This sponsored content was created in collaboration with a Skift partner.
Forget private islands and caviar breakfasts — real connections and cultural immersion are the new hallmarks of ultra-luxury travel in 2024. Wealthy travelers are increasingly ditching traditional luxury for experiences that provide a deeper understanding of the places they visit. Skift Research confirmed this in their 2023 luxury traveler report, which showed a rising correlation between income and the desire for authentic experiences.
This shift towards cultural heritage tourism reflects a broader trend where the journey is as much about discovery as about indulgence. Travelers are looking for experiences that not only entertain but also broaden their perspectives and challenge their preconceived notions. This represents a significant opportunity for Saudi Arabia’s Boutique Group, a hospitality company that’s converting historic Saudi palaces into exclusive boutique hotels.
SkiftX spoke to Mark De Cocinis, CEO of Boutique Group, to understand the company’s strategic approach to utilizing historic palaces as luxury accommodations and explore how this approach reflects the changing landscape of luxury travel.
SkiftX: How have the expectations of ultra-luxury travelers changed most significantly in recent years?
Mark De Cocinis: We’ve noticed a growing desire for unique experiences and destinations among ultra-luxury travelers. The demand for educational experiences has also been growing. Seasoned travelers who’ve explored the world are now looking for opportunities to learn about the culture and heritage of the places they visit. People are no longer traveling just to tick off a destination — they’re looking for authentic stories. It’s great to visit a destination, but what truly matters to these travelers is the opportunity to gain valuable insights and knowledge about the region.
SkiftX: What does ‘authenticity’ mean in the context of ultra-luxury travel, and how does Boutique Group embody this in its properties?
De Cocinis: Authenticity in the luxury sector is about delivering optimal services, anchored in a sense of place. Whether it’s fine dining, a sensational spa experience, or an exciting itinerary exploring the surrounding region, everything should be woven into the cultural tapestry of the area.
Boutique Group embodies this by infusing the region’s essence into every detail of our palaces. Each palace has its own distinctive architecture and design based on its unique location. These palaces were once homes for royal families, and we’re now turning them into ultra-luxury boutique hotels, steeped in the spirit of Saudi Arabia’s famous sense of hospitality. That means they need to offer all the amenities guests expect, such as Saudi fine dining, Michelin-star restaurants, and wellness facilities.
But while a palace’s location, design, and amenity offerings are important, the histories are the true differentiators. The palaces offer unique stories about the kings and royal families that resided in them and the guests they welcomed. This historical aspect gives guests a genuine experience they can’t get anywhere else.
SkiftX: The ultra-luxury travel market is stronger than ever. What new trends do you expect to see in this segment in 2024 and beyond?
De Cocinis: The shift we’re seeing leans towards guests preferring smaller hotels and boutique settings, something a bit adventurous and off the beaten path. A desire for adventure and curiosity about different areas drives this trend. There’s a growing focus among brands to create smaller, unique experiences.
We’re also seeing an influx of younger travelers in the ultra-luxury segment due to increased wealth among younger demographics. Luxury, in essence, is about the time you have and how you choose to spend it. For example, enjoying time with one’s family is extremely important in today’s busy world. Wellness is another key trend, both in terms of fitness and training programs as well as in the food aligned with them. Destinations and hospitality companies that provide these facilities will dominate the luxury travel sector in 2024 and beyond.
SkiftX: Can you share some examples of the palaces that Boutique Group is converting into luxury boutique hotels and the unique experiences they’ll offer guests?
De Cocinis: We currently have three palaces under development. The Red Palace in the historic old city of Riyadh is our first project. It was the residence of King Saud and was the first concrete building in Riyadh in the 1940s. It showcases a unique art deco design with European columns blended with Arabian styles and has 70 suites, a wellness center, and restaurants. Our primary focus is Saudi cuisine, although we will also feature international and Michelin-star restaurants.
Tuwaiq Palace is located in Riyadh’s diplomatic quarters. It stands out for its architectural significance and has earned the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for its dunes-like design that imitates the desert’s waves and curves. We’ve added two and three-bedroom villas around the original palace, which overlooks the Wadi Hanifah. It’s an urban retreat that provides a peaceful escape in the heart of Riyadh, where guests can relax and get away from the noise and activity of the city.
Al Hamra was the royal residence of King Faisal and is situated on the Jeddah Corniche. It’s known for hosting dignitaries, including Princess Diana and King Charles. We’ve restored the palace with suites and villas, and the surrounding two and three-bedroom villas reflect the original architecture. The palace features six wellness villas, each equipped with its own pool, steam room, and massage room. These wellness villas are like spas in themselves, with designs and materials reflecting Saudi culture and heritage.
In addition to these three palaces, we have other projects in the pipeline, with three more palaces set to be announced soon.
SkiftX: How is Boutique Group ensuring that the palaces’ cultural essence and historical integrity are maintained during their conversion into luxury travel accommodations?
De Cocinis: We have a Culture and Heritage Division led by a former Ministry of Culture expert. Our team meticulously studies each palace, going as far as interviewing the royal families, including the kings’ grandchildren, to gather fascinating stories about their lives and how they used these spaces.
This level of detail is unprecedented in luxury hospitality. We honor each palace’s history and past activities, with a careful eye on repurposing spaces to maintain their original spirit. We’re not just preserving buildings — we’re reviving the palaces’ stories.
We also work closely with The Royal Institute of Traditional Arts and the Fashion Commission, involving both international and Saudi designers. We use materials and crafts from the local region so that each element reflects the specific character of the palace. Our goal is to set a new benchmark in hospitality and showcase Saudi hospitality as the best in the world.
SkiftX: How do Boutique Group’s efforts align with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, and what role do you see the company playing in the Kingdom’s future tourism landscape?
De Cocinis: We’re proud to be part of Vision 2030. His Royal Highness announced Boutique Group in January 2022, recognizing our efforts in restoring these palaces as a celebration of Saudi culture and history, which reflects the essence of Vision 2030. While we may be smaller than other projects, our impact is significant. We contribute to the growing attention towards the Kingdom, which aligns with our name, ‘Boutique’ — we focus on personalized experiences rather than overstating ourselves. We also own and manage our assets, which gives us complete control over the experience, from design and development to construction and service management. Our distinct approach positions us as a small but vital piece of Saudi Arabia’s broader tourism vision.
SkiftX: How do you see cultural heritage tourism evolving in Saudi Arabia in the future?
De Cocinis: Saudi Arabia is unique and somewhat of a mystery to many, which will attract more international visitors. The Kingdom offers a vast and varied landscape that caters to all kinds of travelers. While many countries support tourism, Saudi Arabia’s commitment, especially in terms of funding, training, and development in hospitality, is unparalleled. By partnering with local hospitality schools and providing international training for students who then return to work with us at Boutique Group, we’re infusing the industry with well-rounded, globally informed expertise.
Geographically, the Middle East, and particularly Saudi Arabia, is becoming a hot destination, both for leisure and business travel. This trend is growing, and Saudi Arabia will fuel tourism for the entire Middle Eastern region in the coming years. While Asia is also making a comeback, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East are emerging as top-tier destinations for cultural heritage tourism.
For more information about Boutique Group, visit boutiquegroup.com
This content was created collaboratively by Boutique Group and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.