The Four Seasons luxury hotel group is going into aviation. Not in a big way just yet: it is leasing a single Boeing 757 to fly 52 people on 16- and 24-day, multi-city tours. Still, the plane is being repainted in Four Seasons colours and refitted by the group's designers: it sure looks like an airline. A Four Seasons marketing person said it was "a natural extension of what we've been doing for more than 50 years".
I wonder if the in-flight experience will be like most hotel rooms. If so, I can see myself spending half the flight working out the lighting and the rest trying not to pay $20 to watch a movie.
Mild facetiousness aside, you can see the logic behind the Four Seasons move. Airlines and hotels have a lot in common. They take a necessity – the need to get or stay somewhere – and turn it into a luxury and (in theory) a pleasure. As consumers, we are at our most sensitive and critical. Details matter. Brands have tremendous power – to delight or disappoint.
Hotels and airlines have been swapping ideas and people for decades. You now get business/VIP lounges and "club floors" in your InterContinental or Hyatt. The new generation of pod hotels is introducing airport-style automatic check-in machines. In some airline lounges, meanwhile, you get a "guest services" desk. On board, there are early experiments afoot with destination experts – concierges. They should, and probably will, take the experiment further.
Airlines have always owned hotels – as SAS did before it sold its clutch to Radisson – so it's conceivable you might get Holiday Inn Air taking on easyJet or Shangri-La Wings targeting Cathay Pacific. But it's highly unlikely. They wouldn't want the hassle. Hotels have an easy business model compared with airlines. They don't get closed by fog or stymied by unions.
According to Frank van der Post, now British Airways' brand boss and formerly of Jumeirah and InterContinental, the airlines can learn at lot from the consistent standard of services that hotels offer; and hotels can learn even more from airlines about giving the customer the right price at the right time. As for which he prefers: airlines, he says pointedly, "are more of an intellectual challenge".
It's not the airlines that should be worrying. It's the cruise lines. Looking at the Four Seasons proposition, it's essentially a cruise without touching the water. Its "Around the World" 24-day trip starts in LA, ends in London and stops in Hawaii, Bora Bora, Sydney, Bali, Thailand, Mumbai and Istanbul (all places with, you guessed it, a Four Seasons hotel).
The price is $119,000 (£70,800) per person. It seems a lot – but not when you are after the UHNWIs. UHNWIs – Ultra High Net Worth Individuals – are worth $30m or more and love spending some of it on travel. There are 53 per cent more of these people than in 2003. For expansion-minded luxury hotel groups, there may not be enough private jets to go around.
Mark Jones is editorial director of the British Airways 'High Life' and Best Western's 'Do Not Disturb' magazines