A strong sense of place

Editor's note: Mike Taylor is director, public relations, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Toronto.

The ability to identify a market trend, particularly during the formative stages, is a unique art. Indeed, trend forecasting requires a degree of instinct, creativity and anticipation remindful of an artist. Identifying the consumer motivations and emotions that drive those trends, however, is a science.

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, a global hotel company that operates more than 70 hotels worldwide, including landmarks like The Savoy in London and The Plaza in New York City, noticed significant shifts in consumer demand and guest perceptions of what constitutes a luxurious travel experience. For today’s affluent travelers, the company found, emotional fulfillment, experience over commodity, cultural immersion and historical connection all play significant roles in the decision-making process.

In 2015, 38,000 self-described “history lovers” stayed at more than one of Fairmont’s historic properties. In anecdotal research, guests of Fairmont were increasingly remarking on their sense of connection with the location, history and “sense of place” of the hotels in which they were staying. Fairmont concurrently observed an undeniable increase in the prevalence of guests sharing their experiences at Fairmont properties, particularly through the use of social media while on-site at the hotels.

To explore the motivations behind these and future global trends in luxury travel, Fairmont developed its Luxury Insights report series – communication pieces that leverage a combination of sourced external research, newly commissioned research and industry-validated findings.

For its inaugural Luxury Insights report, Stewardship of Iconic and Historic Buildings, Fairmont drew on findings from a brand-first ethnographic study conducted by research firm Weinman Schnee Morais Inc., data from researcher YouGov and other sources.

The icons of tomorrow

As a leader in the restoration and stewardship of historic properties, along with the development of new hotels designed to become the icons of tomorrow, Fairmont has a vested interest in the role of architecture, property development and thoughtful preservation and restoration as emotional drivers that influence consumers’ purchasing decisions.

Stewardship of Iconic and Historic Buildings focuses on the exploration and understanding of consumer motivations in selecting historical or classical properties for leisure travel. The findings on this subject are useful not only to Fairmont but to the wider community – for example, interested travelers, developers looking for a brand to manage a building or city leaders wanting to understand the significance of properties within their jurisdictions.

The report draws from external research on current travel trends and extensive feedback from Fairmont guests worldwide. The guest feedback was generated using a combination of insights gathered from 6,559 Fairmont guests in 2015 and 12,736 Fairmont guests in 2014, as well as an in-depth, ethnographic research study comprised of a smaller group of guests in 2015.

The larger group of survey respondents consisted of guests who have been patrons at Fairmont properties, including Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, Shanghai’s Fairmont Peace Hotel, Fairmont Baku, The Savoy and The Plaza. Guests who participated in the ethnographic research study were frequent guests of multiple Fairmont properties.

Fairmont’s ethnographic research leveraged purposeful sampling, a common practice among this type of study and an approach supported by evaluation consultant and sociologist Michael Quinn Patton, author of Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods. Six mobile ethnographies (communicating on-site and via telephone) allowed respondents to be “in the moment” and expressive of their emotional reactions during stays at the Fairmont Palliser, Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, Fairmont Royal York, Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and The Plaza. Two off-site telephone interviews were also conducted, while two in-person micro-ethnographies took place at The Plaza.

Key themes emerged

From this research, a few key themes emerged that highlighted both Fairmont’s legacy of stewardship and the appeal of vacationing in a historic destination or property. These themes formed the basis of the first volume of the Luxury Insights Report.

Emotional connection to a travel destination. Fairmont’s research indicates the vital importance of emotional fulfillment when it comes to the choice of travel accommodations. The desire for emotional connection at the traveler’s destination acts as fuel for the other trends mentioned within the Luxury Insights Report: the new definition of luxury; the drive to seek place identity and the motivation for cultural immersion.

Through its research, Fairmont has defined the overall character of its guests as Social Architects – travelers who seek luxury through relationships rather than objects and believe that “experience defines excellence.” A separate study indicated that more than 75 percent of five-star travelers feel that “capturing the local culture of the destination” and “having a beautiful hotel” are extremely/very important for leisure trips.

Extrapolating from the data, one might conclude that the desire for emotional connection is a natural outcome in the evolution of global travel. Logical, prescriptive, often defensive travel tactics have been replaced with adventurous pursuits, personal concierges and iPhones. Today’s intrepid travelers follow their hearts and are impressed by experiences that appeal to their imaginations and desires. This is particularly true among an affluent population with a high prevalence of travel for both business and leisure.

