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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Incentive travel, chief amongst the four elements that comprise MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, events) has traditionally been synonymous with luxury. This has been the case for decades. It stemmed from a shared word cloud that included such terms as exclusive, expensive, elite and extraordinary. Add in extravagant, opulent and over-the-top and you get the full picture. Only the highest performers qualified for the incentive trip so that trip needed to bathe them in luxury, bring them literally and metaphorically inside the velvet rope, onto the red carpet, in front of the step & repeat board for the paparazzi to capture their perfect orthodontics.


While some cultures and geographies may continue to link luxury with lifestyles of the rich and famous, the new global consensus is that luxury is more to do with accessing authentic experiences tailored to individual, personal choice.  This new understanding of luxury has been bubbling under for some time now as evidenced by Ritz Carlton’s re-evaluation of their “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” motto.  When the motto was developed back in the day the core client cohort of Ritz Carlton was high net worth individuals dressed formally in well cut, Italian wool suits. By the mid noughties they were millionaires in cut-off shorts and flip flops. Not the average image of a lady or gentleman!

Lessons on Luxury from Azamara

Two experiences over the past month highlighted how the definition of luxury continues to change and recalibrate. I enjoyed an interesting conversation recently with Richard Twyman, UK & Ireland Managing Director for Azamara Cruises, the cruise company that styles itself as “the boutique hotel at sea”.   Quoting research conducted by Boston Consulting Group around the changing definitions of luxury, Richard highlighted 4 characteristics at the heart of “new luxury”:

  • Connect with the local culture
  • Exclusivity
  • Personalisation
  • Localisation

Azamara has crafted its USP around these findings and now includes  “Azamazing Evenings” as an indispensable itinerary element on all its voyages. This experience always involves some form of unique, high touch destination immersion, something that could never be purchased from an off or on-line travel brochure (see the link with incentive travel?).



During a recent China cruise, for example, all guests were taken to the Great Wall where they were treated to a performance by the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra; on a Med cruise they had the 3 Tenors deliver a private concert in Florence. The maiden port call to Dublin in July will bring 700 guests to an exclusive performance of Riverdance. In each case the focus is on unique, immersive destination experiences. It’s not about a spectacular floor show aboard the rarefied environs of the vessel but rather about moving 700 guests seamlessly from their posh digs into the pulsating heart of the destination and mediating an experience for them there that reflects that destination’s unique cultural identity.

The link with the latest trends in incentive travel are crystal clear. New luxury involves curating local experiences, keeping them real and authentic and allowing the guest to immerse fully in the experience as an insider, not as a tourist. Incentive travel has evolved in the same way with a massive switch  from generic group activities and a heightened concentration on offering a wide palette of highly customised individual experiences.


Lessons on Luxury from Monocle and Conrad

My favourite non-industry print magazine, Monocle, came to Dublin a couple of weeks ago and, in partnership with Conrad, one of Hilton’s luxury brands, staged an intriguing panel discussion on “The Future of Luxury Travel”. Ably moderated by the magazine’s food & travel editor, Josh Fehnert, the panel included John Vanderslice, Global Head, Luxury & Lifestyle Brand, Hilton, Patrick Whyte, UK Editor, Skift, Serena Guen, Founder, Suitcase Magazine and Coen Van Niersen, Chief membership Officer and Head of Sales Surf Air Europe.

There was much consensus amongst the panel around what constitutes luxury these days. All agreed that it wasn’t a homogeneous, one-size-fits-all concept. John Vanderslice stated how luxury must reflect the local destination and linked this with Hilton’s development of “lifestyle brands” like Canopy:

For those seeking an energizing and comfortable experience, Canopy by Hilton is the fresh, neighborhood hotel that creates a positive stay through simple guest-directed service and thoughtful local choices. Our friendly enthusiasts help you discover the best local food and drink, art and music, fun and fitness options. [Hilton Brand website]

These days the word cloud associated with luxury includes terms like energising, experience, neighbourhood, local, friendly enthusiasts – aeons of time and space from elite, elegance, refined etc



The panelists also agreed that authenticity is pivotal to luxury today. This reminded me of “Viaggo Sola” the Italian movie about a single woman in her 40s who works as a “secret guest” for Leading Hotels of the World. The protagonist meets an English anthropologist at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin who makes the following comment about luxury:

Luxury is a form of deceit … Look at this (referring to the surroundings of the bar at the Adlon). There’s no real life in here. All this display of opulence is just a stage set. I get claustrophobic. I need noise, discomfort to feel alive. Real luxury is the pleasure of real life lived to the full and full of imperfections.

Patrick Whyte highlighted some of the work and research conducted by Skift on the evolving definition of luxury in travel today stressing how a key trend is bringing the humanity back, front and centre – “real life lived to the full and full of imperfections”.

If luxury was extravagance and opulence in the past, then today it’s simplicity and authenticity: In an age of digital overload, simple human spaces, great service, and great food and drink will be even more relevant. [Rafat Ali, Editor, Skift]

It’s the same for incentive travel experiences. In the past, the more over-the-top it was, the better. There are still enough of us around who recall embarrassing levels of over-programming and over-servicing in the 80s and 90s when it was considered truly creative to arrange to have alcohol spurting out of the renaissance fountains. I even heard stories of tossing dwarves á la Wolf of Wall St. Those days are long gone and good riddance.

Today incentive travel experiences follow the “new luxury”. They’re all about authentic, local experiences that bring qualifiers into contact with new, exciting cultures and lifestyles. It’s travel as its best and most powerful when, in the words of Mark Twain, it becomes the enemy of bigotry:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. [Mark Twain]

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training. 


One thought on “Luxury & Incentive Travel – together forever like love & marriage?

  1. Martin Lewis says:

    Nice piece, Padraig. It sounds to me like all incentive travel programmes should be like the Midlife Crisis Safari Club events!

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