Luxury Travel Advisor caught up with Alexis Romer, vice president of sales for the Luxury Travel Industry at Marriott International Luxury Brands and Tristan Dowell, global vice president for Luxury, Lifestyle & Leisure for Hyatt Hotels Corporation to get the pulse on how they are working with travel advisors as we turn the corner on the pandemic.

We found there is tremendous strength in the leisure luxury segment and that travel advisors are more important than ever before to their businesses.

Following is a condensed version of our discussion.

Ruthanne Terrero: How are you working with luxury travel advisors in this current environment? What is the status of how you’re involved with the market?

Alexis Romer, Marriott International Luxury Brands: There is a lot of personal interaction because with bookings today, there are a lot of questions. It’s not a simple transaction. I don’t think anything is a simple transaction anymore. So, we work very, very closely with luxury travel advisors to make sure we can answer all the questions that they have and that their customers have, and that they’re prepared for whatever the situation is, wherever they’re going. This could be whether it’s helping them with testing regulations required before they get to their destination or on their way back, or the size of the units and location of the building.

There are just so many questions. Every single booking is a bespoke — if you will — customized booking that takes a lot of back and forth and communication.

Ruthanne Terrero: Tristan, are you seeing the same thing with your team?

Tristan Dowell, Hyatt Hotels Corporation: Absolutely, we’ve seen the same thing. We have to understand that travel advisors have the knowledge, they have the connections and they have the insight and, whether it’s a travel advisor in the U.S. or China, they’re all having to deal with slightly different things, like knowing where they can go and what the restrictions are.

We have to understand that it differs with each country and each region. The way we’re currently working with them is it’s a partnership. It’s always been a partnership. 

Alexis Romer: Relationships have always been important; it’s a relationship business. You work with people you like and people you trust. It’s always been that way. But it’s even more important now than it’s ever been, especially because we can’t see each other, and so we cling to every interaction and every relationship we have. We crave that with people that we know and we help each other. There is really a feeling of “we’re in this together” because [the pandemic] is not just impacting only one group of people. It’s impacted absolutely everybody, globally, across the world. And so there’s a feeling of everybody wanting to help everybody else. Relationships that may have been minor before, become major now because you cling to any shred of what you know. We’re only going to get through this together by supporting each other.

Tristan Dowell

Tristan Dowell: That’s such a great point you made. I think also, and I’m sure you’re probably seeing the same, Alexis, that luxury is the one space that’s come back quicker and it’s come back strong. We’ve always been nimble but we’re having to get back [to advisors] immediately to explain what’s going on. So, just back as to how we work with them, it’s even tighter, it’s deeper, it’s what Alexis said, it’s the relationships. But it’s also about understanding. 

Alexis Romer: It comes from both sides, too, because the advisors now look at things from our perspective, as well, because they understand that we’ve been hurt also. We’ve lost staff, we’ve lost comrades, people we work with. We don’t have all the resources or the back-of-the-house that we used to. Sometimes you struggle to get back to someone in time. They know. The hotels are struggling. They’re not as staffed as they were. And there is a certain understanding that I feel coming from the advisors. That’s where that, “We’re all in this together,” feels very applicable because they know we’re struggling and we know they’re struggling. We’re all just trying together to move forward and help each other.

In many places staffing is not fully back. There are hotels that are still just re-opening. In New York, we just opened The Ritz-Carlton, Central Park.

Ruthanne Terrero: Let’s talk about what a dynamic domestic travel has turned out to be.

Alexis Romer: So many [advisors] would call and say, “I don’t even know what’s in my backyard.”

Tristan Dowell: It’s a great point because one of the things we were doing was having those discussions with advisors and them saying, “Hey, these markets are key.” The other thing was, “Where do you have the private aviation fields for people who need access to private aviation?” Also, from listening to advisors we were able to implement the "Hyatt Loves Local" program, bringing the hotel’s locale to life [by supporting small businesses].

We also looked at what we could do in our suites with regard to chefs for in-room dining. We also created picnics because guests wanted to be outside with nature. There was also the continued need for connection and well-being. So we implemented well-being programming. I think we all needed that during that time. And we still do.

Ruthanne Terrero: Going forward into 2022, do you see a continued domestic travel surge? Are you considering putting even more emphasis on the local travel? 

Alexis Romer: I do. I think it’s going to be quite some time before everybody gets back to the old patterns of globetrotting the way we did. Not that we don’t want to, because I think everybody would kind of love to get back to that, but the reality is it’s going to be some time.

