When the Maldives imposed a temporary suspension of flights early last year, the 250 employees of Amilla Maldives Resort & Residences weren’t worried about business slowing down in the near-term — they were prepping for it to pick back up. They rushed to improve the resort by building a new aquaponics section, a chicken coop, an herb garden, and another garden that now yields beautiful bananas and pineapples.
The 67 villas of the hotel, which is situated in the paradise retreat of Baa Atoll, attract celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and singer-songwriter Rita Ora as well as Middle Eastern property moguls. Everything had to be in place for Amilla’s VIP clients, who came flocking back to the Maldives at the earliest opportunity.
Luxury tourists are now flooding the Indian Ocean ring of islands to “taste the freedom,” and Amilla Maldives Resort is doing great amid the pandemic, said Jason Kruse, the resort’s general manager. In COVID times, though, that “freedom” can only be provided through significant upgrades in technology and sanitation protocols, allowing guests to feel completely safe.
“UV sterilizers, sanitizer sprays, temperature guns, in-villa dining are only some of the equipment we have employed,” Kruse said, adding that COVID testing is also conducted on the grounds. While awaiting their results, guests are catered to in their own bubble tent, where they receive in-villa dining and can still go for a swim or go snorkeling.
“It has been a fine art balancing the need to protect our guests and staff at the same time without compromising what hospitality really is,” Kruse says.
Over 4,000 miles to the west of Baa Atoll, the mega-luxury destination of Costa Navarino in Messenia, Southern Peloponnese, Greece, has also turned to the latest in technology to ease the minds of its high net-worth guests.
The 321 acres of Costa Navarino feature two deluxe hotels, signature golf courses, world-class spas, plus 259 private residences for the VIPs that offer social distancing by default. Elite vacationers like Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo own a villa there, while the likes of Donatella Versace, Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco, actor Ethan Hawke, and actress Angelina Jolie have been spotted in the historically glorious and physically blessed land of Messenia, where the mega-resort is.
Some of the innovations Costa Navarino introduced include virtual reception desks and paperless check-in; electrostatic sprayers that use hospital-grade disinfectant to rapidly sanitize guest-rooms, lobbies, gyms and other public areas; digital non-contact thermometers to check temperature for guests, associates, partners, and destination visitors; digital menus; even a digital concierge.
“Our guests tell us they feel like Star Wars superheroes,” says Maria Karapandeli, the resort’s communications manager, referring to the level of electronic gadgetry.
Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, more than 227 million people around the world have caught COVID-19 and nearly 5 million have died from the disease. Lockdowns and fear of contagion have eviscerated the travel industry. At the same time, people have grown weary of restrictions and are increasingly craving escape to blissful settings.
While travel and tourism globally plummeted in 2020 by over half to $2.86 trillion, the high-end is widely anticipated to stage a massive recovery, as the wealthiest individuals satisfy their pent-up wanderlust. According to Research Dive, the luxury travel market will surge to nearly $1.37 trillion by 2028 from its current level of around $511 billion.
A lot of that growth will likely be captured by hotels and resorts that employ the latest in devices and systems to protect guests from germs. Thus, the pandemic has propelled the luxury hotel market — notoriously stodgy and slow to adapt — into a new high-tech era.
“In the short- and medium-term, safety and hygiene and social distancing will be top priorities and those that ensure technologies for this will win,” Karapandeli says.
“But in the long term, travel decisions will be made with a different mindset; health will become the new wealth,” she continued.
To some extent, the changes also reflect a younger generation of clientele at luxury resorts who are more open to innovation, especially in light of COVID, said Deborah Friedland, practice leader of EisnerAmper Hospitality Advisory Services, a U.S. accounting firm.
“A few years ago some hotels were trying to do contactless check-ins and people just didn't want to do it. Now with COVID, visitors are the ones asking it,” Friedland told us.
At The Little Nell, the only five-star and five-diamond hotel in Aspen, Colorado, guests report feeling like they’ve been placed “in a cocoon” when they see all the new automated cleaning mechanisms and processes, said May Selby, the hotel’s public relations and social media director.
The hotel, which has hosted the likes of Michelle Obama, actress Goldie Hawn, and her daughter, actress Kate Hudson, has now incorporated contactless check-in with a pre-registration card, and a mobile app in lieu of a room key. It will also offer a program providing personalized on-mountain procedures related to lift tickets, rentals, dining and other activities at the popular ski destination.
“Some of the technologies like virtual trainings and meetings will remain with us post-pandemic,” Selby said. Not the “spirit” of the hotel though; technology will never replace that, she was quick to add.
“The way the staff greets you when you get into the hotel, the atmosphere of the hotel, touring the cellar with our sommelier and seeing it in real life and how vast it is, hearing the stories of where the wines come from...these are nuances you will never get behind a screen,” she says.