Informing and customizing an itinerary for a post-pandemic traveler requires a personal relationship.
What is the truth about travel in the present pandemic? Virtuoso, the vaunted global network specializing in luxury and experiential travel gathered data from its 22,000 travel advisors and 2,000 travel partners to “Set the Record Straight” during a panel discussion with travel industry leaders and media.
The session took place during “Virtuoso Travel Week,” an annual Vegas event (turned “virtual-oso” in August 2020) that typically toasts and facilitates $30 billion a year in travel sales.
Virtuoso’s CEO Matthew Upchurch began with a sobering but unsurprising perspective.
“Travel is a nine-trillion-dollar industry…that’s three times larger than agriculture…and this is the first time in history that every country on the planet had some kind of travel restriction. As a result, there have been staggering job losses. While the rest of the world is in a recession, the travel industry is in a depression. In terms of job losses, we’re 75% down with 122 million job losses,” Upchurch said.
Upchurch Insisted an Upturn is on the Way
“We are seeing pent-up demand in future bookings. Some of the savvier travelers are utilizing the relaxed cancellation policies knowing there will be a limit on capacity next year. Sophisticated travelers are getting the best spaces they can now and booking their dream trips a year or two for 2021. The top suites and villas are already booked. Some people who wait too long to book will get a shock.”
Becky Powell, chief strategy officer of Protravel International travel agency, discussed the cancellation policies so many travelers have been forced to implement as a result of the health crisis.
“Travelers and travel advisors have learned the importance of reviewing cancellation policies,” she said.
Will potential travelers seek out, if not demand, more flexible cancellation policies?
“Cancellation policies are going to become a consumer decision and will play a role in consumer preference. But the greatest loyalty in hospitality occurs when something goes wrong and people see how it is handled, which is why the phrase I coined ‘humanize the exceptional,’ also applies when things go wrong.”
That kind of human involvement in travel advising and booking is what sets Virtuoso and its travel advisors apart from faceless online booking sites, according to Powell.
“Health and safety are the number-one concerns of people who want to travel. Where do they get their Covid test? Will they have to quarantine after certain destinations? Are the companies they work for insisting on quarantine upon return? It’s a challenge to keep up with all the information. The knowledge of travel advisors is now more important than ever.”
Why Professional Travel Advice is Now Even More Precious
Informing and customizing an itinerary for a post-pandemic traveler requires a personal relationship. Some travelers are not bothered about booking into Istanbul right after a military coup while others cancel after they stub their toe, according to Upchurch.
Virtuoso’s travel data shows a big percentage of respondents age 18 to 25 say they’re ready to go. 50-percent of Gen-X’ers and Millennials are willing. Older people are more cautious.
“The travel market will come back in different sectors of ages and risk profile. What is the risk tolerance of a traveler? Risk profile is something that will be important for advisors to take into consideration as they help customers make informed decisions.”
Those traveler decisions are already being seen through trends in current and advance bookings,” said Philippe Zuber, incoming CEO of Kerner International, which operates One & Only and Atlantis Resorts around the globe.
“Our larger suites, private homes and big villas are selling out first. Having a private pool is really a must. In the Maldives we are seeing extended stays. It’s not unusual to see a guest asking for 28 days of vacation. People are asking for stability and trust…and much more engagement with the resort,” he revealed.
“’Turn down service’ has become ‘turning down service,’” Belles admitted with a smile.
Geoffrey Kent, founder and co-chair of Abercrombie & Kent, has been advocating adventure travel – which we might now consider the ultimate “social distancing,” since 1962.
“People want to get outside and explore. They are loving the idea of going to Kenya or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. We have inquiries for trekking in Nepal. They’re going to go to gorilla camps instead of major cities because of crowding. Three or four generations are traveling together for an experience they can all share.”
What is a Travel Pod?
“Travel pods” was then a term rolled out during the panel discussion by Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso.
“Multiple families with similar pandemic philosophies are traveling together in ‘travel pods.’ 79-percent of our respondents approve of that form of travel,” she said.
Don’t Expect Discounts for Memorable Luxury Experiences
While travelers may be able to make their vacation choices based on travel operator policies such as widened cancellation windows or airlines leaving middle seats empty, the consensus was they should not anticipate discounts as incentives to travel.
“We have to maintain the travel experience and have a duty to not compromise on pricing,” said Zuber. “We need consistency in security and safety. We have decided to go ahead with long-awaited openings in Malaysia and Mexico. We are very enthusiastic about Dubai. Australia is doing well. There is a strong demand from our regular clientele.”
Lisa-Lutoff-Perlo, CEO Celebrity Cruises, agreed. “We are not decreasing pricing. The industry could hurt itself by significantly lowering prices. We are a luxury brand and are not going to hurt our long-term strategy and what we offer customers. We see forward bookings. Some 40 percent of our bookings are from guests who are rescheduling – that means 60 percent are new. Alaska and Europe are at the top of the list.”
When Will Cruising Come Back?
Lutoff-Perlo explained that in the United States all the major operators have voluntarily extended their agreement not to cruise until the end of November.
“We’re not in a hurry to come back. When we come back, we want to make sure we do it in the right way. We want passengers confident in our protocols and where we are taking them. As we look forward to 2021, we’re full of optimism.”
She also referred to “Muster 2.0” as an example of innovation passengers can expect.
“’Muster 2.0’ is our new safety drill system. We used to gather people on deck for safety instructions which was inconvenient and hot. Now it can be an individual experience through an app in your stateroom to make sure you understand the on-board safety protocols.”
Belles said despite the news stories about passengers stuck on cruise ships, there is an appetite for the experience, according to Virtuoso data.
“Cruising is coming back. 2021 bookings are actually outpacing 2018. River cruising is up…with ocean cruising following behind. 37-percent of respondents said they were ready to cruise even though the cruise lines are not even sailing yet. Cruise customers are very loyal.”
Destination Data – Where Will We Wander?
Belles, at the outset of the panel discussion, answered some of the data obtained through Virtuoso’s polling and network of resources and travel partners. What were the trends and conclusions in what she described as the travel industry’s “modest recovery?”
“According to our travel advisors now is the opportunity to reimagine products and services. Travel will look different. Recovery may be slow. It may be six months to a year until bookings come back and remain consistent,” she relayed.
“Now that people are working remotely, and there is no rush to get back home, so the weekend getaway has become the weeklong getaway. And Jet-setting became road-tripping – some 87 percent of respondents said they would drive on a trip.
And 70 percent have been traveling less than 1,500 miles from home. Some 66 percent said they would fly…but they want the middle seat unoccupied, and 59 percent said they’d get on an international flight as soon as they can.”
For Americans, domestic beach destinations are doing well as are the Caribbean and Mexico. City destinations are starting to come back, but 47 percent of people said they did not plan to travel for the holidays. Many don’t typically, and those who do mainly planned to use the time for a vacation getaway as opposed to visiting family.
Belles said the Virtuoso data indicated a return of destination travel for small weddings and milestone birthdays in 2021. And as for the “Wanderlist” (as opposed to the “bucket list”) online dream destination planning technology app Virtuoso created, the top destinations for consumer interest were, globally, South Africa, Italy, Australia, France and Japan. Top U.S. destinations are California, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Montana.
Contact travel writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]