Thousands of well-dressed men and women swarmed the chandelier-lit rooms of the Bellagio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, jumping from one table to the next as an enormous clock counted down the seconds in blaring red lights overhead. They had exactly four minutes to make their pitch to woo the person sitting across from them before moving on to their next prospective partner in this intricately choreographed rendition of speed dating. Only they weren’t looking for love. They were looking for a match of a different kind — trying to connect their high-end clients with some of the world’s most exclusive travel experiences.
This was the scene at Virtuoso Travel Week, which attracted over 5,200 travel professionals to the gambling capital of the world in August to share the latest trends in international travel and, specifically, the luxury market.
Virtuoso is a leading travel agency network focused on the luxury market. The membership-based group connects more than 11,400 travel agents (or “advisors,” as they prefer to be called) in 40 countries to over 1,700 “suppliers” in the form of the world’s top hotels and resorts, cruise lines, airlines, tour companies and premier destinations. The goal is to up the wow factor by providing clientele with elite amenities, experiences and insider perks.
Back from the Brink
With the advent of online booking and the proliferation of do-it-yourself websites from Expedia to Priceline to Kayak, many assumed that the quaint brick-and-mortar travel agency would go the way of the do-do. On the one hand, the disruptive power of technology did just that to the travel industry — disrupted it. Today, there are about half the number of travel agents working in the U.S. as there were in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, consumers have a bevy of exotic excursions at their fingertips, with websites aggregating millions of travel deals in milliseconds.
But far from being driven to extinction, travel agents say they have adapted to the internet revolution, in part by tailoring their services to travelers who want the kind of upscale, out-of-the-box adventures that one-stop sites and bargain-hunting algorithms can’t deliver.
“Ten years ago for example, I was convinced that there would be no travel agents today because now you can book anything you like,” Philippe Garnier of Hilton Worldwide, which includes the Waldorf Astoria and Conrad Hotels, told The Diplomat. “But the point is that the travel agent really has to think through and offer experiences. It’s not just about the booking, but about the selection and creating the curated itinerary.”
The sheer size and scope of Virtuoso’s annual confab reinforced the notion that travel agents are alive and well. A record 5,257 travel professionals from 98 countries converged on the Bellagio, Aria and Vdara hotels for this year’s event. That’s a 9 percent jump from last year’s numbers — and a far cry from the mere 98 people who attended the conference when it started 28 years ago.
“Thirty years ago I brought together Allied Travel and Percival Tours to create a vibrant, resilient global travel network focused not solely on transactions, but on catalyzing rich human experiences,” said Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Matthew D. Upchurch. “And we have four guiding principles we believe will anchor our future: ensure success for our agency members, make it personal for both our partners and their clients, pioneer and innovate, and tell the advisor story again and again.”
That story was indeed on automatic repeat during the Aug. 7-10 extravaganza. A staggering 320,000 one-to-one meetings took place totaling more than 1.5 million minutes, or the equivalent of 2.9 years. That’s a whole lot of storytelling — and sales. Virtuoso estimated that meetings at last year’s conference generated some $450 million in sales alone.
With a total portfolio of $15.5 billion in annual travel sales, Upchurch has built a sprawling network anchored by an individualized approach to travel, bringing together agents and suppliers to design itineraries that cater to personality over price; prestige over cookie-cutter prosaic; and the transformational over the transactional.
Trends in International Travel
Those experiences span the spectrum of luxury travel — from first-class expedition voyages through the remote villages and unspoiled wilderness of the Alaskan landscape; to growing a piece of your own coral in the underwater reefs of the Maldives; to eco-friendly African safaris that teach travelers to turn off the GPS settings on their phones, lest they alert poachers to the location of endangered animals.
“We’re a cruise line but not a cruise line because we focus on the land,” said Larry Pimentel of Azamara Club Cruises, describing the company’s philosophy of longer, overnight stays to create a “destination immersion.” “We’re really not about sightseeing,” he said of Azamara, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Cruises. “For example, our guests are treated to tenors singing in Tuscany or a ballet performance in St. Petersburg. So it’s a much richer, deeper experience.”
While the options for travelers with deep pockets ran the gamut, certain distinct trends in international travel have emerged in recent years, according to Virtuoso.
The group, which sourced data from its warehouse of more than $35 billion in transactions, said the top destinations for the upcoming fall and holiday timeframe are: Italy, France, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Spain, Mexico, China, Australia, New Zealand and Israel (ranked by popularity based on future bookings).
“Luxury travelers are remaining true to European favorites, while turning their attention to warmer climes as the weather shifts at home. They also are seeking out more exotic locales worldwide, including a boom for African countries,” Virtuoso says.
Meanwhile, the countries that have seen the largest percentage of growth in year-over-year bookings include: Kenya, Iceland, St. Martin, China, Ecuador, Japan, South Africa, Tanzania, Croatia and Jamaica.
“Africa continues to surge in popularity, a continuation of the trend Virtuoso noted for summer travel. With sales up 28 percent year over year, Africa is the only continent to post such an increase. Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, all strong safari destinations, will benefit from a projected 17 percent increase,” the group noted. “According to Virtuoso’s travel advisors, safaris are particularly appealing for multigenerational family trips with plenty to see and enjoy for travelers of all ages.”
