26 August 2007

The problem: "360-degree luxury lifestyles"

That's handy. Here's the Luxury Institute's (below) profile of their ideal consumer:

  • The top 10% wealthiest U.S. Households based on Net Worth
  • 11 million households who can choose to live a 360-degree luxury lifestyle
  • Own 70% of all the wealth in the U.S.
  • Average net worth of $3.1 million
  • Average annual income of $256,000
  • Earn 45% of the aggregate annual income in the U.S.
  • For most luxury goods and services firms, these are the 20% or less of the clients who deliver 80% of the profits.
For the sake of argument, we might just call this THE PROBLEM.

Soft (-headed) adventures: "Nature on a silver platter"

This is a nice little insanity which I've come across in my work with Adam on elitism and luxury travel. One of the favourite modes of neocolonial "Out of Africa" tourism at the moment is CC Africa's Tanzania Under Canvas (picture), described here in the most purple prose imaginable:

Sense heightened romance and sheer luxury in our tented wilderness camps, proudly featuring Tanzania’s largest and most spacious mobile ensuite tents. With a hint of Bedouin character, these tents boast romantic sweeps of canvas, in a rich palette of warm savannah colours: chocolate, suede and espresso. Finely crafted finishes complete the ambience, with custom made Indian rugs, crisp percale linens, sparkling crystal, shiny silver. Each tent comes with chic ensuite facilities, separate w.c.’s and romantic alfresco bucket showers.
  • Mobile ensuite tents with romantic sweeps of canvas
  • Al fresco hot bucket showers
  • Custom made Indian rugs, crisp percale linens
  • Ensuite flush w.c.’s
  • Gracious dining/sitting room tent
Complete with personalised private butler service, enjoy delicious Pan-African and traditional bush cuisine. This is the soul of Africa – no electricity and no running water – lose yourself in the relaxing solitude of the mighty Serengeti, far from civilisation. A life changing, intimate experience that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.
This is what some tag "glamping" - glamorous camping - which entails the absolutely affluent (and their aspirational disciples) roughing it in decadence. Thanks to Mimi, I now learn from a Seattle Times article that glamping's really made its way out of Africa. For $700 a night - a real snip compared with the $1000-plus elsewhere (see below) - USAmerican high-end tourists can connect with nature by means of heated tents, pillow-top mattresses and artwork on the walls. It's what industry workers call "soft adventures". Oh, and if this is all too basic for you, apparently unhappy glampers can always opt out with an "upgrade to luxury mountain homes with hot tubs for up to $3,460 a night". Now that's more like it. As Gigi Bondick (is that her real name?) is quoted as saying in the Seattle Times article:

"It's OK to be spoiled, it really is. It's nature on a silver platter."

Go Gigi!

Luxury "education" and "research"

Typical! Where there's money, there's a market. And where there's a market, there's education. I'm sure the Italian Accademia del Lusso is only the first of many courses and classes that'll be spawned for capitalizing (literally and figuratively) on the ever increasing "luxury market". I wonder if any of them will question the morality of luxury and the politics of absolute affluence? Why would they? In the meantime, someone please help the Accademia del Lusso with their rather non-deluxe English. (Grazie Giorgia for the heads up.)

Of course, even this little venture looks rather respectable alongside the Luxury Institute in New York (logo has to be see - above). The "institute" describes itself as follows:

... the uniquely independent and objective research institution that focuses solely on the top 10 percent of America’s wealthy.
And thus, in one post, we have education exploiting the marketplace for its cash and the marketplace exploiting education for its cachet. A marriage made in heaven!

24 August 2007

They still need our money

From NPR, I now learn (thanks, Jürgu) that Kohl's is bringing Vera Wang to the masses:

When you hear Vera Wang, you are probably a lot more likely to think of Victoria Beckham's $100,000 wedding gown than a $50 shirt at the retailer Kohl's. But that's about to change. The high-end fashion designer is launching a low-end line of clothing for Kohl's early next month. She's following in the footsteps of dozens of other luxury makers.

Just don't let them get away with thinking this is "trickle-down economics" - the supposedly de facto dissemination of wealth touted by 1980s Thatcherism and Reaganomics. This latest commercial venture is little more than a condescending illusion of sharing whereby absolute affluence is again refashioned as an acceptable, aspirational marketing brand and is, thereby, further legitimated. It's really just "low-end" clothing for the lowly low-lifes. I suppose, if nothing else, it reminds us that the riff-raff still have some collective spending power - we just need to learn how to use it better. Oh, and how about Wang-K or simply WangK as a name for Kohl's new Wang line?

