A Signature Event: How Advisors and European Hoteliers Are Faring

(None) Alex Sharpe, president & CEO, Signature Travel Network

Luxury Travel Advisor recently teamed up with the Signature Travel Network for a virtual roundtable to gauge how advisors and European hoteliers are faring.

Participating in our roundtable were: Alex Sharpe, president and CEO, Signature Travel Network; Igor Barba, general manager, Amanruya, Bodrum, Turkey; Dan Ilves, senior vice president, leisure, TravelStore; Jeanne DeBell Polocheck, owner, Well Traveled Texan Luxury Travel; Valentina De Santis, owner and CEO, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como, Italy; Marianne Kassapian, director of sales, Corinthia London; Julia Pirrung, president, Jetset World Travel, Inc. and Eric Reader, executive vice president, partner, Connoisseur Travel, Ltd.

The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/editorial director of Luxury Travel Advisor.

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Following is a condensed version of our conversation.

Alex Sharpe, Signature Travel Network: We picked a few great partners and some wonderful members to get a virtual roundtable together to talk about the comeback and to find some optimism as we’re waiting for the world to open up for our customers. Thank you all for being here.

Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Thanks so much, Alex. There’s certainly a bit of exhaustion setting in; it reminds me of the financial crisis 2008-2009, where every new month, every new quarter, we would say, “It’s going to turn around.” But then it would just stay the same. I definitely am sensing fatigue in the industry right now. 

Let’s go around and introduce ourselves.

Julia Pirrung, Jetset World Travel: I am the founder of Jetset World Travel, which was established in 2005, and also the Access Travel app, which was established in 2013, and I run an agency headquartered out of Chicago. We have 13 advisors spread across the country. We are increasingly virtual and focused on the luxury FIT sector.

In terms of how things look now, I would say the quality of the business coming through is very encouraging, but the quantity really still isn’t there. But it’s not crickets. I think, Ruthanne, as you mentioned, that many of us hoped that June would be a turning point as states started to relax the sheltering-in-place requirements. But it is disheartening that Americans still aren’t welcome in many places around the world and that those countries that had anticipated opening their borders this summer, are not. I think right now our biggest challenge is not the desire or demand, it’s really the lack of options.

Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Somebody was asking me today, “When is luxury travel coming back? It’s usually the first to come back.” I said, “It’s actually back. We just can’t go. It’s not as if the demand isn’t there.” 

Eric Reader, Connoisseur Travel: I’m the executive vice president and partner at Connoisseur Travel in Washington, DC. I’m also on the Signature Board of Directors. We have been in business for 31 years and we handle primarily high-profile clients in Washington. That means government, lawyers, the financial industry, both corporate and leisure. Prior to COVID, we were about 75 percent corporate, 25 percent leisure. Of course, now that’s changed a bit, but we’ll see how that all plays out in the future. 

Obviously, business is down considerably, but the demand is there. We are busy still fielding lots of questions. Where can I go? When can I go? That’s constantly changing, so it’s challenging for the advisors to continue to keep up to date on all of that and what the restrictions are.

We definitely have pent-up demand, though, both on the corporate and leisure side. 

Eric Reader, executive vice president, partner, Connoisseur Travel, Ltd.

Jeanne DeBell Polocheck, Well Traveled Texan Luxury Travel: I’m the owner of Well Traveled Texan Luxury Travel and Wine in Houston, Texas. Our travel agency is a bit of a hybrid between luxury FIT travel. We also have a wine store. Ironically, our travel business obviously went traumatically down in the first few months and our wine business went up in the exact same ratio. 

I’ve got six advisors. We are actually adding two next week. We specialize in international travel. We do mostly Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Being that we’re in Texas, you can pretty much get anywhere on a direct flight from Houston. We have a lot of clients in Dallas. We just opened up an office in Los Angeles in January.

We have been able to flip a lot of our clients who were initially doing European travel. We were able to flip about 50 percent of those to traveling within the U.S. We’ve been working a lot with Mountain Travel Sobek and some of the interior partners and booking a lot of the Signature hotels. Where a client may have been doing a two-week trip to Europe, we’ve changed it to a two-week luxury national park trip. Those have been very successful for us.

All of our advisors had to pivot very quickly into learning about the national parks and luxury RV rentals and how to map people and things like that. They bounced right back. We have seen a lot of business come back. Right now, we’re getting a lot of last-minute hotel requests. I think people are just really nervous about booking something too far out where they may have to change plans.

