Robb Read: What Happens Next?

2020 was the year everything changed. Here’s what lies ahead across luxury travel, personal health, technology and more.

By David Smiedt 22/04/2021

With perhaps the exception of two global wars, no era has redrawn the world’s boundaries quite like 2020.

Elements for so long taken for granted— family, freedom of movement, healthcare and life expectancy—have become increasingly precious commodities, with few aspects of contemporary life what they used to be, including the notions of elevated living.

So what does the future hold? We explore this sentiment with one of the world’s most lauded futurists, Anders Sorman-Nilsson, to map the future of travel, personal health, personal concierge services and home technology.

Luxury Travel

Since vast swathes of the planet are essentially no-go zones (and will continue to be so for some time yet), it seems we have no choice but to look above and beyond. Following suborbital test flights in December 2020, it seems likely that the first of the 600-plus passengers, who each paid around $330,000 for a Virgin Galactic flight, will finally slide into their exclusive Under Armour suits and blast off in 2021, from a purpose-built space port in New Mexico, alongside celebrity clientele like Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Closer to home, luxury travel will be all about contraction, with the focus on smaller groups enjoying greater access to locations and guides. You don’t just get an expert, you get the expert. For example, companies like The Luminary Experiences will facilitate trips such as a luxury jaunt through Naples and Sorrento with Eataly top chef Simone Falco; or an Iceland meander with Game of Thrones actor Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson.

Health concerns will remain paramount, but the medical care that high-end guests receive will shape-shift. Renowned and ascendant luxury travel brand Soneva already has protocols in place where guests are immediately tested for Covid-19 on arrival at the airport, then isolate in their bungalows for between six and 24 hours as results are processed at a tempo few government-funded facilities can match.

Moving forward, the focus will be on prevention rather than containment, and the medical facilities of resorts will no doubt be able to offer Covid-19 vaccines to those who have not previously been inoculated. In the meantime, expect to see every other room being left vacant to put a suitable physical distance between guests, and a heightened array of in-room services to restrict high-traffic communal areas.

Elsewhere, exclusive hire is expected to further rise and dominate the market (think $13,530 a night at Queensland’s Bedarra Island for yourself and friends across nine premium villas, including unlimited Jacquart champagne).

And while it may be a seriously clunky portmanteau, “voluntourism” is also set to feature as an increasing part of high-end travel offerings—mainly because 2020 brought into sharp focus both the privileges many view as day-to-day life and a burgeoning desire to give back to visited communities beyond mere tourism dollars. An example can be found at Thailand’s spectacular waterside Six Senses Yao Noi, where you can devote anywhere from an hour up to a few days teaching local children about a topic that suits your abilities, including basic skills such as counting and English phrasing.

Aside from a better marrying of visitors’ specific skill sets with the needs of individuals in communities, the future of voluntourism will eventually shift focus from the well-intentioned to the well-researched. A recent article in the New York Times found that Americans travelling to developing countries to construct buildings actually took away jobs from capable locals, and that long-term planning for volunteer projects is often lacking.

For example, building a school is not terribly helpful without future plans to staff, supply and maintain it. Instead, resorts such as the Sandals & Beaches chain in the Caribbean have partnered with charities like Pack With A Purpose, where visitors bring in a backpack of stationery and school supplies for children whose education has been hampered without them. Less mission statements and more actual long-term help.

The Futurist: Sorman-Nilsson, the acclaimed author of Seamless: A Hero’s Journey of Digital Disruption, Adaptation and Human Transformation, sees the future of exclusive and elevated travel as a move from the experiential to the transformative.

“True luxury in this sphere will take the form of people wanting to emerge from the experience feeling different about themselves in some way. It’s no longer just enough to see something,” says Sorman-Nilsson. “The emphasis will be on a level of high-end immersion that somehow transforms a traveller, whether it’s a yoga camp or ayahuasca retreat.”

Case in point, the Rytmia Life Advancement Center in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province—a beachside enclave with farm-to-table, locally sourced organic menus, onsite spa and medically licensed professionals on hand to guide clients through ayahuasca.

Home Technology

In terms of covetable hardware, the notion of massive screens warranting their own rooms in our homes or dominating living areas is on the wane as foldable UHD versions will emerge from secret spaces as and when needed. The holy grail of true 3D—sans the bulky glasses—will also be conquered sooner rather than later.

Transportability of tech will also open up entertainment options that previously limited us to home or a shared space like a cinema or cinema room.

Sorman-Nilsson provides an example whereby just a few years ago, you could re-create Moonlight Cinema in a back garden with a projector, screen, some speakers and day bed. In the near future, however, high-performance and increasingly transportable AV tech will fit into whatever milieu is desired, rather than it dictating the parameters of functionality.

“Imagine,” offers Sorman-Nilsson, “the kind of cinema experience where you’re out on the yacht just off [Sydney’s] Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and just roll out that piece of equipment, sit down on some bean bags and watch a film about the Australian Outback while actually in the Australian Outback.”