19 August 2007

Global cosmopolitans

The need for a constantly changing market chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere…the bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market give a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…The individual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible. (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, 1952, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, pp. 46-7.)
I found this quoted at the start of an essay by Prof. John Urry (Lancaster University). It also brings to mind something my colleague Adam and I wrote in our critical analysis of inflight magazines:

The ‘global citizen’ or the true cosmopolitan is not … a ‘real’ person – although surely such people exist. Nonetheless, cosmopolitanism is very much one of many liberal discourses which run through the mythology of globalization. … The promise made by inflight magazines to both the jet-setter and the globe-trotter is an opportunity to buy into a way of life and a lifestyle which is … international, fashionable and sophisticated. Inflight magazines are complicitous in establishing and perpetuating the ideoscape of globalization, although not so much in terms of national ideologies as much as ideologies of consumption. Whatever the destination of their passengers, globalism and the pursuit of global capital is the driving force behind inflight magazines and the promotion of most international travel and tourism. Globalization is, in effect, a sales pitch, and the ‘global citizen’ is both role-model and myth which, in the service of global capital, are designed to persuade us to spend and consume. (Thurlow & Jaworski, 2003: 601)

Adam and I have maintained for some time - as, of course, has John Urry - that the mythologies of tourism and globalism are deeply co-complicitous.

17 August 2007

Ultraluxe: Absolutely affluent travel

How do the absolutely affluent look to spend their excess(ive) wealth? Well, in part, through profligate tourism. Here, from Travel & Leisure magazine, we find "luxury travel" explained:

Ultraluxe is a state populated by all three strata of the rich (super, really, and merely, along with those extravagant souls who want to travel like them). Its denizens demand experiences filtered by inaccessibility and extraordinary expense, experiences defined by the fact that few can have them.

And here's where the merely, really and super rich find their wanderlust ("wanderluxe") being serviced, here's where they can find "filtered experiences" tailored to their every whim:

  • Welcome to Elite Traveler, the private jet lifestyle magazine. For connoisseurs of the affluent lifestyle, a magazine that has set standards for providing the most affluent audience in the history of media (household income of $1 million+). Elite Traveler: The Essence of Luxury.
  • Why settle for less than the best? Travel & Leisure Elite Traveler looks to our magazine’s annual World’s Best Awards to deliver great deals on the crème de la crème of travel experiences.
  • The Luxury Travel Fair gathers together an audience of travellers with a shared passion for discovery. ... they are affluent, discerning, ... and searching for new adventures. Joining this already high-quality audience are carefully selected, wealthy individuals, personally invited as VIPs.
  • The Luxury Travel Expo is the only travel event entirely dedicated to providing suppliers and agents a forum for dialogue and education concerning all things luxury.
Clearly, no small market, no small demand.

16 August 2007

It's all just flossy, flossy!

Another great reflection from Fergie on the tribulations of absolute affluence:

I'm not clean, I'm not pristine
I'm no queen, I'm no machine
I still go to Taco Bell
Drive through, raw as hell
I don't care, I'm still real
Some of her glamourous markers of the "flossy, flossy": flying first class, popping champagne, gold and diamond rings, chaperons and limousines, shopping for expensive things …

13 August 2007

"Working-class millionaires"

I meant to post this a few days ago. It's another one of those "are you seriously telling me this is front page news" kind of stories. The Sunday NYT - which normally averages a 60:40 ratio of news to advertising - devoted a full-page spread to the plight of millionaires and multi-millionaires living in Silicon Valley, California. We are told these are "nose-to-the-grind-stone" people who "toil" in the "Silicon Valley salt mines", working 12-hour days at "all-consuming jobs" - and, believe it or not, sometimes a whole day at the weekend. As a university researcher/teacher who regularly works 70-hour weeks, this one really sticks in my gullet. Maybe it's a sour grape? (And just in case you don't know what professors at one of the USA's top research universities earn, it's all public knowledge and there's also this snippet from CNN.)

Speaking of the "salt mine" working conditions of Silicon Valley, I include a couple of pictures related to the six miners currently trapped underground in Huttington, Utah. Miners. Now there are people who know what harsh working conditions are like. There are people who, I imagine, understand long working days and excessive working weeks. (The can always confirm this or there's this from USA Today.) If not, then what of high school teachers, nurses, restaurant workers, fruit pickers,...

And so, back to a few words of suffering from some of the "working-class millionaires" from the NYT article:

"A few million doesn't go as far as it used to."

"I always ask myself, 'Do I deserve it?'"

"I'd be rich in Kansas City. ... But here I'm a dime a dozen."

"Poor Tony, he'll never be able to retire." [with only $1.2 million left in savings]

"You look around and the pressures to spend more are everywhere."