In Texas, our August is really slow because our schools go back to school the second week in August. But now that they’ve actually delayed the start of school, we’re getting another pickup with families that are just going to do their virtual school from Colorado, or Montana, or wherever we can send them and get them a fabulous house. That’s been really interesting.

What really tipped the needle for us was we had all of our advisors take a trip somewhere and then start posting about it on all of our social media channels. As soon as their clients and their friends saw them traveling, they felt a lot more comfortable asking how the plane flight was or what was the hotel like when you got there. We have been spending time managing expectations even before a client gives us permission to book something, making sure they know what the hotel is going to be like when they get there, and that it’s not going to be the same experience.

Thankfully we’ve not had a bad experience for a single client, but we’re starting to get busy again now. We just got a couple of requests yesterday for Europe for December, for Festive, which would be great. More U.S. requests for the holidays have come in. We have also got some Olympic requests for Japan next year. So it’s starting to pick back up.

I think the hardest part for our advisors has been keeping up with everything: Who’s open? Who’s closed now? If you go to Lake Tahoe and you stay on the Nevada side, you can’t go in the pool, and if you stay on the California side, you can’t have the spa. Just keeping track of all of that has been a daily job for all of us.

Jeanne DeBell Polocheck, owner, Well Traveled Texan Luxury Travel

Dan Ilves, TravelStore: I’m the senior vice president at TravelStore; we’ve been in business 45 years. We’re in California with seven branch offices. Like Eric’s agency, we’re about 70 percent corporate, 30 percent leisure. I oversee the leisure operations and the marketing for the agency.

The pent-up demand is huge, especially among the luxury travelers. We are taking bookings. It’s a trickle relative to the usual flow, but it’s certainly there. We have a number of cases of passengers who have been rebooked on trips three or four times now, they’ve been canceled and moved forward.

The strength in the cruise sector seems stronger than in land. Certainly most of the deposits that we’re getting for new business is trending more towards cruise than land FIT. I’ve seen some data that suggests that the loyalty of the cruise passenger is stronger, which is interesting. Once we get through this, it should be a very strong year for all of us. We’re staying optimistic.

Valentina De Santis, Grand Hotel Tremezzo: I am the CEO and part of the ownership family of Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which is one of the luxury historical hotels on Lake Como in Italy. The hotel is a family business, so it’s one of the iconic family hotels that you can find in my beloved country. It’s an experience.

I can speak for a very special country, which is Italy, which was hit very hard by the pandemic. But I’m very happy to give a little bit of positive energy and to say that we are the example that can confirm that there is a very big light at the end of the tunnel.

The numbers in Italy now are quite under control. Even if some days there are numbers which have increased, at the moment we are one of the countries in Europe where the pandemic is most under control. I don’t want to speak too loud because nothing is really sure in this time. But really, the situation here is much more positive than what we expected few months ago.

We have been living a very, very strict quarantine since the beginning of March. Our property is based in Lombardy, which was the epicenter of everything from the start. We had a total lockdown. Honestly, speaking for me personally, I’ve not been out of my house for three months. I was the only one in the family who went out three times just to pick up the groceries, that’s it. We took everything very, very seriously. 

I can say that after a few months of a lot of concern and suffering, we have started to see the light. At the end of June, we reopened the hotel, which was a life-changing decision. It was very hard to take because we didn’t have any business. We had spent months and months receiving millions and millions of euros-worth of cancellations. It was quite depressing. But when we announced the reopening, we had the first positive pick-up in four months. This was for sure a positive sign even if the business was very low when we reopened. I can tell you that now it’s August and last Saturday we had 98 percent occupancy. It was one day and probably it will not be repeated, but it’s something that gives us a lot of positive energy and hope.

Of course, all our business changed because our major market was the U.S. Now, we have a mix of Italian and European countries, we have British guests back that are slowly increasing after the reopening of the borders. Everything is super last minute, with completely different clients. We are learning so many new things from this crazy year. But we are very positive. We are trying to take the best from this quite bad situation. I hope to be the example of something positive.

Marianne Kassapian, director of sales, Corinthia London

Marianne Kassapian, Corinthia London: I’m the director of sales from Corinthia London. We were one of a handful of luxury properties which reopened on the 4th of July, which was the first date in the U.K. that hospitality and hotels were allowed to reopen.