To make this whimsy a reality, portability that doesn’t sacrifice performance will be the hallmark of future luxe tech.

LG’s Signature Oled R is a harbinger of things to come. At 65 inches, the TV screen rolls neatly into its base much like a sunshade over a verandah. While cost and availability are yet to be determined in Australia (though a price tag around $85-90k has been mooted), the device is already on sale internationally.

Elsewhere, Sony will this year roll out “cognitive processing” as part of its new Bravia XR Masters series, due mid-year. It means an allegedly highly immersive viewing experience across 8K LED and HDR screens—the new tech able to “cross-analyse and optimise hundreds of thousands of elements in the blink of an eye”, according to the marketing guff.

The resulting images are driven by a chip that divides the screen into numerous zones which then detect a “focal point” within the picture—mimicking the processing of the human brain and adjusting elements like contrast, colour and detail to always deliver the best picture possible.

But what to watch? The lockdown period emphasised the existence of a ravenous global market of individuals who will pay exorbitant monthly subscriptions to watch new releases at home, therefore negating the issue of having to share the cineplex with the virally suspect public. What’s being sold here, essentially, is access and exclusivity. Only available in the United States for now, one example is HBO Max. Known as an “over the top” streaming service, it has struck a deal with WarnerMedia whereby all of the latter’s 2021 cinema releases will also be available simultaneously on the streamer.

Ten months since inception, it’s only now that the true value is beginning to manifest. This year will see Warner release 17 feature films on HBO Max while Comcast’s Universal Pictures will make films available online 17 days after hitting AMC theatres.

Back to hardware, the much-vaunted but rather vague-sounding sphere of smart home gadgetry will see booms in two areas—both of which have been prompted by the Covid pandemic. The first is home tele-conferencing and an upgrade from the rather unflattering bog-standard Zoom experience. We’re talking high-def cameras that automatically adjust for lighting conditions, microphones that ignore surrounding noise and lighting systems you can control with your voice. Think of it as the cyber version of Vaseline on the lens.

The second boom in luxe tech will be home sanitation. The most high-profile example is Molekule, which in February 2020 raised $75 million in seed funding and whose sleek devices are pulling viruses (hello?), mould and bacteria from the air in homes from Miami to Maroochydore.

UV light as a sanitation tool will also continue to find favour with items like Phonesoap-—to clean mobile phones—and LG’s InstaView refrigerators, which were introduced at January’s CES Electronics Show and use proprietary UVNano technology to remove up to 99.99 percent of bacteria on the water dispenser’s tap.

This fridge further taps into the trend by being voice operated so that it opens on command—limiting the number of hands going in and around your food. Expect, too, a wealth of incoming touchless, intelligent toilets.

The Futurist: “It used to be that branding 1.0 was a brand just saying, ‘This is what Jaguar Land Rover stands for as a luxury brand.’ Then brand 2.0 was the era of social media where increasingly we hijacked brands and we started leaving reviews about them.”

Sorman-Nilsson adds that the 3.0 era in which we now live has shifted from monologue to dialogue to trialogue, where the brand, the owner and the object itself communicate.

“So think of the object as a Tesla and imagine being a Tesla owner a couple of hurricane seasons ago in Florida and you’re fleeing with your family away from the hurricane down the highway when your Tesla battery starts running low. You’re probably feeling pretty anxious at this stage, but then all of a sudden across the dashboard comes a message from Elon Musk saying, ‘Hey, fret not, human. We’ve just remotely upgraded the firmware in your battery and your computer in your car so that you can safely get out of harm’s way.’

“This is a true story where Tesla predicatively solved, through technology, the client’s problem before it became a reality. So the relationship with that cold piece of technology has now become anthropomorphised. I think you’ll see more of that humanisation of technology.”

The idea of products that know what we want and need before we do? Where do we sign up?

Personal Health & Fitness

In the near future, the worlds of fitness, wellness and mental health will be virtually indistinguishable—the key word here being “virtually”. Technological convergence in this incredibly fast moving and increasingly lucrative sector will mean two things. The first is that technologies, equipment and metrics once available only to elite athletes at high-performance centres will be offered to suburban Lycra wearers.

While you may not be covering 100 metres in a match for Usain Bolt, you will have access to similar levels of motion analysis—which overlays your movements against a model of computer-generated perfection to see where more muscle strength or a tweak of form is needed. Leading the field here is Notch, a set of 3D water-resistant motion trackers that you affix to certain points on the body to record personal dynamics through a smartphone.

Myriad other factors such as respiratory metrics to maximise oxygen intake can also be factored into the equation to boost performance, enabling you to run, swim, cycle, row and swing a club or racket with greater power and efficiency. One start-up that is already generating interest and is past prototype development is Yopi.

By teaming a Fitbit-style sensor with a custom-built app, it measures biomarkers in the skin and sweat that are correlated with oxygen intake. It then, “instructs, in real time, the trainee according to his momentary physiology and goals”.

The second element is such training will take place at home. Most new domestic builds now feature so-called wellness spaces—as opposed to mere “home gyms”—given that 2020 has drawn a thick line under the importance of personal resilience and wellbeing, with many larger studios forced to permanently closed.

