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Travel & Holiday

Luxe stays for less

Luxury and boutique hotel websites offer members stays at special prices - at the click of a mouse
The Straits Times - July 19, 2011
By: huang huifen
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Luxe stays for less Members of hotel-booking websites can enjoy such as complimentary room upgrade and concierge services for such luxury hotels as the Ritz Paris (above), one of the hotels under The Leading Hotels Of The World. -- PHOTO: THE LEADING HOTELS OF THE WORLD

Deciding which hotel to stay in may be an exciting task for once-a-year vacationers, but for seasoned travellers, checking out where to check in is a bore.

But a travel trend has emerged catering to well-heeled jetsetters who want to know about good deals on high-standard hotels that are not part of the chain gang.

Not for this bunch, hours spent trawling through travel websites such as Kayak, Expedia and TripAdvisor to find the right hotel at the best rate.

Instead, such top-end trippers need only click on their favourite of any number of members-only hotel collection and booking websites that have sprung up.

These sites serve as a marketing channel for independent and luxurious hotels to reach the target clientele - affluent and discerning travellers who want the small but personalised boutique hotel experience. However, while they have deep pockets, like everyone else, they like a bargain, so discounts are a must. Oh, and throw in some perks, please - complimentary champagne and spa services, for a start.

Life! found more than 10 such websites, including names such as boutique hotel guidebook collection Mr & Mrs Smith, online travel agencies Tablet and Kiwi Collection, architecturally unique hotel collection Design Hotels and luxury hotel group The Leading Hotels Of The World.

These sites involve either free or paid or invitation-only memberships. Paid membership is from US$30 (S$36) to US$1,200 a year.

In return, the time-pressed high-fliers get access to a website that serves as a filter for the thousands of hotels in the market by curating hotels and vacation experiences that suit their travel style.

And they offer plenty of perks - such as guaranteed best rates, flash sales of almost 50 per cent off, complimentary room upgrades, champagne, breakfast, spa services and a late check-out.

One such website fan is the director of a pilates studio, Ms Sandra Lim. The 29-year-old, who loves to travel to unique locations and stay in boutique hotels, leaves all the research and paperwork to Jetsetter, a members-only hotel and vacation booking website that has selected and organised information on more than 320 luxury and boutique hotels, and which combines this with unpaid editorial and user reviews.

The two-year-old New York-based online travel site, part of Gilt Groupe, an invitation-only retail site, also offers weekly flash sales of up to 50 per cent off on Jetsetter-reviewed hotels and vacations that may not be part of its permanent hotel collection. There are 20 to 30 vacations on sale each week. Hotels on the site include five-star beach resort Six Senses Con Dao in Vietnam, boutique resort Alila Villas Soori in Bali and the chic The Peninsula New York.

The hotels are selected by Jetsetter's curators and reviewed by more than 230 Jetsetter freelance travel writers based around the world.

Ms Lim, who has booked three hotels through Jetsetter since she became a member two years ago, says: 'For mass-market websites such as Expedia, I have to sieve through the countless reviews to find out which are the best hotels and cross-check with reviews on TripAdvisor. But with Jetsetter, I know that the hotels are unique and of a good standard because of the honest and detailed reviews.'

She read about Jetsetter in the travel section of The New York Times and found a friend who is a member to invite her to become a Jetsetter member.

She estimates that she saved US$80 to US$570 on her hotel stays from booking through Jetsetter, compared to other hotel booking websites and even hotels themselves.

More than savings and convenience, Jetsetter also provides her ideas for her next vacation.

'Jetsetter shows me hotels and vacations that I never knew existed and would not have considered if not for the price, tempting pictures and in-depth write-ups,' she says.

She has since become a member of similar websites such as luxe hotel website Luxury Link and its spin-off Vacationist, a members-only luxury and boutique hotel flash sales website which combines reviews by the editors of travel magazine Travel + Leisure.

The head of programme (marketing) at UniSIM School of Business, Mr Allan Chia, says these websites are popular because of the nature of a hotel as a product.

