Looking Forward to Luxury
"We keep saying the coronavirus is a speedbump, not a roadblock—it’s going to slow travelers down, but it’s not going to stop them"
BY KELLY ROSENFELD
June 1, 2020
Though few doubt the value of the luxury travel market, its estimated impact might come as a surprise: A 2020 report from Barton and the International Luxury Travel Market valued the "global luxury travel ecosystem" at $2.05 trillion. The report also notes that luxury travel plays an important role for global economies, with luxury travelers supporting local and often small, independent businesses.
Knowing the important role this niche plays in so many lives makes it all the more challenging to wait out the shutdowns caused by COVID-19, which, at press time, had put the majority of travel plans on hold. But the luxury travel market is nothing if not resilient, and as we look forward to the resurgence of the industry, there are plenty of bright spots on the horizon.
For one thing, MMGY Global revealed that April saw a 25 percent increase in volume for the search term "luxury travel," and an April survey by Overseas Leisure Group found that an impressive 72 percent of travelers surveyed were making plans for their next vacation—more than a third wanted to travel in summer and more than half by the fall. Industry analysts have also predicted that luxury travel will be one of the first sectors to recover.
Kristen Fernandez, managing partner of Elli Travel Group in Larchmont, New York, agrees: "We keep saying the coronavirus is a speedbump, not a roadblock—it’s going to slow travelers down, but it’s not going to stop them," she says. "When you combine that mentality with the luxury traveler income level, I agree that’s going to be where leisure travel starts to bounce back."
Mirroring that optimism, Russell Paulson, founder of Essential Travel Design, a division of Element Lifestyle in Los Angeles, California, is finding that his upscale clients remain committed to travel. "The most encouraging sentiment for me is that clients don’t want to cancel or postpone if they don’t have to—I haven’t seen a lot of people immediately throw up the white flag and say, ‘I’m not doing it,’" he says. "If it’s appropriate and safe, they’re still going to take their trip, or we’re going to push it back instead of cancel."
For Anne Bluntzer, owner of Bluntzer Travel, an independent aflliate of Brownell Travel in Houston, Texas, another source of good news has been a rise in appreciation for travel advisors: "Something that’s been very positive is that I have heard a lot of people say they will never not use a travel agent again," she says.
TRENDSPOTTING The rising value of advisors could spell big business for luxury travel planners as the market opens back up, especially coming off a strong 2019.
"Our 2019 was remarkable, and our early 2020 sales were surpassing 2019," says Fernandez. "Clients seemed very financially confident and were booking premium rooms and more front-of-the-plane seats. Europe bookings were on fire, particularly Italy and Greece."
Bluntzer also reports that recent bookings had been extremely strong, noting an uptick in big-ticket trips among her clients. "My Africa business was gangbusters for this summer," she says. "And I had three really big Australia and New Zealand trips. Compared to last year, I had a lot of trips to some of the more expensive places around the world."
Big river cruise news is coming: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is expanding to South America with two Peruvian Amazon itineraries (slated for late 2020 starts at press time) while AmaWaterways’ new AmaDahlia hits the Nile in 2021.Although the beginning of the year was showing high demand for far-flung locales, an April tracking study of American travelers from Longwoods International indicated that of the 84 percent of respondents who are changing travel plans because of the coronavirus, 13 percent changed to a domestic destination and 22 percent switched to a drive-to destination. All of the advisors Travel Weekly spoke with for this article agree that many luxury travelers will likely be interested in domestic vacations in the near future.
"Internationally, I could see there being fragmented re-openings from country to country," explains Paulson. "I think that will create a domestic travel trend, because there’s a little more assurance and it’s a bit more of a controlled environment." "As a result of the coronavirus, domestic seems to be the term," agrees Fernandez. "I think there’s going to be a trend over the next months with buzzwords like ‘local,’ ‘staycation,’ ‘outdoors,’ ‘fresh air’ and so on."
