerings. Likewise, Black Tomato offers bespoke holidays designed to linger in the memory, while Traveller Made unites a global network of travel specialists, all creating unique, experiential holidays designed to linger as memories more vibrant than the most artfully filtered social media snap.

There’s a second challenge facing the luxury industry. How does one reconcile unashamed indulgence with the great crises of the age: climate change, food wastage, social inequality? Provenance is now paramount, and consumption should be at least as conscientious as it is conspicuous.

In embracing sustainability onboard the British Pullman, guests are served water by One Water, which donates to The One Foundation. Additionally, as part of the company’s ‘think global, act local’ approach, the food served is locally sourced. And my, what food – and what drink. With Tregothnan teas from Cornwall, Balfour Brut Rosé from Kent, stilton from Tuxford & Tebbut in Leicestershire, the challenge of eating sustainably is one that the Pullman passenger will find themselves able to bear with stoic nobility.

The impulse to marry luxury with ethical considerations is stretching out across the industry. For example, Cookson Adventures, the estimable luxury travel specialist set up by tousle-haired adventurer Henry Cookson in 2009, has conservation baked into its work and has set itself the task of leaving each location visited in an improved condition (or, at the very least, as pristine as it was before the trip). Travellers are encouraged to offset their journeys’ emissions via an accredited scheme, and the company’s yacht excursions are tied to the Clear Ocean Pact.

In Oxford, manor house hotel Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, another Belmond holding, aims to compost 94 per cent of its annual food waste, and in 2018 created a new eco-leader position designed to review best practice and focus on how the hotel performs sustainably.

As consumers become ever more savvy, the luxury industry seems likely to increase its twin focuses on quality and sustainability. “Better informed customers mean a greater appreciation of detail, craftsmanship and heritage,” says Strawford. When it comes to quality, the wool can’t be pulled over customers’ eyes (and if it is, they’re likely to enquire as to the living conditions of the sheep). And as for sustainability – as we hurtle, uncertainly, into the future (propelled by high-end steam trains or otherwise) – perhaps the only true luxury is a clear conscience.

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