'Unlike buying a product that you can feel, touch and evaluate before a purchase, the consumer needs to book a hotel room even before experiencing it,' he says. 'Because there are so many hotels on the market, one needs to compare and evaluate. These websites provide the customer with more visual and factual information than any other traditional medium.'

For hoteliers, they provide branding and distribution support in exchange for a commission or annual fee, and help to reach out to the right market.

For Mr Loh Lik Peng, owner of Singapore boutique hotels Wanderlust, New Majestic Hotel and Hotel 1929, the profile of the users of these sites is a perfect fit - adventurous travellers in their late 20s to 50s.

Net a swanky stay

New Majestic and Wanderlust are members of Design Hotels and Mr & Mrs Smith. About 30 to 35 per cent of bookings come from them while the rest are from the hotels' website, online travel agencies, corporate guests and travel agencies.

Most of the hotels which join these hotel collection groups are small, independent hotels such as the 31-room Establishment Hotel in Sydney, which leverage on the websites' global distribution channels.

Mr Owen Jones, general manager of Establishment, a member of Mr & Mrs Smith, says: 'We are a standalone property with no affiliate properties elsewhere, so these websites help us generate new revenue from new markets such as the United Kingdom and North America that we do not actively advertise in.'

To build brand loyalty and reward members of these websites for staying with them, hotels offer perks such as complimentary room upgrade, champagne on arrival, breakfast, Wi-Fi and late check-out.

Mr John McGrath, 62, a managing director of a metals company and a Singapore permanent resident, felt very pampered by the perks he and his wife received on a 10-day luxury cruise by Orion Expedition Cruises last July. He booked through Elite Resorts of Asia Pacific, a new Singapore-based website that curates a collection of luxury resorts in Asia. Users simply have to register online to be part of Elite.

'Because of my Elite connection, I was welcomed with a bottle of chilled champagne on the desk of our room. There was even a card acknowledged by Mr Mark Greedy, chief executive officer of Elite, to welcome us. I also had more cabin choices at the same rate. So for my next vacation, I will book via Elite, too,' he says. He paid about A$11,000 (S$14,277) a person.

No wonder, then, that the course manager of Temasek Polytechnic's hospitality and tourism management programme, Ms Goh-Choi Hoi San, predicts these websites will experience strong growth in Asia's emerging tourism market.

'There is a growing number of Asian, savvy travellers who prefer the do-it-yourself approach with a lean towards luxury when planning a vacation. Many of the hotels they prefer are represented by these hotel membership websites,' she says.

These websites also see Asia as a significant market.

Tablet, an online travel agency with 2,000 luxury and boutique hotels in its worldwide collection and which has more than a million users, says Singapore is its fifth largest source of traffic to its website and Facebook page. Tablet started in 2000 and is based in New York.

Others such as Design Hotels, which is headquartered in Berlin with offices in the United States, London, Spain and Australia, set up office in Singapore in 2006 to generate more travel volume and work with new member hotels in the region.

Mr Simon Westcott, managing director of the Asia-Pacific arm of Mr and Mrs Smith, says membership figures in Singapore have tripled from last year.

Elite, set up in late 2009 by Singapore permanent resident Greedy, the former vice-president of the Asia-Pacific arm of luxury hotel group The Leading Hotels Of The World, is focused only on luxury resorts in Asia-Pacific, including private island resorts, spas, train, cruises, ryokans and beach retreats. It already has about 80,000 users and 61 resort members.

For seasoned business travellers such as Mrs Lee Suet Fern, senior director of law firm Stamford Law Corporation, these websites are a boon.

Mrs Lee, who has been booking hotels for her trips through Kiwi Collection, a Vancouver-based online travel agency with more than 2,300 hotels in 132 countries, loves the carefully edited choices of hotels, which include the 187-room Hotel Le Bristol in Paris, rated one of the 500 world's best hotels by Travel + Leisure this year.

'For a jaded traveller who travels every month for work, it is nice to return after a long day of meetings to a hotel of high quality and that possesses a certain character, often with a unique and contemporary vibe,' she says.

'Kiwi, with its seductive pictures and carefully curated collection, gives me out-of-the-box suggestions to hotels in new cities that I travel to. So I have no reason to use other websites to book my hotels anymore.'



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