The government’s announcement on the roadmap out of lockdown has been met with cautious optimism by the luxury sector. We take a look for what it means for agents, operators and some of the UK’s luxury hotels.
Agents and operators acted with relief that the steps presented had spurred some consumer confidence, but said there is a long way to go before travel’s path to recovery is clearer.
“The announcement was very welcome as it gave more clarity than expected on international travel,” said Mark Duguid, managing director of Carrier. “That said, much remains unanswered – particularly around quarantine, air corridors and vaccination or test certificates – and these questions are unlikely to be answered before 12 April, when the Global Travel Taskforce report is due.”
The government said it would set out the picture for travel once the newly reconvened taskforce had drawn its conclusions, but has said little else for now, other than international travel would resume “no earlier than Monday 17 May”, 12 weeks from the announcement.
“I can’t see borders opening to all destinations immediately on 17 May,” cautioned Lisa Fitzell, managing director of Elegant Resorts. “Europe is really behind the UK in terms of vaccinations so we may still be very limited as to what we can sell in the summer months. But over in Barbados, all our staff there got their first vaccinations this weekend, which gives great confidence that the Caribbean will be ready.”
Companies reported a definite uptick in interest, with consumers eager to get travel plans back on track, but still only looking to travel many months ahead.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in enquiries for both A&K and Cox & Kings and there is now a wider spread of destinations being considered,” said A&K’s managing director Kerry Golds. “The most popular time for travel is proving to be Q4 2021 and 2022 and we’re seeing multi-generational trips confirm now, such as a six-figure booking for a family to Sri Lanka for this December. We feel our clients have been encouraged by our book with confidence policies too.”
“Everyone in the team is feeling quite motivated now, and I’m definitely more confident – it’s nice to have a date to work to now,” said Mark Swords, managing director of Swords Travel in Wimbledon. “We are trying to promote travel from 1 June onwards to give us that lit bit of flexibility should things change.”
He said there was “absolutely” a bookings bump in light of the news.
“We had four brand new enquiries in the last 24 hours, which is virtually more than we had the whole of the previous week,” he said. “Social media engagement tripled overnight, and people we speak to are definitely still cautious but much more optimistic.”
“On Tuesday, we saw an immediate upturn in demand across all channels – calls, email, livechats and web traffic – with a noticeable increase in new enquiries, which is incredibly encouraging,” said Duguid. “Demand remains very much focussed on the second half of the year though, so it appears clients remain understandably cautious about the restart in May.”
Fitzell said there had been only “a small increase in enquiries and web visits but nothing significant”.
“People are still cautious about summer holidays, so we are focusing our efforts on negotiating great prices for later on in summer in Europe and October onwards for the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean,” she said. “We have some fantastic offers already in place and expect we will see more from the airlines and suppliers over the coming few days.”
But up at sister brand trade-only operator IfOnly, the phones were busier.
“Even this morning [Tuesday], our call volumes were up 20% compared with the same period Monday, so agents are clearly seeing that natural return in demand already,” said Gordon McCreadie, general manager of IfOnly. “Since the announcement, we have also had a lot more agents asking for Q3 and Q4 departures this year, rather than 2022 and beyond, particularly for those destinations which have also started to roll out their own vaccine programmes, along with our classic best-sellers.”
“I would imagine that while there are definitely perceived ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ destinations at the moment among customers related to Covid-19 figures, as more and more vaccines are distributed, this will change,” he added. “The US, for example, will have an extremely robust vaccination programme like the UK, so once this is rolled out, I imagine we will see a real spike in bookings as people look to return to this much-loved destination.”
In terms of the first destinations to see returning travellers, he predicted places like the Maldives, Barbados, Antigua and the Seychelles will come out on top, due to their wealth of luxury properties with a lot of space and exclusive experiences on offer, “allowing guests to avoid crowds and very much enjoy their own private paradise with peace of mind”.
