Luxury travel advisors who have survived the crisis are more determined than ever, says Mark Duguid, managing director of Carrier, who says his company’s own focus on high service levels has helped get it through the past year.
There have been a lot of tears shed in the past year from grief, desperation and frustration, but probably less so, tears of joy.
So as a luxury tour operator, Mark Duguid, managing director of Carrier, says it was rewarding to be able to give some good news to agents, adding he was “overwhelmed” by the reaction of some agents when contacted to be told they’d earned themselves a place in The Carrier 30 earlier this year.
“The Carrier 30 was all about giving a big virtual hug to agents and recognising those who have offered exceptional service and gone above and beyond, while also giving them the tools to communicate something inspiring and uplifting with their customers,” says Duguid. “We definitely had tears from some agents.”
The new list goes some way to filling the void of the operator’s usual annual awards, often sales-based in nature, and therefore impossible to put on after the 12 months agents have suffered. Carrier would also usually be in full swing with its Preferred Partners programme, packed with events, fam trips and privileges for its best agents, but with the Covid-19 crisis ongoing, this hasn’t been possible either.
Duguid says Carrier’s focus instead has been to offer stronger commercial terms with guaranteed over-rides for agents, and to up the ante on marketing for them, as well as offering Travel Made To Order, whereby bespoke conditions are created for every booking. During the crisis, Carrier has also attracted many new agents, perhaps for some of these reasons.
“The majority of business is coming from established agencies we know, but also some who would not ordinarily have booked with us either in general or for a specific product, but they were on our radar and perhaps placing their bookings with another operator – we are also now working with more homeworkers than ever before,” he says.
“We put this down to the sort of positive feedback we’ve had throughout the pandemic around the high service levels, as well as an increase in this kind of conscious shopper mentality,” he adds. “People are much more discerning now about where they’re going to place their business; I’ve spoken to multiple agents who are adamant they’ll continue to refine their supplier list.”
Well known in the industry for a number of trade roles, Lee Marshall has also been working alongside the operator since the start of this year, establishing himself with a network of agent contacts, so more agents could yet make the transition to Carrier. Duguid adds he’s been heartened to see so many luxury agents manage to ride out the crisis anyway.
“I’ve been struck by their extraordinary resilience and really not heard of many luxury agents have to exit travel for good, which is amazing,” he says. “It feels like they’re determined to not just continue now, but really succeed. If anything, I believe even more now in the sustainable future for good luxury travel advisors, and I really hope they remember their value.”
He says as agents look to generate more revenue in the business, for some, “it can be easy to get dragged back into that lowest common denominator spiral” on price.
“For some agents, it can be a case of being almost a broker, simply seeking to get the best price on a commoditized product, and I never thought that was viable,” he says. “I hope the agents in the middle perhaps remember that when we’re on the other side of this. For some people, the only way of getting business is to be price competitive, but I believe business can be secured through other means of promotion.”
So does Duguid think more agents will look to the service-driven opportunities of luxury travel now?
“I’ve had conversations with agents who are actively thinking about repositioning their businesses,” he says. “For example, they work with us for their luxury client base, but they’re not exclusively luxury or even predominantly luxury and they are actively thinking about pursuing strategies that will help them reposition based on the old equation of quality over quantity. They’ve seen that the high-volume, low-margin price sensitive business hasn’t served them well over the last year and they’re viewing this as an opportunity to reposition.”
And what about tour operators? Could we see more operators do the same? “Many mainstream brands have already moved into luxury travel, but true luxury is about more than putting a five-star hotel and private transfers in a brochure,” Duguid says.
“The journey Carrier has been on in the last few years is really to elevate ourselves within our competitor set and now we believe we’ve successfully managed to differentiate ourselves, but not superficially, there’s real substance to it.”
“I truly believe the reason we’ve picked up praise over the last year and are now picking up business is because of the substance to the changes we’ve made around investing in our brand and our culture of values,” he explains. “That’s what’s guided us through all of this.”
