Luxury Travel Advisor hosted a virtual roundtable with some of Internova’s top travel advisors. Internova recently selected Global Travel Collection (GTC) for the name of the division representing its newly combined high-service premium and luxury travel businesses, as well as its membership programs. Agency brands include Protravel International, Tzell Travel Group, Andrew Harper, In the Know Experiences, Colletts Travel, All Star Travel Group and R. Crusoe & Son.

Included in our roundtable were Katie Cherico, In the Know Experiences; Joe Colucci, Andrew Harper Travel; Christy Danforth, Tzell Travel Group; Richard Engle, Protravel International; Martin Gould, Tzell Travel Group; Joyce Horowitz, Altour and June Kleier, Protravel International. The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, Vice President/Editorial Director of Luxury Travel Advisor. Following is a condensed version of the discussion.

Ruthanne Terrero: How will your business change in 2021 and what have you learned from 2020, if anything, to change up your strategy? 

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June Kleier, Protravel: A lot of my 2021 trips are from 2020 that I’ve shifted to 2021. The other thing happening for 2021 is that my clients now saying, “Where can we go?” So, I’m booking a lot of Africa, Egypt, safari trips, Costa Rica and some Caribbean. That’s what I’m booking right now for 2021. Some people are still a little wary but a lot of my clients are ready to go as soon as they can. They don’t need to wait for a vaccine. They just want to get out.

Richard Engle, Protravel: I’m in the Virtuoso Ultraluxe Community and I have a couple of small, boutique corporate accounts. Before COVID, I had a team of six and now there are one and a half of us. The one that I kept on the team is the Millennial because we’re looking for clients who are no longer hiding under their bed waiting for a vaccine. I figured if I kept the young rising star on my team, we’d probably be able to cultivate different kind of clientele.

Interestingly enough, in 2017, I started paying a whole lot more attention to the United States because I was thinking about what the most exotic and amazing countries around the world are and I decided that the United States is probably in many ways the most. I started paying more attention to what was possible to do in the United States and I really felt like I hit my stride when I did an $80,000 trip that was entirely in the state of Oregon. There’s a lot more money to be made in the U.S.A. So, fortunately this year, that research and that background and paying attention to U.S. resorts and the experiences have paid off.

As I alluded earlier, I’m focusing on a different market. I’ve been in the Virtuoso Adventure Community for a long time and I’m a very active traveler myself. I love to hike. I love to cycle. I love to go skiing.

Lately, I’m doing a lot more taking clients’ “temperatures and giving them wellness checks.” For example, I sent four “wellness check” emails this morning, and the way I word them is, “I just want to know where you’re at with travel and COVID right now.”

Some people are like “Pandemic, what pandemic?” Others are like, “I’m not coming out of my bedroom until there’s been a vaccine that’s tried and true for 17 years.” And then most of us are somewhere in the middle.

If people respond to that by saying, “I really am ready to roll, where can I go with minimal hassle,” I’m paying attention to those people. If they’re still hiding under the bed until there’s a vaccine, I’ll wait for them to call me, but I’m not going to go after them.

Richard Engle of Protravel International says that luxury travelers will want more authentic travel experiences than ever before.

Martin Gould, Tzell Travel Group: For many, many years, our profile of clients was a bit of the older, affluent genre, staying at the most expensive hotels in the world. This is a lot of high-end income by very non-adventurous, older travelers. Many charter or they have their own planes. Since March, they’ve all shut down. They either take their plane to their home in Aspen or stay in their home in the Hamptons. I am not getting lots of requests for “Where can I go?” There are quite a few trips that have been on hold from 2020, where the DMCs are holding the money. These clients are sitting and waiting until there’s a green light.

I do think the green light will be the vaccine and maybe a little bit longer after vaccine comes out just to make sure it’s tested and true and then they’ll start traveling and using up the trips they had to cancel last spring and last summer. 

Fortunately, I’ve gotten friendly with a lot of my clients, so I check in and tell them I’m in London, send them a picture from a little village in the Cotswolds. I wrote to them when I flew on Delta on September 10, from New York to London, not knowing at all what the experience would be like. That was my first flight in six months after I’d been traveling for 35 years. It was one of the easiest trips I ever had in my life. Check-in, because the airport wasn’t crowded, was a dream. When I got to London, it was clear sailing. No one asked me a question. I went through a machine that I had never gone through before that just let me in. I, obviously, had been signed in online and off I went on my merry way and I didn’t get COVID from the flight. I was very happy to tell my clients that I’ve now experienced a transatlantic flight and that I’m alive to tell you that it was most pleasant and that I didn’t get sick.

