Spain, France and Italy have traditionally led the way in Europe's top-end hotel scene, with year-round sunshine and a loyal fan base of luxury travellers ensuring a thriving market.
Six Senses Latitude Jafre enters the European market in 2009 with a 98-room luxury hotel declaring Spanish hospitality, style and traditional design as selling points. Meanwhile, in perennially popular Mallorca, the Jumeirah Port Soller is set to open the following year; a luxurious 120-hotel resort with top-class spa and a seafront setting.
But as the number of resorts grows, the need to offer a point of difference is imperative. So what exactly does the high-end traveller demand?
What will the future blueprint of the resort hotel look like? And how vital is a prime seafront location?
Paul James, vice-president of Starwood's Luxury Collection and St Regis brands, says that much rests on the nature of the hotel, its heritage and proposition, rather than simply on its location: "The facilities need to extend beyond the normal bed, bar and meeting place. Customers look for a destination hotel that provides great food, excellent service and the extra facilities people have come to expect."
The Luxury Collection comprises 70 hotels, ranging in size from 14 bedrooms to 400, including the celebrated Grande Bretagne in Athens. The size of a hotel, says James, increasingly takes second place on the traveller's wish-list: "The trend is moving away from large luxury resorts. We look at celebrating the individuality of the hotel by trying to bring out its indigenous nature."
Key to the Luxury Collection's rationale is tapping its customers' wants. In May 2008 the brand launched a travel service allowing guests to travel luggage-free.
By partnering with Luggage Forward, the group is able to handle door-to-door luggage delivery prior to departure. The traveller's luggage is placed in the hotel room and unpacked before the guest arrives.
It's an example of adding an extra element to the raft of mod cons and high standards that the consumer expects. James adds: "There are plenty of well put-together rooms with internet access and a good size. We focus on service delivery and ask how we can make sure the customer gets the most from their stay."
To this end, concierge and butler service is standard in hotels owned by The Luxury Collection's sister brand, St Regis. In December 2007 after extensive refurbishment, Mallorca's Mardavall Hotel and Spa became the first St Regis Resort in Europe: a 133-room hotel perched on the seafront of Puerto Portals.
"The growth is in luxuriance; a mixture of luxury and experience", James says. "It's those destinations where you get as much of the authentic experience as possible, yet there also exist layers of luxury that you expect from a five-star hotel."
James adds that a hotels need to offer increasingly eye-catching spa treatments as a mark of difference. In many cases, however, the uptake from customers has been slow, he says.
And while access to multiple facilities is important, this doesn't mean the hotel itself must deliver the goods, as long as the customer can be referred to the required amenities.
According to Claus Sendlinger, CEO of the 180-strong Design Hotels portfolio, the shortage of desirable beachside locations in Europe limits the number of new resorts that open. "The challenge is that much of Europe's prime coastal land is already taken and the season is relatively short. In parts of Sardinia it is only eight weeks long."
Sendlinger hints that the ubiquitous boutique model risks being undermined by hotels that do not come up to scratch: "Sometimes people put up contemporary furniture and then call the hotel 'boutique'. We can all hire a good designer, but the reputation of a hotel will be made by the people who stay there."
This only happens, Sendlinger says, if many elements of the business play together, from operation and delivery to sales and marketing.
Sendlinger also makes clear the pivotal role of service to the resort and boutique model. "Guests often prefer to stay in smaller properties because the experience is about the personality of the hotel," he says.
To this end, Design Hotels has developed a guest experience programme, covering key service aspects such as eye contact and how long the telephone rings.
The other aspect of the programme covers how the brand promise is executed, key elements being online presence, music, atmosphere and design. According to Sendlinger, outstanding architecture and the use of local materials to soften an avant-garde feel score highly among discerning guests.
"What is it that makes a property outperform?" he asks. "In many cases it's the location and outstanding architecture that catch you right away".
