The most recent AFAR Conversations took place on July 15 at the new Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, NYC. The topic this time was “exceptional,” a term that can feel both overused and hard to define these days.

AFAR Deputy Editor Jennifer Flowers led the discussion with three panelists who had interesting insights on what “exceptional” means in the context of travel. (From left in the photo above: Hoyt Harper II, Jennifer Flowers, Mark Izaat, and Clayton F. Ruebensaal.)

Hoyt Harper II, Global Brand Leader for Starwood’s Luxury Collection, started the discussion with a possible definition of what constitutes exceptional service: a company that anticipates needs and wants before guests are even aware of them, rather than simply responding to requests.

Mark Izaat, the founder of consultancy Communicating Luxury, emphasized how much the idea of exceptional depends on context. He illustrated this by recounting a stay at a Best Western in Phoenix where everything exceeded his expectations.

Clayton F. Ruebensaal, VP of Global Marketing Transformation at American Express, described an unusual luxury which leads to exceptional travel experiences—having the time simply to get lost and see where serendipity leads you, without apps and guidebooks mapping your route.

Over the course of the evening, we discussed many possible attributes of exceptional travel: surprising, impeccable, rare, unexpected. But the conversation kept returning to service, and to the people who facilitate exceptional experiences. In a world where digital devices help eliminate human interaction from much of travel, it’s clear that the personal, human touch is still key.

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The next AFAR Conversations takes place in San Francisco on October 7. Details on the exact time and place will follow soon.

For more on exceptional travel experiences, scope the AFAR guide to experiential travel at each stage of your life.