Most workdays at our private travel and concierge company are replete with luxury: recommending and arranging premium travel to exotic, faraway places, securing private planes and yachts to get to those destinations, and going the extra mile to ensure the experiences our clients enjoy there exceed expectations. Concurrently, social media and print magazines encourage us to like, follow and share experiences that seem to be reserved for a privileged few. After all, isn’t that what makes luxury, luxury? But is luxury really defined by how few people can enjoy an experience? Or can it mean so much more?
Once or twice in a lifetime, a global event occurs that encourages us, as professionals, and more importantly, as human beings, to redefine our concepts and precepts of just about everything, including luxury.
COVID-19 is one such event that has seized the headlines of our news, fulfilled the “black swan” event some Wall Street analysts had predicted, and provided a startling reminder that pandemics do not discriminate.
The economic impact this pandemic will have on the bottom line of most businesses, including mine, cannot be underestimated. Loss has reverberated globally, effecting every industry from manufacturing to movies, technology to travel. The loss on worldwide business travel alone is estimated at $830 billion as I write this article.
The last event I remember that reached around the globe and shook us all was 9/11.
I was the head concierge at the Tribeca Grand Hotel (now the Roxy), just 10 blocks north of Ground Zero. In fact, in the original footage of American Airlines Flight 11, you can see the plane flying directly above the hotel before crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
On September 10, I was making dinner reservations for guests, recommending where to shop and working to solve mostly first-world (luxury) problems.
On September 12, the property was no longer a hotel but a refugee camp. It was filled with New Yorkers who had lost their homes and, for some, their hope. Hotel employees were doing their best to manage the overpopulated lobby, brimming with residents of Tribeca who were dazed and confused from the worst terrorist attack in our history. We took shifts bringing hot pizza and bottled water to the guests. We assisted some in calling FEMA. For others, we literally became shoulders for them to cry on.
During these dark and uncertain moments (like the one we are currently facing), luxury hospitality finds its deeper and more purposeful core: humanity.
Hospitality, in any form, is rooted in humanity. Humanity is rooted in the ability to connect with one another, whether it’s having a friend over for coffee or a small group over for dinner, or checking into a five-star hotel. As I have spent the last two weeks canceling hotels, flights, tours, car services and car rentals, I consider the ripple effect. Just in a hotel alone, think about the housekeeping staff, engineering team, front office agents, reservationists, food and beverage teams, and concierges who suffer from not being able to provide luxury service and experiences.
When economies suffer, when neighbors panic and the countries you love are under unprecedented quarantine, it is easy to universally become fearful and pessimistic. Situations of this magnitude and reach are unique and infrequent, but they have a profound way of leveling the playing field, placing us all on the only level that counts: the human one.
The crisis that rocks a cul-de-sac or the pandemic that rattles a planet are when we experience the very worst, and best, of human nature. After 9/11, New Yorkers slowed down. We held doors open for one another. Restaurants were packed with vulnerable locals who came together to share not just their fears and concerns, but their humanness.
First class, presidential suites and private planes suddenly do not resonate as much as family, friends and neighbors. Often, during the pursuit of bucket lists and the next Instagram post, we can become separated from the humanity that makes these possible. Yes, more options come with more resources, but it’s the strength and unity of our citizenry, especially during times of great crisis, that generates a wealth that can never dwindle.
As we work through the same uncertainties, financial losses and worries, let us be reminded what — and who — is most important.
After many years of working in the hospitality and travel industries, this current challenge (which could get worse before it gets better) encourages me that the truest form of luxury is to be human.