Are luxury hotel suites worth the splurge?

Le Dôme, a nearly 85-square-metre suite in Le Cinq Codet in the heart of Paris, is named for its striking views of the golden Dôme des Invalides, under which Napoleon is entombed. But if that vista doesn't grab you, wander over to the other end of the private terrace, past a half-dozen deck chairs (all yours) and gaze at the Eiffel Tower.

Should you grow tired of that, there is always the Jacuzzi, from which you can look out over the mansard rooftops of the Seventh Arrondissement and polish off the Champagne and chocolates that were left while you were out. Inside there's a couch shaped like a croissant, a curved OLED television, two bathrooms, a dressing room and a tub ringed with white rose petals.

As for the bill, it starts from US$2000 ($2596) a night. Don't raise an eyebrow. Le Dôme (or the "prestige suite" online) is one of the more affordable luxury suites to be found these days.

Penthouse prices

Consider the new Imperial Suite at the St. Regis Dubai, which starts from US$20,500 ($26,600) a night. Or the Katara Suite at Excelsior Hotel Gallia in Milan, from around US$22,000 a night. Or the more than 12,000-square-foot penthouse at the Mark Hotel in Manhattan, which can be yours for some US$75,000 a night. That, incidentally, is about the amount of money researchers at Princeton said one needs to earn in a year to be maximally happy.

Are such rooms worth the price?

You effectively have lodging doing very well at the high end or bottom.

Parag Vohra

Some hotels are betting on it. Luxury spending among affluent households in the United States was predicted to spike by 6.6 per cent over the past year, according to the 2015 Survey of Affluence and Wealth from Time Inc. and YouGov, a market research company. "Spending among one-percenters is at unprecedented levels," the study said.

Even millennial travellers are spending: 45 per cent are willing to pay more for true luxury in lodging, according to the 2015 Portrait of American Travellers from MMGY Global, a travel and hospitality marketing firm. From the United States to Hong Kong, the most robust hotel sectors today are economy and luxury.

"Our political and economical evolution are literally tied to the hotel industry," said Parag Vohra, general manager of hotels for Sojern, a travel technology company. When the middle class was rising, so were middle-tier hotels. "Now as we hollow out in the middle," he said, "you effectively have lodging doing very well at the high end or bottom."

Top to bottom

For those seeking the former, there's a new booking site for luxury suites. Suiteness.com, which is funded by investors, including Structure Capital and Keystone Capital, went live last year with more than 5000 suites in 15 Las Vegas hotels. Since then it has added suites in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. London suites are coming. To use the site, you must sign up.

Advertisement

A recent search for a room in Los Angeles turned up 163 suites with starting nightly rates between US$316 and US$25,000 – a vast range. And that brings us to a fundamental question: What constitutes a suite?

Words like "suite" and "luxury" mean different things in different cultures, places and contexts. Indeed, the word suite wasn't always associated with luxury. "It was an upgrade," Vohra said. "A more spacious product. But not luxury."

What is luxury?

The idea of luxury itself varies globally. In the West it generally means understated elegance (subdued colours, lots of daylight), said Vohra, whose hotel experience includes stints with Wyndham International and Marriott International. In Asian and Middle Eastern countries, he said, luxury is typically about opulence and service; having staff members tending to you in your room or escorting you to a restaurant, as they would at the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, India.

In other words, a luxury suite is not just about the physical room; it carries alongside it prestige and a certain calibre of service. In March, for example, Rocco Forte Hotels announced a three-tier suites program. Guests of the highest level, the Forte Suites, are picked up at the airport and taken to their suite – which is filled with their favourite items such as flowers – for a private check-in. Among the first Forte Suites is the new Kipling Suite at Brown's Hotel in London, where rates start at US$8938 a night (including the value added tax).

"Luxury has never been just about space," Vohra said. "To conflate luxury with space is to undermine luxury."

Suite definition

This is why the word "suite" is elastic. It might be six rooms or it might be one room. It might be 50 square metres or 900 square metres. There could be a terrace with sweeping vistas, or no outdoor space at all. The bill might run you US$20,000 a night or US$200 a night. Last year, the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport introduced 485-square-foot "family suites" – one room – starting at US$134 a night. The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, in Georgia last year renovated two of its suites and both start at US$479. You would be wise to look at the particulars of the room before you book to ensure that your idea of a suite is the same as the hotel's.

For many travellers, US$479 a night is a splurge or downright impossible. For some, it's a steal, and infinitely less preferable than the Sterling Suite at the Langham, London – a penthouse with a piano, media lounge and a 24-hour personal butler – which starts at nearly US$35,000 a night. However much you're considering plunking down, the question is: If you're going to pay up, what's the payoff?

Are you experienced?

Six years ago I wrote about how social scientists found that spending money on an experience, such as a vacation, makes people happier in the long run than spending money on objects like a watch or a piece of furniture. The logic is that humans are highly adaptable; we quickly become used to things, and with time they lose their allure. And as some researchers have pointed out, another person can have, say, the same watch as you, which makes yours less special.

That doesn't happen with experiences. Experiences are unique. Even when they are shared, you interpret them in your own way. You own them forever. Indeed, researchers have found that reminiscing, reliving scenes that brought you joy, also boosts happiness.

Which brings us back to the logic of spending big bucks for a luxurious suite. For instance, if you had a spare $5000 or so, you could have a gathering in the GuestHouse at the Dream Downtown hotel in Manhattan, a 232-square-metre duplex penthouse suite with a terrace that was introduced last year. It has a fireplace, an outdoor shower and a glass-bottom Jacuzzi that can be seen from the suite's living room below (consider yourself warned). A "vibes curator" can help create a party playlist or procure hors d'oeuvres.

It's, well, ostentatious. Can such a thing translate to happiness?

Once-in-a-lifetime

I've never spoken with a scholar who made an academic case for a $5000 hotel room. But if you're thinking about a once-in-a-lifetime night, consider how different suites deliver different experiences.

Sometimes, the experience you want most is the one that costs (slightly) less. Take the Shangri-La Hotel in Paris, which has about three dozen suites. A recent search for a room with a terrace in May turned up a 70-square-metre "duplex Eiffel Tower view suite" for about US$2700 a night with no outdoor space. Also available was a 50-square-metre room (not a suite), known as a "terrace Eiffel Tower view" room, with a private terrace and views of the tower for about US$1500 a night – that's more than US$1000 cheaper than the suite at a loss of a mere 20 square metres. Some people might miss those square metres. But if I had US$1500 to throw around, I'd take the regular room with the terrace.

Obviously your dollars can be put to nobler use than a fancy hotel suite. But let's say you've saved some money to have fun with. Perhaps you might consider splurging on a very special experience, be it a honeymoon, an anniversary or a 50th birthday party.

I decided to tally the top moments, the experiences as social scientists would say, that resulted from my one-night stay in Le Dôme – not comforts or bragging rights but joys; ripples of happiness.

They include: Looking across the street to see French friends huddling on their balcony, wine glasses in hand, laughing and talking as the sun began to disappear; seeing the Eiffel Tower twinkle in the dark as I wore a bathing suit, still damp from the Jacuzzi; truffles from Angelina at turn down; the glow of the Dôme des Invalides as the sun fought through rainclouds; and the ability, now and forever, to remember the time when I was lucky enough to spend a night in a magical eyrie in Paris.

The New York Times