It may not have been able to take place “in real life”, but as many as 4,000 luxury travel professionals have been logging on for the virtual version of Virtuoso Travel Week. April Hutchinson reports on the global picture for luxury travel from a top-flight opening session at the event
With 78,000 appointments scheduled to take place this week during the global event, it’s clear the world’s luxury travel advisors and suppliers are determined to fight on, even when continuous obstacles get in the way of them booking travel.
Virtuoso’s virtual show this week replaces the usual mega event that takes place annually in Las Vegas, but chief executive of Virtuoso Matthew Upchurch said the response to the online event proved the global need for the “industry to stay connected”.
Speaking at a virtual roundtable at the opening of the event, Upchurch said the global pandemic was obviously proving catastrophic for the travel and tourism industry.
“We are part of a $9 trillion industry, one that is three times the size of agriculture, for example, and while some people may be talking about being in recession, our industry is in a depression – we are facing 197 million job losses globally by the end of the year,” he said.
The founder of Virtuoso, a 22,200-strong advisor community producing $30 billion in annual luxury sales, urged better global cooperation across the board on all matters to do with the coronavirus pandemic.
“Better government collaboration is required to steer this crisis, it’s important the whole planet tries to fix this together; you cannot just have a piecemeal approach,” he said.
But he added there were also some reasons to be optimistic.
“Stock markets continue to be robust – unlike the financial crash of 2007/2008, this is not a fundamental economic breakdown; people do want to travel, but for the first time in history, every single country around the world has had restrictions in place,” Upchurch said.
He also stressed the crisis had allowed agents to prove they were as digital as any other travel industry player, and to prove their adaptability.
Becky Powell, chief strategy officer, Protravel International, said the crisis had also forced more agents to look at their business model, and whether they should be charging fees going forward. “Their role is changing significantly – it’s now a case of being an expert in health and safety as well, as that’s our clients’ main concern,” she said.
“The world is in upheaval and the things that advisors are now talking to their clients about is changing; it’s a real challenge to keep up with all the information,” Powell added. “Who would have thought that ‘how to get a Covid-19 test’ was something a travel advisor would need to know about?”
She said it was becoming vital to bring in more of the training and measures that would previously have seemed more pertinent to business travel to ensure agents were prepared for advising clients on the new way of travelling.
Trends of what people did want to do once they could travel were also emerging, Upchurch said. “Many places had been suffering from overtourism, and we were all trying to grapple with that – now we are now in a phase of ‘undertourism’ and governments have a chance to shape how they want their destination to be seen going forward,” he added.
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and chief executive of Celebrity Cruises, agreed the pause on travel had allowed for reflection on how companies operate.
“Every day I say I’m going to look for a silver lining in all this, and I think a clear one for me is how we look at deeper immersions for Celebrity’s customers in the destinations we visit,” she said.
“The situation has also allowed us to look at how technology can be utilized in many areas – such as our new Muster 2:0, which means people no longer need the inconvenience of gathering in large groups on board our ships.”
She added that Celebrity Cruises was “in no hurry to come back” until all measures were in place to allow for a full return.
“We continue to work closely with the Healthy Sail Panel so that customers will be so confident when they come back and reassured,” she said.
Healthy Sail Panel is a joint initiative between Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings to develop enhanced health and safety standards to help cruise lines respond to the pandemic and safely resume operations.
But Lutoff-Perlo added that despite no sailing for the months ahead, forward bookings looked very strong – 40% of business is rebooks, but 60% of business is currently for new travel, she said, adding Alaska and Europe sailings were currently “top of the list”.
“For many people, this is a case of vacation interrupted; not cancelled. Q3/Q4 2021 is the biggest booking window for us at the moment, people are very confident for the future, but the news cycle and virus spikes have a direct impact on consumer confidence.”
“A lot of people may even get a shock when it comes to 2021 and how much is actually not available for them,” added Upchurch. “People will need to put their big plans in place soon, and then slot other trips in around them.”
Geoffrey Kent, founder and co-chairman of Abercrombie & Kent said the global operator’s focus on adventure was also coming to fruition among a wider audience.
“In one fell swoop, this pandemic has made people realize something we [at A&K] have known for years – that people want more adventurous travel and crave experiences in nature,” Kent said. “Many people are thinking this could be the opportunity to try something new and different – whether that be trekking in Nepal, or to see the gorillas in Rwanda.
“But for now, we’re in a holding pattern – people want to get on the move but they can’t.”
Philippe Zuber, chief executive of Kerzner International, which includes the Atlantis and One&Only brands, said green shoots included long-stay bookings at top villas in the company’s range of resorts, such as One&Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives.
“Villas are selling out first, and it’s not unsual for us to get 28-day bookings at the moment – people also want to stay put somewhere, rather than do multiple stops on a trip,” Zuber said. “Guests have such a level of confidence in resorts and brands they know and they want to go back – to see the people they love in hotels and the people they want to help in the community.”
He added that the company’s resorts in Dubai remained popular, with its two resorts in Rwanda also seeing levels of interest, but he added he had fears for South Africa, where the company operates a hotel in Cape Town; “we firmly believe in the destination, but there are questions over future airlift to the country”, he said.
Prices must hold firm into 2021, the luxury experts agreed, saying discounting would add more instability to the market.
“We need to avoid damage caused by lowering prices,” said Lutoff-Perlo. “We’re a luxury brand and we see rates holding for this year and next, and I’m glad about that – both for the company, and for travel advisors.”
Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, said travel advisor members across Europe seemed to be making more bookings than other parts of the world for now, according to its most recent survey in advance of Virtuoso Travel Week.
Belles said a survey among members’ clients had also found that the over-arching important factor when clients were looking to travel now was flexible booking policies.
“These kinds of policies will become a major factor in how consumers choose who they are going to book and travel with,” Upchurch added.
Road trips and beaches were overwhelmingly the more popular options for those who were willing to travel, Virtuoso’s survey also found, and that lead times had also become much shorter.
When it came to what was on offer at hotels, wellness, local immersion, adventure and beach were key popular reasons to book, with “landmark hotels” and “city life” options being less popular choices.
Belles added that “turndown service” in luxury had become “turning down service” instead, as luxury travellers and hotels became more mindful of social distance and new protocols, and that “travel pods” were becoming more popular, as different families picked people they felt comfortable travelling with.