However, that didn’t entice anyone to say, “Okay, I’m on board. Where can I go?” So, I’m just hanging in there. I can’t be too aggressive with my clients because they’re just going to say, “You haven’t lost us, we’re just waiting.” I don’t have a young group of clients who are adventurous. I have very staid clients who stay in suites at the most well-known hotels, at Claridge’s in London and the Ritz in Paris. They’re just not going to travel at this moment. 

Ruthanne Terrero: I think the Cotswolds and what you’ve learned about England is fascinating. And I bet you have planted a seed in a lot of people’s heads for when they can go.

Martin Gould, Tzell Travel Group: This road trip [through England] was over a month, and I traveled almost 2,300 miles. I stayed in 12 hotels and what was interesting to me was how busy all these places were with local tourists. The English want to travel. If you didn’t have a reservation at a restaurant in a lot of these places you couldn’t get in at night. So, they rediscovered their own country. In some ways it was nice. London is not that way. I’m friendly with many, many hotel general managers. The hotels are pretty empty from what I’m hearing, especially now, but if you leave London, if you go to country hotels — I went to Cliveden, I went to Chewton Glen — they are all full [with local people]. That doesn’t help me personally, but it’s nice to see that people up until this lockdown were hungry to be on the move.

Ruthanne Terrero: Joe, what do you have in mind for next year? Easy question, right?

Joe Colucci, Andrew Harper Travel: I’m really optimistic. I’m basically telling everyone to plan on traveling perhaps the end of the second quarter, third quarter. The good news is our membership [at Andrew Harper Travel] during the time of COVID has increased by 35 percent, which is a positive indication that people want to travel. I would say [for me] that maybe 70 percent want to travel; the 30 other percent are waiting for the vaccine. The 70 percent who want to, have already booked. They’re afraid that once the vaccine is announced, they won’t be able to get into the hotels they want or get the rooms that they want. So, it’s all very positive.

Cruise bookings are coming back. A lot of my clients from 2020 have switched over to 2021. [Clients are] tired of things in the U.S. They’re tired of all political updates going on, they just want to escape this reality and go somewhere else. And that’s why they’re all focused on 2021. 

The other strange thing happening is that the luxury properties within the United States — for example, Blackberry Farm — are sold out. 

Katie Cherico, In the Know Experiences: We’re seeing a lot of what Joe is seeing. We’re optimistic for 2021, but we’re hedging our bets. For any client who’s like, “I need to get the kids away for spring break. I want to travel internationally,” we’re doing a backup plan in the U.S. and booking both now. Then closer in, we’re going to cancel whichever one is not possible. 

The one thing that we ran into this year was that people wanted to travel and then they couldn’t go because they couldn’t get a COVID test in time. And then the Blackberry Farms, the Amangiris, they were all booked out. That’s probably been the biggest thing that we’ve adjusted to.

We’re also really focusing on real estate contacts. We got to the point where you couldn’t get a house in Hamptons, so we had to form partnerships with real estate agents. We would literally go with a real estate agent and do a video tour of a house for a client and see if they wanted to rent it because the houses were going so quickly.

So, pivoting and forming new relationships outside of our typical networks was a big part of 2020. That’s going to continue over to 2021 as well, particularly through the summer.

Katie Cherico of In The Know Experiences has been working with real estate agents to secure home rentals for clients. In some cases, she’s done virtual tours to let them see homes in advance.

Joyce Horowitz, Altour: I’m very optimistic about the future because I get calls all the time from clients who say, “I just need to talk to you because I’ve got to talk about travel. I can’t wait.” So, to me, it’s a matter of waiting and it’s not about a vaccine. It’s about people being allowed to travel. The world is shut down for the U.S. market and that’s the biggest issue right now. People, from my perspective, are traveling where they can but it’s extremely limited.

We, like everybody else, moved everything from 2020 to 2021. We have done pretty brisk business for January, February and  March. It’s lot of the Caribbean, Mexico, skiing, lots of villas. And we have a pretty good bookings for the summer. 

I’m finding that luxury hotels in Europe are not being as flexible as they should be. I understand they don’t want to lose the money, but then people don’t want to make commitments. And, so, that has slowed down the process because for a while there, we were really making bookings and feeling a little more normalcy in the business. Now it’s slowed down. As long as people are able to get money back, we can move forward. The hotels that say, “Oh, no, we take two week nights and it’s non-refundable,” that’s not flying.

Christy Danforth, Tzell Travel Group: I’ve had families who have been stuck at home with their kids — either doing hybrid school or all virtual — looking to go, whether it’s Colorado or Utah or Mustique… somewhere that they can go for like a month and have their kids do their online school from somewhere different for a change of pace.