As Valentina said, it was a huge decision. Do you open? Don’t you open? Do you wait? But we really felt it was important to open as soon as possible for our colleagues, for our guests, for our partners, and to show some positivity and strength. It has paid off. In July, we exceeded the forecast that we had set for ourselves.

Again, we are limited. Our major market are the U.S. and the other international markets, which are still restricted. It’s obviously heavily impacting the business. But to Julia’s point, it is quality over quantity. At the moment, we’re seeing some great penthouse bookings and some nice long stays. There’s a shift in the business and clearly much more leisure. Corporate hasn’t started again, and there are no groups or MICE business at the moment. There are celebrations. People want to celebrate. People are getting engaged up on our penthouse terraces. Our events team are busy with wedding enquiries. It seems that after the lockdown, people definitely wanted to celebrate. 

We’re very lucky that we’ve got one of the few outdoor spaces in London, the garden. We’re also having a heat wave in London at the moment, so the garden restaurant is definitely one of the hotspots and it’s pulling people in. Our Crystal Moon Lounge and Carriages Bar and Grill also. We were able to open the spa earlier than expected, at the end of July; Spa Life at Corinthia is one of our major selling points.

Igor Barba, general manager, Amanruya, Bodrum, Turkey

Igor Barba, Amanruya: I’m the general manager of Amanruya, based in Bodrum, Turkey. We have just 35 rooms in our inventory and we think of them as stand-alone private villas, rather than typical hotel rooms. Let me start firstly with some positive and good news. This has been a very good month for us. The hotel is running the first 10 days of August, with over 90 percent occupancy. The outlook for the remainder of the month looks really positive. But we are working over very short lead times and at a very fast pace, like something that has never happened to us in this industry.

We all talk about how luxury is going to bounce back first and it did. And it did all of a sudden, but the market has changed. Over the last couple of years, Amanruya’s markets were the U.K., followed by the U.S., followed by the rest of the E.U. countries. The experience in June was 90 percent local guests and in July, it was probably 60 to 65 [percent] local guests. What we see now in August is that local guests are making only 35 percent of all of our bookings and the U.K. is coming back. The U.S. is coming back. We have seen pick up from Russia. We are seeing pick up from the rest of the E.U. countries. It’s promising. It’s due to the fact that Turkey has opened its border because they kept the pandemic well under control for the last couple of months, which gave an opportunity for the reopening.

Julia Pirrung, Jetset World Travel: Surprisingly, there hasn’t been any consistency or pattern that’s arisen with our clients’ proclivity to travel. For example, we have one client who spent $700,000 on travel last year. And when I checked in with her on a monthly basis she said, “You know, we really will not be traveling in a public setting until a vaccine is released that we trust.”

And, so, they’ve actually bought a yacht and will be traveling by private plane and on their own yacht and not staying around any public environment. And then there are those who maybe weren’t avid travelers previously, but now have a real desire to get out and explore. The inconsistencies make it really challenging now to successfully navigate certain conversations and also to curate marketing.

A lot of the spring travel that we pushed into the fall, we now have to push into 2021. We were able to save about 70 to 80 percent of our bookings and encourage them to “postpone, don’t cancel.” But as this has worn on and suppliers have been increasingly more transparent, but initially not very flexible around payment terms, we’re finding that more clients are preferring to cancel, especially because of not having clarity on the financial solvency of some of the vendors who are holding their money, which has been disheartening, but also understandable. I think clients want to make sure that they have that money to invest when they can travel. I think the demand is there and the supply is relatively limited right now.

People are willing to spend what it costs to travel, which is exciting, because I think that, unfortunately, in the short term, travel is going to be available to fewer people. But those who do travel are going to have a very realistic budget to have an enjoyable experience. And it positions us for greater success, because we have the intelligence that’s circulated on a daily basis and can make sure that they’re making a wise choice with their time and money.

Julia Pirrung, president, Jetset World Travel, Inc.

Alex Sharpe, Signature Travel Network: What sets apart the great advisors who have a very upscale FIT clientele, it’s easier I would say, because they have a closer bond with each of those customers. They have a personal relationship with them.

Eric Reader, Connoisseur Travel: Initially when this all first started, we had bookings that were being canceled and then re-booked and then canceled and then re-booked, whether it be the same destination or they were changing to a different destination. But whatever it was, there was a lot of multiple re-bookings for the same trip. And interestingly, in a lot of cases, that’s made the travelers appreciate us more. We’ve noticed that travelers are really understanding our value and really appreciating everything that we’re doing, because they know everything that we’ve had to do to change, to cancel, to rebook and make sure the insurance is correct. 