Tristan Dowell: I’d certainly agree with that. But as we’re speaking to travel advisors — I’ve had a number of conversations just earlier this week — they are saying, “We’ve got customers that want to get to Europe.” So, I think there’s a bit of both, to Alexis’ point. I think that what you’re going to see is very much purposeful travel. You’ve got really two areas: People who want to stay domestic; it depends how they’re feeling, their level of confidence. But some people are also saying, “I want to go out now and explore somewhere different and get back to some different cultural immersions.” So, yes, the domestic market remains key but there’s a huge pent-up demand for international business.

Alexis Romer: It depends, too, on who they’re traveling with and why they’re traveling. For example, there are families with kids who are not vaccinated. Some may be more concerned and want to keep them closer to home. There are so many variables that have entered the picture unlike ever before that are going to keep both international and domestic busy for a while.

Ruthanne Terrero: And travel advisors have learned quite a bit about the United States. I’ve heard a number of them say that they intend to focus on domestic travel and not just throw away that new knowledge.

Alexis Romer: There was always this sort of cachet that if you traveled it was out of the country. There wasn’t a lot of cachet to saying, “I’m going to Florida for vacation.” Especially if you’re in New York, right?

But I think that’s changed. I think the cachet of traveling domestically, such as, “Oh, I’m going to the National Parks,” or even “I’m going to Hawaii or to resort in Florida,” has risen in respect, if you will. And I don’t see that really going away anytime soon.

Tristan Dowell: Alexis, what you said is so true. To that point, just in what we’ve been through and looking at the pandemic, look at how nature’s flourished. I think people are very, very hyper-focused on getting back to caring for this planet and sustainability. Some people are even saying, “You know what, I want to stay in my country or stay a bit local because I’m also doing good for sustainability for the long-term benefit of the planet.” People are going to be very conscious of when they travel. Yes, they’re going to want that cultural immersion, be it international or domestic. But they’re going to want to make sure they’re doing something for the community and the greater good.

Alexis Romer: Totally. And I think because, again, we all feel like we’re in this together, there is a feeling of, if you travel, regardless of where you go, you’re supporting all the people that work anywhere between point A, your home; to point B, your destination. And we need that. We need that so badly in every single country. So, whether you’re traveling internationally or domestically, you have this feeling like, “I’m doing my part. I’m helping people get back to work. I’m helping life get back to normal.” There’s a good feeling that that generates.

Ruthanne Terrero: I agree a 100 percent. Could each of you talk about just how important travel advisors are to your businesses moving forward? 

Tristan Dowell: Travel advisors have always been very critical to our business. We’ve been very inclusive with everything we’ve done with campaigns. To our business they are instrumental in terms of the relationships, but also their expertise. We’ve always viewed the travel advisors as an extension of our sales teams, our brands. They also are well-positioned to meet the demand that is going to happen for bespoke experiences with domestic and international travel, especially as COVID-19 subsides. I certainly think for the space that we’re in, we know that they’re the ones that deliver those exceptional suite bookings and the ADR. They are deeply connected with their clients and they’re an extension to our brands and they are the experts in the curation of travel. So they are critically important and have a major, major impact to our business.

Alexis Romer: I think it’s interesting. [During COVID], corporate fell off. Group travel fell off. Leisure is what has sustained us through this time. That fact has become very exposed, if you will. And it’s so interesting as I think people within our organizations have had this huge “Aha!” moment of what incredible value [travel advisors] have. That’s not to say that we didn’t value them before, but with big companies, you start getting segmented. There are people that work only group travel, or work only corporate, or are just digital. People work in their silos. It’s like the clouds have cleared and everybody’s been able to see this segment very clearly because it’s been producing and functioning, obviously at such an incredibly high level. And they can see the relationships that not only we, the hoteliers, have with the travel advisors, but especially the relationships the advisors have with their customers and how influential they are in terms of where travel dollars are spent.

For those of us who have been in it forever, it’s like, “We told you.” Not to say they didn’t see this before but it’s just different when there’s nothing else to see but this. It just rises to the top. And I think that the relationships, as I said, have just become so much more important because of the advisors’ knowledge and their accountability, and because of their ability to reach out to the hotels and coordinate [experiences]. Everything that travel advisors do for both the customer and the hotel has been highlighted. It’s like a light has been shined on them. And that’s a great thing for the segment overall; it’s elevated the whole travel advisor segment, to tell you the truth.