“True luxury is about more than putting a five-star hotel and private transfers in a brochure.”
No one knows when anything like normality will return to travel companies’ balance sheets and while Boris Johnson’s roadmap announcement meant a definite bounce for the industry back in February, news headlines since have pushed and pulled at booking potential; Duguid prefers to sit on the cautious side.
“There was an immediate upturn, with a very intense period immediately after the announcement, but everything is still very tentative,” he says. “We’ve been very careful to always be available for agents, first and foremost. There has been a trend to those destinations that have been in the news, such as Greece saying it would welcome British travellers, and it’s been our number two destination of late.”
He says the other destinations in the top 10 are all ones that previously had air corridors or are the most likely to be viable on the “green list”.
“For now, we’ve seen mid-term, short-haul bookings, mainly around July and August, October half-term, festive, and then Q1 next year. We’re just saying to agents, ‘call us and we’ll advise’ – we can’t tell the agent what to do with their business, we’re here merely to advise and to be there for them,” he says.
And he’s also reluctant to make any longer-term predictions around when a prolonged return might take place.
“I will say that we’ve been quick to rebound after each national lockdown, and managed to get a good number of people away in July and August last year, and for festive after the November lockdown, so I’ve no doubt we’ll rebound well from this lock down,” he says. “But as to when business reflects normality, it will depend on what traveling this summer and into 2022 looks like, so it’s just too early.”
“I’ve no doubt we’ll rebound well from this lockdown.”
While Carrier offers a wide range of destinations and types of travel, he says “easy beach” has been the most trending holiday option. “Our reservations team are structured between beach and touring, so it’s easy to see one team is much busier than the other,” he says. “But, we are seeing a noticeable increase in interest in high value, high quality touring itineraries for early 2022 and onwards too, and the team have got the time – and are really enjoying – to craft them, making something exceptional.”
Average booking values are up too, which is down to a number of factors, from more special itineraries being planned to larger group size, and higher quality of accommodation and class of travel.
“I’d never seen anything like it in the run up to Christmas, where our average booking value was £40,000, which was just unprecedented, as it used to be around half of that in normal years,” he says. “That has come down somewhat, but that’s because the mix of short-haul destinations has balanced out. Trading conditions we’ve seen have also been heavily distorted of course, so there will inevitably be some degree of normalisation.”
He also reserves judgment on whether Carrier’s clients’ travel habits will have changed for good as a result of the pandemic.
“Possibly. But I think we haven’t yet got clear evidence of that, and that’s because the departures last year were quite easy beach options, and clients’ needs were quite simple last year, it was just ‘I need a break’, or ‘I need to recuperate’, ‘keep me away from other people’, and so on,” he says. “So it wasn’t quite a move towards the more meaningful travel and fulfilment we’ve been hearing about.”
“But undoubtedly the pandemic has continued for such a prolonged period now that you’d expect a change, and I know in terms of my own consumer behaviour how that’s changed,” Duguid reflects. “I’m a much more conscious shopper now, around sustainability and community. We at Carrier were absolutely on this kind of path anyway as a brand and all logic would dictate that the path is – if not accelerating yet – at least more relevant than ever.”
When it comes to sustainability, he says that as a travel business, Carrier cannot advise clients simply not to travel.
“We can’t advise away from the most comfortable seat on the plane getting there either, but already, you can select aircraft types which might have a less damaging impact,” he says. “After that, for us it’s about looking at what impact you’re having and the benefit you’re bringing. We were already working on this, and beyond the environmental impact of travel, we were working with social impact ideas, such as the partnership with Professors Without Borders.”
“Sadly they haven’t been able to hold their summer schools so instead, closer to home we’ve worked with Re-engage as call companions and strengthened the affiliation with Smart Works in Manchester which seeks to support women into work – 93% of our colleagues are female, so it has struck a chord with us, and one of the team has volunteered there. We’re very conscious in this space, and we have clear plans to amplify what we do in this regard.”
“We’re very conscious in this space, and we have clear plans to amplify what we do.”