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When London’s Savoy hotel opened in 1889, the world had not experienced anything like it. Royalty, heads of state, and celebrities began checking in, marvelling at the buttoned-up service and fine dining by the great chef Auguste Esoffier. In the decades that followed, London became an epicentre for luxury hotels, laying claim to the several of the world’s best.
By the 1970s, low-cost carriers opened up the luxury of air travel to the masses and Canadian Isadore Sharp saw an opportunity. His new Inn on the Park London was a fresh alternative to the grand dames. His vision: “A personal, down-to-earth hotel. Not for dukes or duchesses, but for people who wanted to be treated that way, and are put off by the stuffy formality of traditional grand hotels." The Inn was later renamed Four Seasons Hotel London and Sharp’s vision set a benchmark for the next generation of luxury hotels. In celebration of that, here are eight top hotel brands that changed luxury travel over the past 40 years.
1. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
The standard bearer of luxury hotels dates back to the 1960s when its launched three hotels, and by the ’70s had defined its standards and was redefining what travellers could expect of any given city’s best hotel. The Toronto-based brand built medium-size properties that focused on quality and service and has since expanded to nearly 100 locations across the globe. European-style concierge services first appeared in North America by way of a Four Seasons, as did the first full-service hotel spa in 1986.
2. Peninsula Hotels
In-room technology can often be counted among the worst changes in luxury travel in the last 40 years. But one brand, Peninsula Hotels, consistently goes above and beyond to keep high-tech perks both cutting-edge and actually useful. In 1985 the company launched its one-of-a-kind in-house Research and Technology Department, a team of more than two dozen engineers who design, build, and customise all in-room technology. The latest development from the group is a suite of bedside, desk, and wall tablets to control all in-room functions and serve as virtual city guides.
3. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
In 1983 hotelier Horst Schulze and several partners established The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company with massive expansion plans. Within 15 years the company ballooned to 23 properties and was sold to Marriott, which kept the brand’s Three Steps of Service motto and plans for rapid growth. Ritz-Carlton maintains that the company is “Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen" and instructs employees to give a warm and sincere welcome, use guests’ names, and give a fond farewell. Today The Ritz-Carlton operates 92 hotels in 30 countries.
4. Wilderness Safaris
Since opening its first mobile camp in Botswana in 1983, Wilderness Safaris has defined its vision by its “4Cs": conservation, community, culture, and commerce. The small business started by two passionate wilderness guides has grown to operate more than 50 luxury camps across eight African countries. It remains committed to conserving the wildlife that its guests travel so far to see. In an effort to build community both internally and externally, the company’s employees live in the rural areas in which the resorts operate.
5. Aman Resorts
When visionary Adrian Zecha opened Amanpuri in Phuket, Thailand, in 1988, he challenged the luxury hotel paradigm yet again. Just 40 rooms on 260 acres stood out from Thailand’s crowds and larger resorts. The rooms were nearly empty yet luxurious for their spaciousness and use of unique indigenous materials. Staff seemed to be everywhere just when you needed them and with a most gracious affect (the staff-to-guest ratio was reportedly an incredible four to one). The place felt more like a sanctuary than a hotel, and visitors began to rethink their previous notions of luxury travel. Today, Aman operates 31 hotels and counting.
When Singita Ebony opened in 1993, existing South African safari camps looked quite different. Design firm Cecile & Boyd set up 12 suites that quickly gained international attention for their striking interiors. Plus, safari-wise, the Singita experience was top-notch. Just one lodge accessed 45,000 acres owned by Singita founder Luke Bailes. Today they run 12 lodges among five wilderness areas and have maintained a long-term relationship with Cecile & Boyd that continues to push the envelope for safari lodge design. Last year, Singita Ebony was completely revamped and re-launched, affirming the group’s commitment to staying on the cutting edge.
In 1993, the only hotel granted permission to operate within Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park opened, marking the launch of Explora. The company wanted to make remote areas in harsh climates more accessible. Explora’s all-inclusive hotels would include tours by professional guides and explorers. Five years later the company expanded from one of the globe’s coldest locations (Patagonia) to its driest. Explora Atacama showcased the country’s sparkling turquoise altiplano lakes. Explora now operates in seven locations throughout South America.
In the Maldives there seems to be a luxury hotel or two by every hotel brand, but until somewhat recently that was not the case. The first tourist resorts opened there in 1972, and in 1995 husband and wife Sonu and Eva Shivdasani combined their expertise (and first names) to create the luxury resort brand Soneva and one of the first high-end Maldivian resorts. Their newest property, Soneva Jani, opens in October in the Noonu Atoll and honours the same commitment to sustainable, local, organic, and wellness-focused offerings as their first project, Soneva Fushi.