Ruthanne Terrero: That is such great news. And, yes, of course, in accounting they see it all. When you do the numbers, it’s black and white.

Tristan Dowell: You’re absolutely spot on, Ruthanne. It’s the highest indexing revenue generator in terms of ADR and suites.

We’ve all realized during this time the importance of human beings and connections. We’ve also realized that experiences are better than things. More than ever, and certainly in the space that we all operate in, people are going to say, “You know what? I don’t need things anymore. I want to travel.” And they’re going to plan their travel over 12 months, two years, three years, and that’s the importance of where the travel advisor community is going to come in. They’ll curate and really approach these trips just as financial advisors plan people’s retirement.

Since clients haven’t been able to travel, they are going to plan purposefully and use their travel advisor to explore the very best of where they can get to. 

So, I think it’s very, very bright for travel advisors’ future as we look ahead. 

Alexis Romer

Alexis Romer: I think to anyone who had not used an advisor pre-COVID and got stuck in the middle of COVID, and those consumers who booked everything online, it became really obvious as to why the travel advisor profession exists. The value of what travel advisors deliver also became very obvious. It’s kind of a cautionary tale.

Ruthanne Terrero: Absolutely. There was also some great consumer press on travel advisors, as well. To wrap up this great conversation, can you let me know what you have in your pipelines? 

Tristan Dowell: We announced our 1,000th hotel, which was Alila Napa Valley. Other recent openings include 7Pines Resort Ibiza; Alila Hinu Bay (Oman); Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas (CA); Andaz Bali; Andaz Xiamen; Hôtel Du Palais Biarritz, part of The Unbound Collection by Hyatt; Park Hyatt Auckland and The Wellem, part of The Unbound Collection by Hyatt (Germany).

Coming up, the Park Hyatt Toronto is reopening following renovation and Hotell Reisen in Sweden joins the Unbound Collection this month.

We also have Thompson hotels opening in Buckhead, Denver, Hollywood, Houston and Savannah. Noteworthy developments include Alila La Gruyère (Switzerland); Alila Shanghai; Andaz Prague and Andaz Lisbon.

The former Hotel Byblos in Spain and the Grand Hansa Hotel in Helsinki are joining The Unbound Collection by Hyatt and we also have the Grand Hyatt Limassol (Cyprus) and Park Hyatt London River Thames.

Alexis Romer: We have several openings just this year. In May we opened The St. Regis, Dubai, The Palm, as well as Josun Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Seoul’s Gangnam. We also opened The St. Regis Bermuda in May and then The Ritz-Carlton, Turks and Caicos in June; these are properties that are very popular because of their close proximity to the U.S. Also, in June, we opened The Ritz-Carlton, Maldives Fari Island. In terms of city hotels, we will be opening Matild Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel Budapest and before the end of the year we’ll be opening The Ritz-Carlton, Mexico City, The St. Regis Chicago and The Tasman, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Hobart. W has a huge pipeline. We opened Melbourne and Osaka this past February and March [respectively]. This summer, we’ve got Toronto, Nashville, Philadelphia and the Algarve opening. W Rome will open in the fall. EDITION has a very strong pipeline, as well, with the The Reykjavik EDITION opening very soon. That development pipeline is super, super strong. I haven’t even touched on anything beyond ’21.

Tristan Dowell: You know what? I think this is all just a testament to the discussion we’ve just been having, Ruthanne, and certainly listening to Alexis, I mean, out of all of our brands, it’s the luxury and lifestyle segment that’s seeing the biggest growth and development. We could give you a whole list for post-2022.

Alexis Romer: Developers and investors are seeing the strength of this luxury leisure segment and how it’s booked, and the ADRs that these hotels are delivering. This is very important for hotel development, so it’s a sign of strength for future development to come.

Tristan Dowell: With that, we also take good pride in going back to ask travel advisors [which destinations] are key for them, especially as they explore new places or hear of new places. They always seem to have good insight as we look at future development.

Alexis Romer: It’s like anything you knew before is kind of gone. This new landscape will bring different answers to these questions, which will shape the future development for hotels. 

Ruthanne Terrero: That’s such an interesting point, and it’s a great note to end on, too. This is all really a blueprint for the future. And while the future might seem up for grabs right now, it’s clearly the leisure luxury market that will lead the way.

What a wonderful conversation, so thank you so much for your time.

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