“A lot of people will have saved up for almost a year now, so will have cash set aside to react and book fast once restrictions lift, but I think they will still err on the side of caution, and do this once it’s absolutely certain that travel will be permitted,” he added.
“The concept of a vaccine passport is a big thing – as people under the age of 50 likely won’t be vaccinated by 17 May, I think that this demographic at least will be waiting to see what the rules are linking vaccinations and travel. I do, however, believe that we will see some passengers travelling in May, particularly higher-end clients who have the big budgets to fund any vaccine passports and PCR tests required at the last minute.”
Holidaysplease director Richard Dixon said there had been “a lift in customer activity over the last day or so”, with “good numbers of customers out there looking and booking.”
“We are on course to hit 75-80% of last February’s sales, and I’m feeling cautiously optimistic probably – travel will start up again from 17 May, or close to it, but there will continue to be significant obstacles and requirements in place such as “red list” quarantine and multiple testing,” he said, “and we are likely to see corridors again to begin with. I feel things will open up as we get further into summer, although expect certain destinations to remain closed or off limits for the best part of the year.”
He said the homeworking company had “been on the front foot pretty much since late April last year” with marketing activity up in a bid to “make the most of what opportunity there was on the market” witnessing demand even through lockdown periods.
“I imagine there will be certain key destinations that will open up and be accessible for UK travellers and we will put some extra effort into those to help customers who do want to get away this summer,” Dixon said. “However, most of our bookings currently are for Q3 2021, with strong demand for Christmas and New Year holidays, and then into 2022, so we continue to market pretty much as we usually would across the board to new customers and our existing base.”
Gemma Antrobus, managing director of Haslemere Travel, said it was positive “to see some deliberate markers have been placed in the sand, and that we have something to stick to now, as that provides great motivation”.
“It’s certainly clear people had been waiting for this news and I’m feeling confident – having spoken with colleagues at Aito, they are feeling broadly the same, and we are moving along with an ‘open for business’ message. Now we have a start date, let’s get selling,” she said. “I think we can assume that we might also be able to live a fairly open life by 21 June and can travel more feely, but accept that mask wearing and testing – preferably moving to lateral flow options – may still be in place.”
She added however that “the tap is not on fully yet” and urged the industry to keep up the pressure on government for sector specific support.
“I think for many of us, it might still be too soon to think about a ‘normal return’ to business,” she said. “But as an industry, we must also continue to fight for our voice and a seat at the table and call for sector support. There are still a number of months before many of us can earn money again, so the Budget next week must reflect this and there must be a support package specifically for travel, recognising that the period between 12 April and 17 May will be the first when those of us with retail shops can physically open, yet not really make any money.”
Carrier’s current marketing will remain focused on its The Importance of Elsewhere campaign, Duguid said.
“This has performed well as it taps into the deep desire to travel again while enduring the frustration of a third lockdown – it focuses on destinations where travel is most likely to resume first, and around travel in late 2021, or even 2022, which still feels very much the right direction to follow.”
Swords said his marketing would focus on pushing Greece, Italy and the UK this week.
“Greece has always been our number one destination for luxury families and Italy was already built into our campaign for this week,” Swords said. “We have also promoted some UK, but with availability and shortage of operators selling via the trade we don’t want to invest too much time into this.”
McCreadie said the timing was perfect for IfOnly’s Wish You Were Here peaks campaign, which was postponed at the beginning of the year, and will now run from March until May.
“We have been fortunate enough to maintain our marketing campaigns throughout the pandemic, and already have some great promotions running for destinations across our portfolio, so these will of course continue,” he said. “We’re about to release a whole lot of new and exciting offers and marketing materials for our campaign partners, as well as some great incentives, which will be ideal for agents looking to inspire their customers to book following this week’s announcement.”
He also urged agents to make contact with those customers who still hold Refund Credit Notes and encourage them to “rebook now to secure the best prices”.