I have trips that I’ve moved over, as well as a lot of villa requests and private yacht requests. [Many clients] are traveling privately. Other people who are asking for trips for later in the summer are asking more for the villas or hotels but want to wait on their airfare because I think they’re nervous about booking their flights.

Ruthanne Terrero: Has luxury travel changed forever? And if so, how? 

Richard Engle, Protravel: I don’t see luxury travel changing so much as I see it being enhanced. The traditional luxury that we’re used to is going to stick around. It’s sort of like when I first started hearing these rumors that people were making mass exoduses from Manhattan and Chicago, my first thought was Manhattan and Chicago are not going to stand for this, they’re world-class cities. They’re great places to be. People love to be in cities. The real estate’s not all going to die. They’re not going to become ghost towns. This is temporary. 

It’s the same with ultra-luxury travel. The type of clients that all of you have are going to stick around, but I think new doors are opening. I think part of our job is to help clients who are super dependent on us. That’s the one thing that is keeping me from letting go of the air portion of my business, because nobody wants to call United Airlines and put up with the garbage that you get talking to them or messing around on their app or whatever else it is. After five minutes they don’t have the patience to navigate it. So I’ll even do frequent-flyer reward tickets for my clients and I charge them to do it. So, I’ve always said to my staff, you’ve got to make yourself indispensable, make these people completely dependent on you. Well, now’s the hour for that. They’re looking to us to tell them, “What do I have to do to go to Tanzania? Do I have to quarantine? Do I just have to take this PCR test? What all is involved?”

I also see that the future of luxury is going to include a new segment that is different from what we’ve seen before. It’s a segment that I’m targeting right now. The current older generation of luxury travelers got used to having things be like it was at home. If they have a wonderful mansion at home, they want a wonderful mansion wherever they are. And that doesn’t matter if it’s in Botswana or Chile or Asia or wherever it is. I find luxury travelers are often very amusing. They think they’re having a cultural experience when they go to Africa where they’re staying in a safari lodge with chandeliers, but they’re not. 

I think there’s a new sort of authenticity-seeking luxury traveler coming on, and they’re going to want more of a sense of place. And instead of insisting on going to a restaurant, just because it has Michelin stars, they’re going to be turning to us to say, “Where can I have a real dining experience?” 

We’re the ones with the DMCs and the local places that have the in-house experiences with chefs that nobody’s going to be able to Google or read on a Michelin list. I see this as an opportunity for luxury travel as we move through this and as we get past it, I see it burgeoning and getting bigger And I think this is a good career for like Millennial people to come into now. It’s going to be better eventually, I really think. 

People will go for more expedition-style cruising and the demand will be great. More expedition ships will be built and that means people will get to go to tinier ports that they could never get into. I see a whole lot of opportunity emerging from this. I really do.

Christy Danforth of Tzell Travel Group says that many of her clients are interested in working remotely since their kids are now in virtual learning mode.

June Kleier, Protravel: Richard hit on one of the things I was going to bring up. I specialize in luxury. Not all my clients are luxury, but I’m finding that my clients who have money but who are a little more frugal on how they spend it, have been contacting me. And they’re willing now to take that next step up for a smaller ship, a more intimate experience or more luxurious accommodations. So, I really see the luxury market taking off. I’m already seeing a difference in my clientele stepping it up and not wanting the mass ships anymore. Even if they’re traveling with their family, they want something maybe more expedition-style that is family friendly, but smaller. I’m excited about that.

Joe Colucci, Andrew Harper Travel: It’s going to come down to more personal, intimate experiences where they want to know about the little winery down the road beneath the trees that only five people know about. And they’ll pay to have that experience. So, you’re leaving your Four Seasons hotel to go up to a mountain hut where you’re making polenta with an 89-year-old grandmother and that’s worth your $3,000-a-night suite. So, I think it’s balancing act; you’re staying in your mansion but going to your local diner and both are luxury. You’re being fortunate to experience something that no one else does.

Katie Cherico, In the Know Experiences: Before COVID, as a Millennial, I would have my clients text me a picture of an Instagram post and say, “I have to be in this place so I can take this photo.” A change I’ve seen this year is there’s been a lot of hesitancy to post on social media if you travel. So, now the question is less about, “Where is this place, how can I get this picture?” to “What’s the full experience I can have in this place and how is it going to be different from what I’m doing at home right now?”

There really is going to be that shift away from “What’s the most aesthetically pleasing place I can go where I can brag about it?” to “Where can I go to have that experience that I haven’t been able to have for the past six months?”

[I also used to hear from younger clients,] “Why would you use a travel agent? That’s totally an old-school way of doing things.” Now, they’re like, “Well, how do I get somewhere? Can you walk me through this? I need someone to hold my hand to really figure out how to travel anywhere.” 