In fact, nature and outdoor travel were already hot luxury travel terms in early 2020. Afar, for one, included "getting back to nature" on its list of 7 Luxury Travel Trends for 2020. And as travelers escape the confinement of their homes while continuing to consider social distancing, vacations centered around the outdoors will be a natural choice for many.
"Our country’s greatest treasure is our natural beauty, so I think people will be encouraged to look in our own backyard, like at our National Parks," says Paulson. "Also, nature and destinations that aren’t cities could be a huge trend, whether it’s rainforests or deserts, someplace like Patagonia or a safari. We’ve recently had clients doing outrageous excursions to Greenland, which has popped up quite a bit because of its remote, untouched natural beauty—and it’s a great place for people to not be around anyone else as well."
An increase in nature-based travel could also boost interest in sustainability, another trend that has been gaining steam in the luxury market. Forbes predicted that "sustainability will be cornerstone for high-end luxury travel experiences" on its list of The Four Biggest Travel Trends for 2020, and sustainable travel appears on Virtuoso’s 20 for 2020 list of tips and trends.
Paulson confirms: "On quite a few of the trips that we book, there is an emphasis on responsible and sustainable travel, and I predict that there will be even more appreciation for that going forward," he says. "Once you visit that beauty, you gain a greater appreciation for the necessary conservation involved in keeping our world green."
PRIORITIES AND PREFERENCES What else are luxury travelers going to be looking for on upcoming getaways? The already impressive wellness travel market will likely see increased demand. Skift Research’s U.S. Affluent Traveler Survey 2019 found a 19 percent increase in upscale wellness trip planning, while Small Luxury Hotels of the World noted in its 2020 Luxury Travel Trends that "mindfulness, wellbeing and health are a top priority for all types of travelers."
"I think there will be a strong wellness travel trend because it tends to be more boutique and there is often an outdoor or nature component," says Fernandez. "Also fitness, wellness and healthy eating have been challenging right now with lines at grocery stores and gyms closed. Some of our clients who had to cancel their wellness trips are just waiting to jump back in."
Fernandez also notes that the appeal of boutique lodging is likely to extend beyond wellness travelers in the near future. "Looking ahead, I think one of the impacts of social distancing is that people might prefer to stay in a boutique hotel with fewer rooms, so there’s more distance between the guests."
Current concerns are indeed likely to influence luxury travelers’ upcoming choice of lodging and mode of transportation, especially given their typically large and flexible budgets. Bluntzer predicts an "increase in business and first-class airline seats, because you’re spaced out much better," and also believes "there will probably be an uptick in private villas, yachts and private charters. I think villa rentals are going to be huge, where that’s home base with daytrips around the area."
For the very wealthy, privacy might get even more extreme, as Paulson points out. "For ultra-high-networth travelers, there’s always been an emphasis on exclusivity, and I could see them being more motivated than ever to spend whatever it takes to be even more secluded," he says. "That could be chartering a plane or renting out a private island."
When it comes to such big-ticket items, Bluntzer advises that it’s always better to offer the options than to risk clients missing out. "Years ago, I had a client go to Africa on an extremely luxurious trip. They had a great time, but one of their comments was that they didn’t know they could do private charters or helicopters. I had never thought to offer it because we were trying to stay within a budget. Now I always say, ‘I want to offer you the crème de la crème first and then you can decide where you want to cut back.’ And a lot of clients are willing to pay for those luxuries."
Ultimately, an advisor’s expertise and guidance are what’s going to make the biggest difference for luxury travelers in uncertain times. And a silver lining for the industry is that the challenging nature of planning travel in the near future is likely to demonstrate agents’ incredible worth to an even wider network of travelers.
"People are going to be more inclined than ever to speak with someone who has knowledge and connections on the inside," says Paulson. "An advisor can provide more assurances in terms of planning—and controlling everything if something happens. There’s probably going to be even more appreciation for what we bring to the table going forward."