Jack S. Ezon, president of New York-based Ovation Vacations, observed that multigenerational family trips are part of a larger trend toward accumulating memories over memorabilia.
Rather than accumulate more stuff, people are investing in lifetime memories and shared, enriching experiences,” he wrote in a report on 2016 travel trends. “For example, instead of buying a new home or sexy car for a 40th birthday, [high-end travelers] are going away with their friends on a four-day weekend for a memory, or ‘story,’ they will never forget.”
Ezon added that despite a glut of technology, travelers are unplugging and seeking out artisan, bespoke getaways, working with local vintners to create their own wine label, for example, or foraging for vegetables to prepare their own dinner alongside a Michelin-star chef.
On that note, Ezon said food, art and wellness are among the key drivers influencing travel decisions this year.
Similarly, other advisors cited the boom in wellness-oriented excursions. To tap this rapidly growing niche market — which is predicted to reach $680 billion by next year and comprise 15 percent of global tourism — Virtuoso introduced a wellness component to this year’s convention. Exhibits included customized blending of aromatherapy body creams, a traditional Mexican ritual energy cleansing, paddle-boarding yoga instruction, Thai massage incorporating silk strands and a Turkish bath demonstration with a customary soap-foam washing.
Philippe Roux-Dessarps of Hyatt Hotels Corp., which includes Park Hyatt, told The Diplomat that he’s excited about a new program his company is rolling out centered around mindfulness.
“We’re going to have a whole mindfulness room and guests are going to be able to join us either individually or in group classes,” he explained. “We always try to do things that are authentic and are not gimmicky, but that really are meaningful. We’re all busy and we’re all always on these phones, emails and so forth, and this whole concept of mindfulness gels very well with our idea of well-being.”
Roux-Dessarps also noted that Park Hyatt is opening three new hotels in Majorca, Spain; St. Kitts and Nevis; and Bangkok in the beginning of next year. “Right now we are 38 hotels and we have 18 that are opening in the next two years, so we are about to explode.”
Similarly, other hoteliers said that as Western travelers become more adventurous — and, conversely, travel becomes more mainstream in developing countries — they’re rapidly expanding into new frontiers.
Hilton’s Garnier said that the Conrad brand is opening up its first property in India, along with one in San Luis Potosí in Mexico. “It’s got a great colonial city center and historical past, but it’s not necessarily thought of as a leisure destination,” he said.
Leslie Dodson of AccorHotels said Mexico continues to be a popular attraction, as do some unconventional spots in Eastern Europe. “We’re going into Warsaw early next year. We’re seeing it as an emerging destination,” Dodson said.
For Allison Sitch, vice president of global public relations with Ritz-Carlton, Asia and its growing base of middle-class consumers are a big draw. “Take China, for example. We went into the gateway and then second-tier cities, and now we’re into the tertiary-tier cities of China that have populations of 15 million people — building our brand — [because] now those people are starting to travel outwardly,” she said.
Bumps in the Road
Yet other travel trends have been grabbing distinctly unwanted headlines — and stressing out hoteliers and agents alike.
The turnout at Virtuoso notwithstanding, the travel industry as a whole has taken a major hit in recent years. A spate of terrorist attacks in high-profile destinations once deemed safe havens, such as Paris, Brussels and Nice, has scared tourists away in droves. Other popular getaways in Europe, from Greece to Italy to Croatia, are reeling under the tsunami of refugees flooding the continent — or at least the perception of it. The lingering effects of the 2008 global economic meltdown have also taken a toll on travel budgets.
But not all travelers have been tightening their belts or avoiding airport security lines. Officials at Virtuoso insisted that luxury travelers are a reliable segment of the market, one that’s largely immune to economic and security volatility.
“I think that on average, luxury travel tends to be far more resilient than let’s say the other segments,” said Garnier. “Now, of course, there are some destinations that have been particularly hit, such as Turkey and France, my own country. But I think the luxury traveler is very well aware that there is value in connections, there is value in travel. That’s not to say that I think they’re going to go into warzones, but I don’t think they react so much to the immediate headlines.”
Anne-Laure Tuncer of Atout France, the country’s tourism development agency, agrees that while Paris and Nice have suffered in the wake of several terrorist attacks, other French destinations have emerged unscathed.
“Last year, we had a terrific year,” she told us. “We welcomed 3.3 million Americans. In the first quarter of this year, the trend was looking promising…. All the events that we had — Euro 2016, the Formula One Grand Prix, Tour de France — everything went with no incident at all, and then we had Nice. So the Nice attack will be hard for [the residents] of Nice. Cities like Lyons, Bordeaux and Marseilles, however, are doing well.”
Sitch of Ritz-Carlton speculated that some of the resiliency in the market may be because luxury travelers tend to be less reactionary than the casual tourist.
“At the end of the day, honestly, with 92 hotels around the world, we’re very lucky that in the affluent community, people continue to see the value of travel. Ultimately I believe travel makes the world a better place. When people get to experience different cultures, it builds better understanding, so the people who tend to travel in the luxury category are well-educated, informed or well-read on the subject,” she said. “Where they’re traveling to might change one season to the next, depending on what’s going on, but everything is cyclical, and just keeping people moving is the important thing.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.