That makes our job a little bit easier; the need for a travel advisor is more evident. There’s been some really good press around the value of having someone to fight for you when you need a refund or there’s a canceled airplane and you just need the help. That’s made it more commonplace to use an advisor or made the value.

Martin Gould, Tzell Travel Group: In my opinion, luxury travel will really pick up in the future as soon as we have that green light. And as soon as these people who have been sitting in their mansions feeling deprived because they haven’t been able to travel the world have the green light, they’re going to make up for that sense of deprivation. They’re going to spend even more money, in my opinion, to reward themselves for this time — in their minds — of suffering without the ability to go to the places they love or see new places. So, I foresee personally that once we reach that time, people will empty their pocketbooks or wallets more freely, at least in the first trip they take after the pandemic. They’re going to say, “I don’t know what could happen again in the future, maybe there’ll be another pandemic. We don’t know any more so let’s live in the moment and spend that little extra money for a better room or a better experience.”

I think the luxury travel market is going to really kind of explode. Maybe I’m wrong but I hope I’m right.

Martin Gould of Tzell Travel Group has been living in London since September, exploring the entire country and sharing the experiences with his clients. 

Christy Danforth, Tzell Travel Group: I completely agree with Martin, I think it’s going to explode. One change for maybe even a couple of years is…I’ve booked so many Maine, Rhode Island and Upstate New York trips for people from New York because they want to be closer to home. These are all people who would have gone to Asia or Africa or Europe. There’s going to be a trend after this of staying closer to home.

Joyce Horowitz, Altour: After we had to dismantle all these trips and get all their refunds and deal with all nuances that are involved in a trip for our clients, I received quite a bit of gratitude for the job we do. I think there’s a queue of clients talking to their friends that having a travel advisor is the way to go. That’s the positive part of COVID, if there is any.

Ruthanne Terrero: Are there any snippets of truth that you’d like to leave everyone with? 

Joe Colucci, Andrew Harper Travel: At the end of the day, you can plan the whole trip but if they’re still uncomfortable about getting on that plane, it’s not worth it. They have to be self-assured and comfortable. We can claim everything is safe, that the planes and the hotels are clean, but if you’re still unsure, then wait.

Joyce Horowitz, Altour: Letting the client take the lead on what they want to do without pushing, that’s huge. Then they have more confidence that you are really looking out for them and that’s very important. 

Richard Engle, Protravel: I have a word of advice for travel advisors about qualifying clients, too. I’ve had a few people recently really wanting to go and they’ve put me and several suppliers through a lot of research time. Then they tell their family, “We’re going to go to the Caribbean for three weeks.” And their kids are like, “Mom, aren’t you aware there’s a pandemic?” Or their doctor says, “No, you shouldn’t go near a plane.”

So, I’m starting to tell clients, “It’s great you want to go to Jumby Bay for three weeks. I’d love you to go there, too. It’s a great place to go. And once you get there, don’t worry. You won’t get sick there. You probably won’t get sick on the plane. It’s best for you to get out of Washington, DC right now. But the first step is, I need to take your ‘COVID temperature.’ How are you personally with traveling during COVID? [And the answer could be], “Oh, well, my husband’s a little compromised. He has XYZ.” I’ll say, “Okay. Do you feel you need to consult with your physician before you go? Let’s fast forward to a week before the trip. Is there anybody who’s going to object to your going? Let’s get that stuff out of the way now, before I do the 17 hours of work.”

Obviously, I’m not saying it that way. I’m being as diplomatic as I can. I’ve been thinking of diplomatic ways to do that because that’s happened to me now several times. They were all ready to give me the credit card and somebody threw a monkey wrench in the whole plan. And I don’t need that. I want people who are really serious about going.

Joyce Horowitz of Altour says her clients are calling her just to chat about travel. Many will be ready to go once international borders open to U.S. travelers.

June Kleier, Protravel: I’ve been spreading the word on social media posts to my clients that travel advisors might have a host agency, but we’re all independent contractors. This is my business. I am a small business. So, when you’re ready to book travel, call a travel advisor. There’s always a built-in commission, either the company’s keeping it, the online agencies are getting it, or you can release it to a small business like myself. People are always like, “I didn’t know that. So, you want to book my hotel?” And I’m like, “Yes, I’ll book it right now.” So, I’ve been educating people that we are a small business.

Christy Danforth, Tzell Travel Group: It’s also important for advisors, whether it’s through social media or a quick email, to keep in touch with your clients, just to say, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s everyone feeling? Just checking in, thinking of you.” People are lonely and cooped up in their houses and they want to talk.

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