One must-have item for 2021 is Mirror, a piece of smart fitness hardware that allows users to not only stream customised workouts but simultaneously view themselves doing so to access real-time feedback on form. It means skipping the small talk with a PT named Jake about what he got up to on the weekend before being barked at through a set of personalised crunches. Seen as a true fitness game changer—and one on an ascendant rate of global take up—athletic apparel company Lululemon shelled out $672 million to acquire Mirror in 2020.

Also likely to increasingly feature in domicile wellness spaces are Hydrow rowers and Liteboxer boxing machines—bits of exemplary kit that deliver a workout and personalised digital training plans or classes, reflecting the success of the acclaimed Peloton training bike.

In terms of mental health treatment, one of the growing future trends will involve increased technological mediation—albeit with an appropriate level of human connection. What this means in real terms is that instead of making an appointment to see someone when you’re in crisis or having to actually talk to a stranger on the phone—its own type of intimidation, especially for introverts—digital, text-message-based counselling will eventually come to the fore, promising immediacy, mobility and anonymity. All of which are prerequisites of the millennial age.

Elsewhere, expect to hear the term “age management” increasingly thrown around. The target market will be patients seeking—and able to afford—direct “age doctors”, and what is generally a heady outlay for a personalised “prescription” of supplements and hormone replacement therapies. The aim? Optimal physical and mental function, and overall quality of life as the client gets older.

Just know that such practices are often seen as controversial.

The futurist: The future of “fitness” as an umbrella term, according to Sorman-Nilsson, means dramatically heightened levels of customised services, much of which rests in acute personal programs, testing and science.

“We’re going to see less fragmentation and more expertise. So rather than having a dietician and a PT, and then a separate yoga instructor, for the real luxury experience you’ll end up with something more akin to a board of advisors. They will in turn be a conduit to a single integrated experience of someone who keeps you accountable towards your bio-hacking.

“It will be almost a minute-by-minute engagement where, for example, they’ll instruct you to have that cold shower at the precise time it will do most good for muscle recovery and inform when your body is in a state of ketosis. It’s also going to be integrated with DNA testing to make sure that everything that is prescribed suits you specifically as an individual.”

Sorman-Nilsson points out that as stigmas continue to fall around discussion of mental health and depression, the open use of psychologists will ultimately rise.

Personal Concierge Services

Another high-end service that will integrate cutting-edge tech with a level of personalised service no machine can (yet) muster is that of personal concierges. On the software side of the equation, bots will become smarter, faster and more intuitive so that by the time you, for example, check into a hotel, it will have received personal data that registers a preferred choice of scotch, favoured in-room climate and scent settings, and dietary requirements well in advance. They will also know you prefer ABC news over SBS and baths over showers.

This will in turn free up actual human beings to focus on the more important tasks where a level of EQ (emotional intelligence) is involved—because the IQ can be left to the cloud.

One of these will be securing access to coveted events. Until mass Covid inoculations are a reality, restricted capacity will be the hallmark for sports and concerts. The competition for exclusive football boxes, performances at the Opera House or that Barca/Real Madrid game will become fiercer than ever. Concierge wise, those with the best combination of contacts and cash will triumph as resources diminish.

In the post-Covid world, the remit of personal concierges will also expand into property, and those appropriately qualified will be wooed hard. Whether you’re looking to buy, invest or splash out on a single-occupancy holiday rental, personal concierges are all about saving time and anguish—and few areas consume more of both than finding somewhere to live. The mere fact that they will cut back on the time you have to spend interacting with real estate agents sells itself.

Where the personal concierge service industry will buck global trends is that its customer-facing dimensions will become less centralised. In other words, there will be bureaus dotted around the world where, for example, you can actually speak to someone in Tangiers about that hidden gem they discovered in a souk not last summer, but last night.

Exemplifying the movement is the Quintessentially group, which operates 60 offices staffed by 1,500 specialists speaking 15 languages. Its pillars run across property, wine curation, education, art consultancy and personal shopping. In one notable coup, the group famously managed to close down the Sydney Harbour Bridge for a marriage proposal. According to Haute Today, the company also secured an Egyptian pyramid for a party on three days’ notice and acquired a black Hermès Birkin bag in 48 hours (waiting lists can run to six years). And forget front-row tickets, they can, and have, supplied Elton John as private entertainment.

The Futurist: “Any kind of experience that empathetically touches the enduringly analogue human heart is going to have a luxury premium attached to it,” says Sorman-Nilsson.

It’s in what can’t be digitised that true luxury blossoms—in other words, the encasing allure of the human factor informing a great concierge service.

“Behind the scenes, the back end is highly digitised. For example, my tailor in Sydney has all the trappings of an old-school kind of British establishment [out front]. But then, of course, everything just goes into a back end that is highly effective in terms of their global supply chain. It’s that combination of having a great concierge, the friendly human face, but
then there’s a digital interface that makes their work very efficient.”




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