The first time I had the benefit of WiFi while rolling down a highway, I was aboard a frugally furnished campaign bus during the 2012 Alberta provincial election.
The next occasion was last summer, as I fled the stifling heat outside Hong Kong International Airport and slipped into an air-conditioned stretch Rolls-Royce Phantom. Boastfully, I sent e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates without incurring roaming charges. But I would soon discover that my posh ride, dispatched by the Peninsula Hong Kong hotel, was just my first taste of the future of luxury travel.
The Hong Kong-based Peninsula chain wants its properties to be more than just a place for well-heeled travellers to rest their heads and fill their bellies. To win the luxury lodging wars, it is no longer good enough to be a beautiful hotel with a grand lobby and lavish rooms. The wealthy want more. So at its nine locations (soon to be 10, with an opening in Paris next year), Peninsula offers guests a growing list of extravagant activities as part of its Academy program – cultural outings that go beyond the typical fare of big-city hotels.
At the Peninsula Hong Kong, for example, helicopters lift off from rooftop pads to carry guests to a private picnic lunch on a UNESCO-listed beach. Oenophiles at the Bangkok property can ride an elephant through a vineyard. Youngsters staying in Chicago can be transformed into a princess for a day – complete with pumpkin-carriage ride, tiara fitting and a glass slipper.
Peter Borer, the company's chief operating officer and brains behind the initiative, was just named "corporate hotelier of the world" by industry bible Hotels magazine.
"Luxury consumers are continuing to indulge in their experiences. It's not buying a new handbag or pair of shoes," says Pam Danziger, president and founder of Pennsylvania-based Unity Marketing, which promises insights into the mind of the affluent consumer. "The focus on one-of-a-kind, behind-the-scenes experiences really matters to people."
Despite the global recession of 2008-09, more people have money to burn. UBS and Wealth-X, a Singapore-based firm that tracks ultra-high net worth individuals, said in September that the world's super rich – those with at least $30-million (U.S.) in net assets – reached a record 199,235 members, a 6-per-cent increase from the previous year. What's more, the planet's billionaire population hit a record 2,170 members.
It's no surprise then that hotels have been really "upping the ante" to give guests a reason to stay, Danziger says.
A Unity survey in March of more than 1,300 affluent consumers – those with an average income of $267,800 (U.S.) – found that 45 per cent planned to spend more this year on holidays than in 2012 and that, last year, the typical luxury traveller took 2.8 vacations, each lasting four days or more. It also found that while travellers with deep pockets are willing to fly economy class, once they reach their destination, they want to "indulge freely" on accommodations.
Which is exactly what I did during my China sojourn.
In Hong Kong, where I spent four nights at the Peninsula – recently renovated to the tune of $60-million – I learned to make dim sum from chef Fong Li Hing (one of the most popular Academy offerings). His 20-plus years of expertise means he is able to create a tiny bag of mouthwatering heaven in less than four seconds. I could barely handle the dim sum knife. The filling of mushroom and chives burst from my circle of dough and I fumbled with my folds for too many minutes to count. But he still generously gave me a thumbs-up for my work.
"This is really not that easy," he said.
Is anybody a natural? He shook his head and smiled. He is not in danger of losing his job.
During my stay at the Peninsula Shanghai later in the week, I enjoyed a private two-hour yacht tour along the Huangpu River, which meanders through the heart of the city. As guests boarded the 15-metre craft we were asked to kick off our shoes and slide into fuzzy slippers. The onboard chef prepared an array of sandwiches, salads, snacks and dessert as two nattily clad waiters made sure flutes were always full of orange juice, champagne or a combination of the two. That excursion will be added next year to the list of Peninsula's Wow experiences, part of the relaunched and expanded Academy programming.
In order to make the cut, an experience must be something that – seemingly – money can't buy. (Of course, everything comes at a price: The "dim sum making journey" costs $270 a person.) That especially holds true in China, where golf has become passé, polo is in and the wealthy own yachts, but don't sail them. The country "has developed at such an exponential pace," says Joseph Chong, the Peninsula Shanghai's general manager. "Boats and toys and private jets." (Wealth-X projects that the superwealthy in Asia will surpass the United States and Europe within the next five years.)
As I sipped champagne on the terrace of Sir Elly's, the hotel's rooftop bar, I drank in the spectacular view of the downtown skyline, a riot of globes, baubles and caps that erupt as imagined by some 1970s sci-fi film director. The Shanghai Daily carried a story about a married government official facing a corruption probe amid allegations he paid his mistress the equivalent of $1,667 a day on top of the $1.7-million he spent on gifts during their four-year relationship. The signs of wealth were everywhere.
Inside, I felt as if I'd stepped back to the Great Gatsby era. Black lacquer furnishings, rich metallic fixtures and bathrooms drenched in marble create an atmosphere of old glamour. A valet box that linked my dressing room to the outside corridor allowed staff to drop off newspapers each morning and deposit my freshly laundered clothes. Every time I left my room, housekeeping would enter to fix my sheets or towels and drop off new treats such as local fruits, pastries and chocolate.
This isn't how the other half lives, I realized. It's how the 1 per cent always dreamed of living.
Five-star living in China
Luxury hotels are opening at a frenzied pace in China, hoping to attract wealthy national travellers and increasing numbers of well-heeled foreign visitors. But the five-star brands are positioning themselves well beyond the confines of Beijing and Shanghai.
Among the amenities of the Ritz-Carlton Tianjin, which is about 30 minutes by high-speed train from Beijing, is an elevator linking an underground parkade to the hotel's ballroom.
The Langham Hospitality Group opened Langham Place Guangzhou this fall in China's third-largest city. The hotel's unusual 22-storey asymmetrical design features 500 rooms.
Making waves for its horseshoe design is the Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort in eastern China, about two hours inland from Shanghai. The property also includes a marina for guests arriving by yacht.
The Four Seasons Shenzhen property should satisfy visitors to the south China boomtown, which is not far from Hong Kong.
IF YOU GO
Cathay Pacific makes 14 non-stop flights weekly to Hong Kong from Vancouver, and 10 non-stop flights weekly from Toronto.