“I think it’s natural to expect that airline and hotel rates will increase as the world reopens and demand spikes, so by rebooking their customers now, agents can not only protect their own commission, but guarantee their clients the best value for money,” he added. “I believe there is a huge opportunity for all agents to drive luxury long haul business. People want to do something different with a bit of a ‘wow’ factor this year to compensate for the last 12 months, so it could be the perfect time to switch sell from their usual short haul destinations.”
Nena Chaletzos, founder and chief executive of Luxtripper, said she was “cautiously optimistic” around the news and the certainty it provided for clients, but said her strategy would remain measured around promotion.
“It’s important to us that we sell responsibly. At the moment, we are promoting destinations that we know will accept UK travellers in the medium term, whilst keeping countries that are currently on the ‘red list’ for later in 2021, or 2022,” she said. “We’re seeing many more requests for experience-rich, multi-destination holidays, with increasing numbers of clients booking trips lasting more than two weeks. People want meaningful, immersive travel that allows them to reconnect with the world and with their loved ones, and we are set up to meet that increasing demand.”
But she said there had been a spike of interest nonetheless.
“Overnight we saw the volume of new enquiries go up by 80%, which is fantastic. This is a light at the end of the tunnel for our industry, but there are still steps and tests we need to take before we’re out of the woods,” she said. “However, conversations with clients are now full of excitement and positivity - having something to look forward to is a very powerful thing and this roadmap provides that hope for the future.”
She said the Luxtripper website was already designed to help customers explore and discover new destinations and experiences, so many were now making the call to agents “ready to book something they’ve been dreaming up for months”.
“We do expect a boom of last-minute bookings as we head closer to the summer, but we’re taking one day at a time, staying focused on the data and guidance, and working with our international partners to ensure that when customers are able to travel, they can do so in the safest possible way.”
For domestic travel, with some hotels now able to start generating some business from 12 April from F&B and where they have standalone accommodation options, it was all systems go to prepare for return of hospitality in the UK.
“While it is intensely frustrating that hospitality has an extended period of time to wait until it is back fully functioning, we are of course happy to finally see some defined certainty ahead, at least within the UK,” said Anthony Torkington, general manager of Relais & Chateaux. “It is a case of differing fortunes for some of our members, with those offering self-contained accommodation on site such as Gilpin’s Lake House and Lucknam Park where there are some cottages, being able to operate in some capacity from April 12.”
“With so much pent-up demand and existing bookings that need to be re-accommodated, it is a busy time,” he added. “Our search traffic has notably increased, with key words including self-contained, rural, wellness and pet-friendly featuring more so than usual, so yes, the consumer confidence is there.”
“Historically we know the luxury market recovers quickly and given the extensive investment across the Relais & Chateaux UK portfolio and additional capacity created during lockdown – the introduction of cottages across a number of our UK properties for example – we hope to maximise opportunities to give Brits the wellbeing breaks they have been craving,” Torkington said.
Hotels across the country have been working at rapid speed to digest the new roadmap and ensure they pivot and adapt where they can in order to open as many aspects as possible for 12 April, before a full resumption for hotels from 17 May.
Iconic Luxury Hotels’ Cliveden House (pictured above) in Berkshire said it will open The Astor Grill, which has outside dining for up to 60 covers, and its self-catering option, the historic Spring Cottage.
Sister property Chewton Glen in Hampshire will open The Kitchen Restaurant by chef James Martin for outside dining and said it will now pivot its 14 Treehouses to become self-catering options, with hamper deliveries and access to outdoor pizza ovens.
And in London, and part of the same group, 11 Cadogan Gardens said it will extend al-fresco dining for Hans’ Bar & Grill further onto Pavilion Road, with additional outside seating. And completely new for the spring will be The Apartments by 11 Cadogan Gardens where each of the six floors is home to a one, two or three-bedroom self-contained residence with fully fitted kitchens.