What we’re seeing for the rest of the year at least, and in particularly Festive season, is more interest in private stand-alone villas, yacht charters, private jets, all of those things that are more self-contained. And I think people are still really hopeful about 2021 and what they might be able to do.

Jeanne DeBell Polocheck, Well Traveled Texan Luxury Travel:  We typically do a lot of private jet travel. We had a lot of clients who flew private year-round, before COVID. A lot of what we’ve been doing is sort of setting up their bubble somewhere, whether it’s with their extended family or a group of friends that want to go. This also speaks to the travel advisor fees. They don’t know where to go, and they don’t know what’s going to happen when they get there and they don’t want to be met and turned away. So it’s been an easier conversation for charging travel advisory fees. We’ve posted it on our website so that clients have an expectation when they contact us that we do custom travel planning. And we’ve had so many clients contact us for that than before. They may have just wanted us to book a hotel, but now we’re even charging to do hotel searches for a client that just wants to go somewhere in California, Utah, Wyoming or Arizona. It may take that advisor a day to pull all of that together because of the limited occupancy or to determine what’s open in each state.

In our Los Angeles office, we had our advisor do a two-week trip by renting a luxury RV with her husband, and post along the way; a number of celebrity clients who were unwilling to travel at all ended up contacting her through her Instagram feed or through our website and asked questions like, “There are 16 of us. We really want to do a luxury Yosemite trip. Can you put it together?” Then once they go out there and feel more comfortable posting, then we get bookings off of their friends who saw that they went and that it could be done and it could be done safely.

Every day is a new day. It’s like we wake up in the morning and we have no way of knowing. That’s what makes it still fun for us obviously, but we do need to make money at it. We’ve got clients who call every week saying, “Can I go, can I go?”

Dan Ilves, TravelStore: It’s been a really delicate balance on how to market to clients. When the pandemic first hit and things shut down, everybody said by June, we’ll be up and running again. As things got delayed and the data in the United States on outbreaks increased, it became more discouraging.

Certainly I agree that if Europe allowed Americans in, we’d be seeing a lot more bookings right now. The biggest frustration is the damage that we’re doing to ourselves. Domestic travel certainly is up. We’re seeing it, as well. A lot of it is drive trips. We probably see a lot less of that activity than we otherwise would, where people are just doing it on their own. We know our clients are doing the road trips, but not necessarily relying on us for that.

The silver lining, if you will, of the pandemic has been to sit back and think about how we do business. We’ve completely restructured our service-fee program. We’ve been doing trainings at all the branches virtually on the new program. Being a large agency, we certainly have many advisors that have been charging fees. Then we have those, including independent contractors, who have not, or have done so not sufficiently well enough. We’ve retooled our terms and conditions. We started, too, on a project of building a new website for the company, which started before the pandemic, but we’re in the middle of that right now. When we come to an end of this, we’ll have a new website, as well. It’s a chance to dust the bookshelves and clean your act up, and come out raring to go. I keep telling my advisors that when the pandemic is over and when travel “reopens” again in a larger way, that we don’t want to be at the back of the pack. We want to be in the front of the pack, we have to be ready and we have to stay motivated and stay informed and stay educated.

Dan Ilves, senior vice  president, leisure, TravelStore

Dan Ilves, senior vice president, leisure, TravelStore

Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: I have a question for our European hoteliers. Is there anything that you will be doing differently in the future? 

Valentina De Santis, Grand Hotel Tremezzo: I have considered the new needs of travelers. Not just the Americans, but to the Italians or Europeans in general. For example, we thought about who was doing “smart” [remote] working and wanted to escape after the lockdown after being locked in an apartment with their kids. We had a special offer that included a little office with a view, and babysitting services for the parents traveling with their family, with kids who have not been able to be at school since March. We were thinking about who really wanted to escape.

Marianne Kassapian, Corinthia London: Well, as I alluded to before, we have outdoor space, both in the public areas, in our penthouses and in our rooms, as well. People are valuing them more than ever, to be able to come and hang out on the terrace when the weather has been lovely or to know that you can have your doors wide open and look over to a beautiful inner courtyard.