"Here, the top 1 percent chases the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and the top one-tenth of 1 percent chases the top one-one-hundredth of 1 percent."
Fewer salary checks, more reality checks.

Indescribable deprivations

Today I learn (from BBC World news) that the world is now facing a champagne shortage. Even worse: Great Britain could be the first to "suffer" - it's got the Daily Mail all worried. (I'm loathe to cite the hate-speech rag of Little England.) How will we survive? Perhaps we should turn for advice to the people of Nepal, Bolivia, Timor-Leste, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mongolia, Ethiopia, Sudan. These are the nine countries listed by the UN's FAO so far this year as facing severe food shortages. I'm sure they could tell us how cope with our own indescribable deprivations. Once again, I'm left feeling that the most troubling aspect of all this is the fact that it's considered newsworthy in the first place.

06 August 2007

Your $1,000 hotel room, my $1 daily wage

As a tourism researcher and critic, I find Dubai simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. This is a place that is spectacularly reinventing itself as a global tourism destination and doing so in ways which represent the very best (or worst) of advanced capitalism.

My colleague Adam Jaworski and I just completed a three day field trip there and were amazed by the conspicuous construction and consumption which quite apparently sits alongside - on top of - the most inconspicuous inequality. Without absolving them of any direct responsibility, it's simply not sufficient to blame the Dubaians for this - that's too easy Euro-centric, anti-Arab kind of move. The planes we travelled on, the hotels we stayed in, the restaurants we eat in were filled with people from all over the world but mostly Europeans and their descendants.

Today, the New York Times offers yet another media report of the extreme labour conditions under which Dubai's 1.2 million construction workers are working to produce this playground in the desert for the global elite and super-elite. There's also a slideshow of tastefully-styled , media-synthesized photos. (see example above) Take-home point: average wage $1 a day compared with the $1,000 a night some are paying regularly for a room at hotels like the Jumeirah Beach hotel (above) - and those are the cheap rooms!

Here's how one commentator quoted in the NYT article put it rather nicely:

For a country courting tourists and investors — and a free trade pact with the United States — the report stung. “If the U.A.E. wants to be a first-class global player, it can’t just do it with gold faucets and Rolls-Royces,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “It needs to bring up its labor standards.”
The questions which this begs is, of course, just what sort of labor standards are the other "first-class global players" setting themselves? And do we really care enough anyway?

04 August 2007

Masters of the universe?

"Indulge yourself and enjoy the finest luxuries with the World Elite MasterCard card. Receive renowned customer service, luxury travel benefits and VIP access to unique and memorable experiences."

Just three questions: Who writes this crap? What the hell's a unique experience? And is this post tantamount to free advertising?

03 August 2007

Colonialism alive and well and living in luxury

Scholars of critical tourism studies know well that tourism does not merely reflect broader economic and cultural changes; as the world's single largest international trade, tourism is instrumental in shaping much of economic and cultural life. We can therefore look to the shifting practices of tourism to see how it is responding to the changing demands and desires of global capital but also how tourism is leading the way - reinventing not only itself but also recreating new forms of economic and intercultural exchange.

While eco-tourism and adventure tourism may be more and more popular, arguably the fastest growing mode of contemporary tourism is that of "luxury travel" - for evidence, there's the International Travel Market and the annual Luxury Travel Fair. This is a big-bucks market in search of the big-buck earners. Global power, once governed by the (false) logic of European/British colonialism now follows the lead of the more transnational but no less concentrated (false) logic of post-industrial, service-based economics. The two regimes are not worlds apart, however. On the surface, things have changed; look beneath the surface and the world order is little changed. The chief benefiters haven't even left the building!

The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore - the quintessential colonial-now-global state - was once a seat of imperial governance, named after the first British Governor of the Straits Settlements. Now it's a luxury hotel. The colonial super-elite have made way for the global super-elite. And the saddest irony of all? They're almost one in the same people. I can't be sure - although I've been in similar places - but stand in the lobby of the Fullerton for an hour and tell me it isn't so. It's a skin thing! (Not that you could tell from their "virtual lobby tour" which is eerily and implausibly empty.) Oh, and if you find yourself yearning nostalgically for things imperial, how about a sun-downer in the (please note the name) Straits Club:

The Straits Club is The Fullerton Hotel Singapore's premier executive club. Offering personalised service and a private check-in experience, The Straits Club, whose privileges can be enjoyed at an additional premium, pampers its guests with luxurious amenities and thoughtful service. Guests staying in any of the suites at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore are also entitled to The Straits Club privileges.
Has no-one told them that the sun did actually set on that empire? Well, sort of.