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Published: Sunday, 6/8/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

While budget vacationers couch-surf, the rich ask for 6-bedroom suites and helipads

ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Abu Dhabi suite has three bedrooms and is suspended 720 feet above the ground between the buildings of the Nation Towers Development. The nearly 24,000-square-foot suite also has a spa, a cinema, a bar, two kitchens, and 19 chandeliers made of Bohemian glass crystal. The Abu Dhabi suite has three bedrooms and is suspended 720 feet above the ground between the buildings of the Nation Towers Development. The nearly 24,000-square-foot suite also has a spa, a cinema, a bar, two kitchens, and 19 chandeliers made of Bohemian glass crystal.
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NEW YORK — Private elevators, personal shopping assistants, six-bedroom suites with their own postal codes, and even helipads. This is what the super-rich have come to expect from hotels.

For others, vacation means renting someone’s apartment, a spare room, maybe just a couch — anything to save on the cost of a hotel.

As the gap between the wealthiest travelers and everyone else has widened, so has the way people are experiencing vacations. The wealthy are looking for more pampering. Others are seeking ways to economize.

And the lodging industry is adapting — at the high and low ends — to meet both needs.

Luxury hotels are catering to financial elites from Russia, China, Brazil, or the Middle East who hop around the world and don’t mind dropping $20,000 a night for a glamorous accommodation.

“High-end travel in the air, on the sea, and on land has never been more robust,” says Steve Carvell, an associate dean at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “There are more people with more concentrated wealth.”

Luxury hotels are rising even at iconic middle-American tourism spots such as Walt Disney World. Four Seasons will open a 444-room resort there in August with 68 suites, including a nine-bedroom royal suite with views of the park’s nightly fireworks from a 1,000 square-foot private terrace.

The return of extravagance reflects one characteristic of the recovery: After paring their vacations along with everyone else during the recession, the wealthy have rebounded with force. Since 2009, hotel spending by the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans has risen about 6 percent, according to inflation-adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The middle 20 percent are still spending nearly 3 percent less.

The butler welcomes guests to the Abu Dhabi Suite at the St. Regis in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The suite costs $21,500 a night. The butler welcomes guests to the Abu Dhabi Suite at the St. Regis in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The suite costs $21,500 a night.
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To stretch their discretionary dollars, middle-income vacationers are fueling one of the industry’s growth areas: “limited service” lodgings. At Marriott’s Fairfield Inn, Hyatt Place, and Holiday Inn Express, you get free Wi-Fi and breakfast, but no bellman, concierge, or restaurants.

But many people are seeking deeper savings through increasingly popular sites, such as Airbnb, that arrange for people to rent rooms or apartments. The number of listed accommodations has soared since Airbnb’s founding in 2008 to 550,000 — not far below Hilton’s 685,000 rooms worldwide. Some studies suggest that Airbnb could be cutting into budget hotels’ revenue.

Robin Lynch, 34, of New York City put 14 relatives, including her in-laws, in five Airbnb facilities in Brooklyn for her wedding last year. She estimates she paid roughly $200 a night, on average, compared with the $300 she’d expected for a hotel.

“That amounts to a lot of savings over seven days,” she says.

High unemployment and flat paychecks have spurred more people not only to stay in Airbnb rooms but to list their own homes.

Eric Worley, 30, and his girlfriend stayed at an Airbnb home in Columbus for $59 a night — half the lowest hotel rate they could find.

“Not only am I saving money, I’m also helping out another person ... by giving them some extra money,” he says. “I’d much rather do that than have a corporation overcharge me for what is essentially the same service.”

Airbnb guest Megan Walsh reads at the Echo Park home of artist Jonathan Entler in Los Angeles.  Airbnb arranges for people to rent out rooms, apartments, couches, or Airstream travel trailers. Airbnb guest Megan Walsh reads at the Echo Park home of artist Jonathan Entler in Los Angeles. Airbnb arranges for people to rent out rooms, apartments, couches, or Airstream travel trailers.
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Sometimes, the cut-rate experience goes further that visitors had expected. Ann Carman, 32, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, had always wanted to stay in an Airstream trailer. When she visited Austin in December, 2013, she found one in a backyard. Sharing were a pig named Fern, two dogs, and a rooster.

Airbnb hosts can charge less than hotels because they typically don’t pay accommodation taxes or meet safety or disability regulations. That’s sparked grumbling from hotels — and from localities that lose out on tax revenue.

The luxury sphere is also trying to expand its base. Chains such as the Ritz-Carlton and the Mandarin Oriental are pursuing not just the uber-rich but increasingly the merely affluent.

As more modestly rich travelers have checked in, these hotels have sought to provide more for the ultra-wealthy.

With the recently opened St. Regis Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, architects considered how much privacy to provide its most sumptuous suites, says Paul James, head of Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ luxury properties.

“Part of the Abu Dhabi conversation was: ‘Where does the helicopter land?’” Mr. James says.

The elite traveler’s experience was precisely what the Rosewood London had in mind when it opened its Grand Manor House Wing in December. The six-bedroom complex offers three living rooms, a library, and a dining table for eight. It has its own street entrance and private elevator. For $42,000 a night, guests get some extra bragging rights: Their suite has its own postal code.

Cornell’s Mr. Carvell has a theory about why anyone makes such extravagant requests.

“They’ll sometimes do it just to see if it can be done,” he says. “They don’t want to hear the word no.”



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