On the marketing side, we are using more videos. We’re talking about myself and Thomas Koch, our managing director, or myself and Trevor Owen, doing little films that we’re sharing to convey that you still feel at home, but also letting people know about the COVID precautions that we’ve put in place. We can’t wait for our U.S. guests to be able to travel freely again.

Jeanne DeBell Polocheck, Well Traveled Texan Luxury Travel:  Can I ask the hoteliers? Do you have restrictions on the capacity of the hotel, the restaurants and the spa? 

Igor Barba, Amanruya: In our case there’s quite a lot of regulations. We all work in PPE, which is obligatory. You will see the waiters with masks, with gloves, disinfectant everywhere around you on a hand touch for each and every guest.

Tables should allow minimum two meters distance between the clients who are not sitting together, but a great advantage of the property is that we have so many different terraces on different levels, quite a vast space for only 35 villas. That allows us an easy distancing.

Valentina De Santis, owner & CEO, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como, Italy

Valentina De Santis, Grand Hotel Tremezzo: For Italy, there are few restrictions. The social distancing, it’s one meter only. And now masks are not mandatory if not outdoors. Of course, all the staff wear masks even if it’s not totally mandatory. By law they need to wear masks only if they get closer by one meter to the guests or if they are indoors. But all of our staff wears masks. This decision has been reinforced by the feedback that we had from the guests.

Guests who have started to travel are less concerned so they already surpass the barrier of the fear. So once they go out, they really want to enjoy their holiday. So the main keyword for us is “tailoring.” Before each guest arrives we try to understand their level of concern. We try really to tailor the experience from the escorting to the room, to the way we remake the room every day, or the room service, whichever, depending on how much our guest is concerned.

After two months of opening, I can tell you that the guests that stay here, at least with us, just want to forget a little bit, they want to unplug. What we have tried to do as much as possible is hide everything that is COVID-related apart from the masks, of course. So we have all our personalized masks for the staff, which change from day to night. It has become a fashion accessory. Also, for every guest who checks in we give a little bag that’s called Con Amore. That means “with love” and inside, they can find some beautiful masks made of silk because Como is very famous for silk production. They’re beautiful with flowers for the ladies, and with beautiful tie patterns for the gents. [Shown below].  We also give out single-use sanitizer gels. We have tried to twist everything that is COVID related, like the hand sanitizer, into something a little bit more personal. We have very, very strict procedures, but everything is as hidden as possible. The biggest feedback is that everyone feels safe and secure and doesn’t have any concerns, finally just being able to relax and feel like they’re on a normal holiday.

We are very, very lucky because we have a very wide property with many different facilities. We have three pools and five restaurants. At the beginning, we opened everything. Every single facility, every single restaurant, we had evenings with six rooms occupied and five restaurants open. We just didn’t want to take anything away from the clients. 

We have also discovered that new guests tend to stay in the hotel much more. We are used to having Americans who usually have a very packed schedule. In four days on Lake Como, they need to see everything and they want to experience all the kinds of local restaurants. Now with the European and the Italians, every night we have 90 percent or more of our clients eating at our restaurants which never happened before. And so for us, it’s a new learning experience.

We have met a new kind of client and hopefully those clients will remember new destinations like Lake Como, maybe not for August or for the summer but I’m sure that we will see them again, maybe in spring or autumn.

Marianne Kassapian, Corinthia London: I think people do want to relax. They do want to feel a little bit of escapism. I chatted to the concierge before coming on this call to get his take on it.

He said that these days there is a little bit more planning needed. So, before where you could just walk into a restaurant (not the hottest restaurant that you always had to book); now, if you are a family or you’re going to want to dine at a certain time, it is better to make the booking. If you’re going to want to go to the museum, the museums now have time slots.

Now you do need a little bit more planning to make sure that guests are not disappointed. We are seeing that dining times are more spread out as well. 

Alex Sharpe, Signature Travel Network: I think there’s even more potential from this network as people pivot and understand that FIT luxury hotel travel is a trend that we’re going to see more of. The other thing I’d leave you with is we’ve been very fortunate while our focus has been squarely on our existing shareholders, we’ve gotten incredible interest from great agencies outside the network.

Our members have acquired about a half dozen agencies. We brought in five or six new members and have a couple of others that we’re looking at. We continue to be pretty selective in our little club, but what I’m seeing is really encouraging, especially in the luxury space.

So thank you, thanks for your time, and looking forward to better days ahead. 

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