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Best in Travel Poll 2018 - Asia's top airlines, luxury hotels, destinations

OPINION

How to win an Award

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaOften it is age that determines travel patterns, not glossy advertising or millions of followers. Legacy brands find old is gold while boutique hotels get gussied up for the kids.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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InterContinental Danang was No.1 as the Best Wedding Hotel in Asia for 2018

InterCon Danang easily won No.1 in Asia for Weddings. See our growing WINNERS' ALBUM

WITH the 2018 Best in Travel Poll by our indefatigable peripatetic readers concluded, a huge amount of data is being crunched with nary a Bitcoin to be found as we mine the outpourings, comments, and wisecracks that have our servers bulging. This was the 14th year of the annual poll without usurious nomination fees, the promise of adoption by Angelina Jolie or other voter inducements. In its small way, this market research offers a genuine litmus test of travel trends and brand preferences amongst a knowledgeable high-spend high-travel audience that makes an average 14 annual air trips within and to Asia.

'Why no nominations?' we are often asked. Well, this mightily misused word is simply a device to mulct hotels and airlines who are pressured to nominate themselves at an outrageous cost in as many categories as possible to improve their chances. We have an unlimited universe of choice and believe this to be a fairer way to test the travel pulse.

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Some awards are hugely imaginative – like the 'Most Anticipated Hotel'. In short, awards are a free-for-all. Oftentimes they are bought outright. Whenever we are asked the going rate for number one, we respond with mirthless laughter and a warning that we vigorously track IP addresses, voting anomalies, block lunch-hour votes, and other clever stratagems employed by brilliant PR companies that ‘guarantee’ their clients a win.

{Millennials are impulsive buyers who tend to go with the flow and they can change direction abruptly like a shoal of fish in an Attenborough documentary

So what did we glean? As in previous years, millennials continued to be far less brand loyal (and more adventurous) than older travellers (who stayed with classic picks). This divergence was evident in all hotel categories even among new voters this year from China, India, the Middle East, Vietnam, Russia, and the Philippines. As always, the poll reflected a mix of parochial votes, regional votes (where the bulk of the travel activity lies), and international votes from discerning travellers (who spent the most time on research).

Younger travellers are increasingly brand-blind as the online media they inhabit is dominated by small boutique products building fizzy presence through social media and word-of-mouth. These smaller independent brands see remarkable amplification – albeit indiscriminate – in the online space where legacy brands tend to lose out due to high pricing and other stodgy factors like brand hubris or the focus on glossy print that is all but propped up with cardboard cut-outs to impress advertisers but lacking any meaty reader depth.

Millennials are impulsive buyers who tend to go with the flow and they can change direction abruptly like a shoal of fish in an Attenborough documentary. This is both the strength as well as the Achilles Heel of smaller independents who need to find more and more novel ways to attract guests in a crowded online space. Small wonder they tend to be the most experimental with promotions and bloggers, their low prices a good fit with the audience.

Older travellers 50-60 years and up tend to be more discriminating when it comes to travel research and they tend to stay with classic picks where service standards can be predicted. These are loyal legacy product consumers less influenced by Facebook blah and pouting Instagrammers. They do not follow trends. They follow their instincts. Older hotels have the advantage then of a base, howsoever small, and a reputation to defend. This makes them more cautious in promotional outreach. As millennials grow up these hotels become aspirational.

Those in the 65-years and up category appear to enjoy a second childhood of sorts with new boutique choices and price sensitive picks as retirement looms. They crave variety and local experience and tend to venture off the luxury grid though they will spend on quality. This is reflected in the annual vote as well. Said one, "We are so tired of the usual brands where there is never any thrill of the unexpected. We don't want to find New York in Phuket."

While just holding on to No.1 for Meetings (with Singapore in 2nd spot), Hong Kong took a knock in the Leisure category, dropping to No.5 (ranked jointly with Phuket). Shopping remains a huge draw for leisure travellers but the decline of creative local products marginalised by rising rents – and the shop-window dominance of ho-hum international brands – has dulled the edge of the shopper experience. “Why would I fly all the way from Paris to shop at Louis Vuitton?” asked one puzzled voter. This sentiment underscores a broader issue – travellers seek variety and local flair, be it in food or fashion.

Shanghai ran away with the No.1 spot for Holiday Destinations in Asia cited for its exciting vibrant feel, excellent metro, great food and nightlife, and the dramatic Bund extension that is underpinning a resurgence of art and culture – as well as exercise and jogging – along the snaking scenic 45km stretch.

The other big winners were Bali, Thailand (despite Bangkok's huge drop, on account of airport overcrowding and taxi drivers who appear quite puzzled by the invention of the meter), Dubai, Macau (with its storied historic walks), and Singapore. Vietnam was picked as the fastest climbing destination with an attractive quality-to-price ratio and a range of exciting new options. “Vietnam is the one of the last frontiers in Asia for a comfortable, accessible and safe travel experience,” wrote one reader.

Unsurprisingly, hotels in these areas performed above average with an efficient airport in many cases helping float all boats. Look out for names like Grand Hyatt Bali, Mandapa a Ritz-Carlton Reserve Bali, Ayana Resort and Spa Bali, InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, Peninsula Shanghai, St Regis Bangkok, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong and 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai. With thousands of hotels to pick from in an unlimited universe, the voting percentages between all hotels was minimal, so much so that in several cases joint ranks had to be awarded. While a top airline would have secured almost 30 percent of the vote, the No.1 hotel in any category was hard pressed to rustle up 4-5 percent.

The emergence of tiny non-chain hotels and one-off resorts was buoyed by younger voters as well as female entrants. Both these groups preferred something personal, quirky, and off the beaten track. After all, this is where those eat-your-heart-out Instagram posts originate. While some were budget picks, many were very much in the luxe category. Spot names like the romantic marry-me-now Amorita Bohol, designer chic Hotel Proverbs Taipei, Sujan SherBagh Ranthambhore (for safari tent tiger spotting in India), the family-run doll's-house Tandjung Sari Bali, and the Grand View Resort Beitou (an elegant and very zen spa choice a half hour from the heart of Taipei).

Qatar Airways bagged top spot in 2018 as the Best Airline Worldwide with the Best Business Class (Singapore Airlines took No.2) as frequent flyers responded to the Qatar air-space blockade with a show of support for a world-class carrier. While SIA understandably stayed well ahead as the top pick for soft focus Cabin Service, Cathay Pacific scraped together a none-too-bad No.2, some of this due to 'consistency of service' and its excellent airport lounges.

While Middle-East biggie Emirates was pushed modestly down the ladder, no American airline made it to the Top 10 List in any category. One reader was emphatic: "Most airlines have cut back dramatically on economy class comfort and service. This is lamentable. But USA-based carriers are notoriously horrific in all classes compared with Asian carriers."

Singapore's Changi Airport (where the new Terminal 4 is now in operation) once again ranked the Best Airport Worldwide as Hong Kong International Airport dropped to No.5 (from No.2 in 2017), the fall attributed to aircraft delays (a knock-on effect from unpredictable China skies) though airport efficiency was rated high.

We continue to mine the information you provided. Thank you. And congratulations again to all our winners.

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