One of Design Hotel's European properties, the Casa del Mar in Corsica, provides an example of a resort hotel marrying a boutique feel with slick design and a sought-after location. Nestled on the island's mountainous south coast, the low-lying building makes full use of natural grey stone, framed with red cedar terraces and contrasting fabrics.
French architect Jean-François Bodin designed the furnishings, wooden panels and other fittings exclusively for the hotel: classic design pieces include a 1930s chaise lounge in the suites. Cedar terraces sport private views of the Porto-Vecchio bay.
There is also a private beach and pier, 25m outdoor pool, spa, quiet zone with bay views and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
For companies such as Six Senses and Address Hotels & Resorts, the focus is on service and offering tangible benefits that go beyond the predictable.
Sonu Shivdasani, chairman and CEO of Six Senses, says consumers' expectations and awareness are at an all-time high: "Service is a very important factor and you therefore have to be on top of the ball in providing a unique and memorable experience. Some of the most important aspects include comfort and luxury, plus the ability to provide privacy and space."
So where does Shivdasani see most opportunity for the company's future luxury resorts? Spain and Greece are the main focus for Europe, he says – and the group's Six Senses Latitude Jafre is set to open early in 2009.
Outside Europe, Six Senses will open at least three new resort hotels in the next three years.
For Address Hotels, the new concept from Emaar Hospitality Group, the quest to offer relevant extras is pivotal. Marc Dardenne, chief executive officer of the group, says: "Guests demand tangible benefits; the amenities that are provided and the service standards must translate into gains. There will be a perceptible shift in what guests want towards hotels that offer an exceptional experience."
For Address Hotels, one of these benefits is a 24-hour stay policy that allows travellers the option of arriving in the afternoon, evening or late at night. Customers then keep their room for up to 24 hours without having to follow a fixed schedule.
Is a hotel resort's location key to its success? Starwood's Paul James says that situation is the primary draw for most luxury travellers – but only if the service is up to scratch.
"The appearance, history and feel are imperative but ultimately, great service will be the trigger for return trips and will remain the mark of any truly successful resort."
He adds: "The key is access to multiple facilities. If a hotel does a few things well and also has access to other amenities, people recognise that. It's balancing the type of business you are while helping the customer to find the facilities they want."
Sardinia's Cervo Hotel, for example, offers a Dinearound programme, whereby guests on a full-board basis can eat at any of the resort's restaurants or a selection of carefully chosen local eateries. The Amangani Resort Hotel in Cannes, South of France, emphasises the variety of choice open to the customer – including organised treasure hunts and bike rallies – by virtue of its location.
Six Senses' Shivdasani summarises the future challenges faced by resort operators: "The model of the future will be a combination of luxury with a commitment to the environment and social responsibility. It will include comfort and luxury, and the ability to provide privacy and space away from a guest's hectic urban lifestyle. Quality of food and wine is also important; all set in the most beautiful surroundings and giving the utmost care to the environment."
Europe's new resort hotels
- The much-hyped Jumeirah Port Soller in Mallorca, billed as the most luxurious resort in Spain, will open in 2010.
- Six Senses Latitude enters the European market in 2009 with the opening of Six Senses Latitude Jafre, a 98-room luxury hotel focusing on traditional Catalonian materials and Spanish hospitality.
- Raffles Hotels and Resorts is set to open its first Greek property in 2011. The 124-room hotel will be located in Pyrgos, near the ancient city of Olympia. The centrepiece will be a 30-hectare beachfront development incorporating Greek architecture.
- Hotel and apartment developer Space Group is opening a new hotel in Serre Chevalier in February 2009.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts has two new European hotels opening in 2009. The Sheraton Bonmont Golf Resort & Spa opens on Spain's Costa Dorada in April 2009, with 136 guest rooms, an 18-hole golf course and 1,300 square metre spa. Columbo's Beach & Spa Resort in Madeira will be launched in the same month.