Redefining luxury. A clear finding from the research behind the Luxury Insights Report is that, among luxury travelers, the very definition of luxury has evolved. An overwhelming trend demonstrates that affluent travelers align social status with the consumption of unique experiences rather than material goods – the idea of experience over commodity. This growing tendency to value rare, covetable experiences over mere material comforts means that the entire notion of luxury itself among these guests has been redefined; transforming “luxurious” travel from the passive position of simply being pampered to the active participation of creating unforgettable memories.

Whether it is through food, fashion, arts or sports, today’s travelers choose to immerse themselves in the culture of their destination. They are active participants in travel rather than latent observers.

Not content to be simply doted on, the luxury guest now views personalized rapport and genuine attention from staff as intrinsic to the luxury experience. The long-lasting impressions made by Fairmont colleagues are cited as a significant reason why guests enjoyed their stay and a major incentive to return.

Certainly, the allure of high thread-count sheets, white marble vanities and elegant lobby lounges will persist among luxury travelers. What has changed however, is the emphasis: high-quality material comforts are now a baseline expectation among affluent travelers. The surprise element of an emotional, intangible or personal experience provides a more resonant memory, an irreplaceable moment in time that is more meaningful and remarkably valuable.

Seeking place identity. Place identity, or the psychological connection to a destination, has become a market differentiator and the key to establishing an emotional connection. Hotels with rich histories enable guests to feel like they are personally connecting to the past and bearing witness to something meaningful, important and enduring. Historic and character-rich properties enable guests to psychologically merge with the acclaimed past of the hotel to the point that travelers actually feel like they are part of the history of the place.

According to the research, many guests feel that Fairmont’s historic hotels offer unique and ownable emotional benefits due to their ability to evoke “place identity.” Visiting the Venetian Room at Fairmont San Francisco, where Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” can leave an indelible impression. Staying in the suite where Marilyn Monroe once slept at the Fairmont Banff Springs led one guest to remark, “I’m sharing the same space at a different time.” Other survey respondents referred to Fairmont’s historic or iconic properties as “a magical place,” “my dream come true” and providing an experience of “transcending into another era.”

Achieving cultural immersion. The opportunity for cultural immersion has become ubiquitous in the decision-making process of luxury travelers worldwide. The research demonstrates that staying at a Fairmont property has provided guests with profound cultural and meaningful life encounters.

A locally authentic hotel can provide a kaleidoscope for the senses. The sights and smells, the food and the service all work together to evoke a unique adventure that cannot be replicated at other properties. This is particularly the case at destinations where Fairmont hotels are seen as intrinsic to the region itself, an important part of the landscape and the local history.

This experience of being at one with a foreign place embodies a new level of prestige among travelers and evidence is typically shared in-the-moment among social media applications. Instagram photos, Facebook posts and tweets on Twitter are examples of the way Fairmont guests commonly and publicly share their delight and excitement over a new experience or a heartfelt moment during their stay.

A visit to a Fairmont property is frequently cited as being on a guest’s bucket list – an aspirational experience, where “I stayed at the Fairmont” becomes a validating factor of having immersed oneself in local culture, knowledge and history.

Fairmont’s properties and commitment to respectful preservation and restoration of their architecture and interiors are key reasons why guests choose not just the Fairmont brand but each specific hotel within its collection.

The findings of the first Luxury Insights Report support Fairmont’s current scope of restoration activities – many grand buildings worldwide have recently been restored, including the Claremont Club & Spa, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, London’s The Savoy and Shanghai’s Fairmont Peace Hotel. Working closely with property owners, Fairmont has helped renovate or restore more than 80 percent of its North American portfolio over the last few years.

Research provides a clear mandate

With its guest motivations firmly in mind, Fairmont’s research provides a clear mandate to move forward with the development of newer properties that the company believes will define the iconic hotels of tomorrow – properties such as Fairmont Mayakoba, Fairmont Pacific Rim, Fairmont Baku and Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower. Furthermore, Fairmont has more than 40 new developments underway in gateway cities and resort locales across Europe, North America, the Middle East and China.

The choice of a Fairmont hotel, be it historic or newly developed, has been proven to provide the sense of place and personal connection many luxury travelers crave. Fairmont looks forward to developing subsequent issues of the Luxury Insight Report to explore deeper insights around guest expectations and experiences, furthering its commitment as the leading operator of iconic properties worldwide.