Guilt trip: Luxury travelers tone it down in hard times

Beverly Hills-based Gary Mansour, CEO of Mansour Travel Co., says his affluent clients are still traveling: They're just being more discreet about it. Maybe they'll downgrade from their own private jet to a seat in a shared one. Or they'll pop open a bottle of Cristal in the privacy of their hotel room rather than in a restaurant, he says.

Not that excess — wretched as it may be regarded these days — isn't thriving in some decadent corners of the beleaguered economy. In fact, at the newly opened Encore Las Vegas casino, the nightclub, XS ("where too much is never enough"), offers a $10,000 Cognac and Champagne cocktail (includes stingray cuff links for the gentleman and a gold necklace for the lady). A few miles away, the Palms Place Hotel and Spa has reintroduced its $120 Veuve Clicquot Pedicure, back by popular demand.

The upscale Caribbean island of Anguilla issued a press release in January boasting about the traffic jam of private jets on its runway over the holidays. A marketing pitch for an $18,000-a-night private resort in Barbuda asks without a hint of irony, "Who says luxury isn't still affordable in tough economic times?" And in Waikiki, the Halekulani Hotel just rolled out a fleet of over-the-top vehicles, including a custom Maserati GranTurismo and Lotus Exige S, for its well-heeled guests to tool around in. (Those booked in the $7,000-a-night Premier Suites get the cruisers at no extra charge.) While CEO Peter Shaindlin acknowledges that tough times can spark traveler guilt, the flashy cars are "about quality. I don't think there's anything embarrassing about quality."

Perhaps. But in some quarters, lean times have sparked a shift in marketing messages. The Ritz-Carlton chain, which in the past has trumpeted luxury amenities bordering on the absurd (bath butler, anyone?), is playing up its altruistic side. Give Back Getaways, launched in April, puts willing guests in a half-day local volunteer effort. Response so far has not been huge, says spokeswoman Sue Stephenson, but a sister program, Meaningful Meetings, which donates 10% of a participating group's room revenues to charity, has resulted in $420,000 in donations since 2007.

Virtuoso, a travel-agent network that specializes in luxury travel, has similarly tweaked its message. In December, it launched a "Return on Life" advertising campaign that stresses authenticity over opulence.

"People are traveling less for bragging rights these days," says Virtuoso spokeswoman Misty Ewing. "Luxury travel had an (image) of self-indulgence. But the mind-set has changed. It's really about wanting to spend quality time with family and friends."

The Leading Hotels of the World group of high-end lodgings has shifted its emphasis, too. "In contrast to last year, we aren't marketing over-the-top. We're marketing more value-driven packages," says senior marketing vice president Claudia Kozma Kaplan.

At Abercrombie & Kent, which bills itself as "the world's premier luxury travel company," interest in trips that incorporate a philanthropic element is on the upswing, says spokeswoman Pamela Lassers. The company now offers six itineraries, up from two. Conversely, a sale in February that promoted savings of up to 60% on trips such as luxury African safaris and Egyptian cruises signals less-than-vigorous bookings on A&K's more self-indulgent tours.

Some in the industry believe the recession is sparking a behavioral shift that will continue even after the economy improves.

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