When it comes to finding someone like Mark Wong who could accurately represent the luxury travel scene in Singapore, one would be hard-pressed for choices. After all, an island with 240,100 millionaires, 329 centi-millionaires, and 27 billionaires — according to a report by World’s Wealthiest City — is a right haven for luxury travel operators. But Wong is not just the leader of an atypical luxury travel company; he works for Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH).
In his capacity as the Asia Pacific senior vice president, Wong is tasked with being the curator du jour of small luxury properties in the region and, according to him, “sharing their unique backstories with the world”. It’s work I’m certain comes easily for Wong, who left SLH in 2011 for three years due to an opportunity to spearhead the launch of a new hotel brand.
SLH was founded in 1991 by two hoteliers, Paul Kerr and Sir David Michels, who wanted to create a platform that showcased and promoted independent luxury hotels. Today, the group is a diverse collection of boutique properties, each known for its unique character, exceptional service, and distinct experiences. These hotels often feature intimate settings, personalized customer service, and a strong sense of local culture.
Here, SLH takes the term “intimate” very seriously. Grasse Grace Manor in Miaoli, Taiwan, has nine rooms, while in Khao Yai, Thailand, Marasca Khao Yai has 18 rooms. On Taveuni Island in Fiji, the newest and smallest addition to the group, Raiwasa Private Resort is a standalone two-bedroom villa with a hand-picked team of chefs, service personnel, spa therapists, and a chauffeur.
“The hotels I curate and showcase are born out of the genuine passion of their owners,” Wong shares when I ask what makes an SLH property. “This passion lends a unique backstory to each establishment — a tale of inheritance, perhaps, or the transformation of a former warehouse, and in some cases, even a former prison.”
A surprising competitor
Still, it wasn’t larger chain hotels that SLH could have predicted would pose a competition to the group — it was Airbnb. Airbnb gained fame shortly after its 2008 launch with its disruptive approach to lodging, which quickly transformed it into a global household name, offering an alternative to traditional hotels and redefining how people travel.
Wong recalls that time very lucidly: “As Airbnb gained prominence, some customers ventured into the trend, exploring what it had to offer. However, they eventually returned to the convenience and reliability of SLH accommodations.” His theory for the return was that Airbnb, unlike hotels in the SLH group, “lacked certain amenities, such as concierge services and a consistent level of quality assurance”.
“SLH distinguishes itself by prioritising the comfort and quality that luxury travelers seek,” Wong elaborates. “Each year, a rigorous quality assessment and a mystery inspection are conducted, ensuring that SLH member hotels consistently meet high standards. This emphasis on quality and assurance is a crucial factor that sets SLH apart, and it’s something that Airbnb’s model doesn’t inherently provide nor can it achieve.”
It’s important that this work SLH is doing empowers smaller players in the hospitality scene, who, due to their size, often find themselves crippled by a lack of support in softer aspects of the business. “SLH extends a global presence to these smaller properties through creative sales and marketing initiatives,” Wong lets on. “We provide indie properties access to distribution channels that would otherwise be out of their reach. By uniting these individual entities under our umbrella, we leverage economies of scale to bring down costs.”
And with over 540 hotels in more than 90 countries worldwide, you can imagine how useful the power of collective action is when it comes to expenses. This, Wong asserts, is a symbiotic relationship that empowers these small-scale operators to stand their ground against established industry giants. “We allow the hotels under our wing to capitalise on our network and resources to make their mark in a fiercely competitive arena.”
It’s an arena that Wong believes has seen a notable transformation and maturation over the past decade. “In the past, luxury travel was often centred around aspiration. Now, ‘luxury’ in travel has become an integral part of one’s lifestyle. It’s not just an occasional indulgence but a way of life, encompassing the little extras that come with it.”
If Wong is to be believed, the next evolution of luxury travel is what he would coin “post-luxury”, a phase characterised by privacy and exclusivity. “It’s about seeking a certain level of opulence without flaunting it,” he explains. “A little like stealth wealth, perhaps?” I offer.
“Correct. It’s when branding takes a back seat and the emphasis shifts to the finest craftsmanship, the most exceptional ingredients in culinary offerings, and the best products available. It’s a refined luxury that really doesn’t need grand announcements.”
Sustainability is another aspect of luxury travel that is quickly catching on and that Wong feels very strongly about. He tells me that within the SLH Group is an even smaller curated list called the Considerate Collection (CC) that groups hotels with the best sustainable practices together. “Our evaluation framework for the CC aligns with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Criteria across three key pillars: Community Minded, Cultural Custodians, and Environmentally Conscious.”
It is not an easy list to aspire to. Mark Wong shares that to ensure these hotels in the CC maintain their sustainable practices, “we added a 50-point sustainability section to our 800-point annual Mystery Inspection. This assessment underscores our commitment to sustainability, going beyond surface-level gestures like plastic reduction.”
And perhaps that’s what luxury travel is today; it’s not merely about material excesses or the best food money can buy. Instead, it’s about curation, meaningfulness, and social responsibility.
“The travel industry is experiencing a dynamic shift,” Mark helpfully offers at the close of our interview. “While challenges persist, the potential for growth, especially in the Asia Pacific region, remains substantial. It’s a testament to the enduring allure of travel, the changing preferences of travelers, and the evolving strategies that industry players are adopting to meet these shifting demands.”