Luxury Travel Advisor hosted a virtual roundtable June 5 with top advisors who discussed the current needs of their clients. Top of mind were private villas and residences, but we covered a range of other topics, as well, as we face a new travel landscape.
Joining the roundtable were Evelyne Gaudin, Travels With Evelyne, an independent affiliate with Direct Travel Luxe; Jolie Goldring, In the Know Experiences; Camille Holubar, Vista Travel Consultants, Inc.; Angela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel; Robyn Knable-Potter, Robyn Potter Travel; Becky Lukovic, Bella Travel Planning, LLC, an affiliate of Travel Experts and Jeffrey Traugot, Traugot Travel, Inc., an affiliate of Travel Experts.
The discussion was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/Editorial Director of Luxury Travel Advisor. Following is a condensed version of our conversation.
Ruthanne Terrero: Welcome. Let’s introduce ourselves!
Becky Lukovic, Bella Travel Planning: I’ve been in the industry for 19 years. I’m affiliated with Travel Experts. I focus on custom-design trips for people, frequently using villas and homes and other types of travel.
Angela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel: I’ve been in the business since I was 14; we’re a family-run business. This year, I launched Luxury Travel University, which focuses on digital and marketing strategies for agencies. I’ve taught on the university level for seven or eight years, as well.
Angela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel
Jeffrey Traugot, Traugot Travel: I’ve been doing this for about 26 years. I’m also affiliated with Travel Experts. I’ve been with them for the past six years. I primarily specialize in high-end leisure and corporate travel, [including] yachts, villas, high-end travel.
Camille Holubar, Vista Travel Consultants: I am third generation in the travel industry. My grandmother started the business, my mother then took over and was in the industry over 50 years; she just recently passed away, so we are now owners of a Virtuoso travel agency. My mother was a European tour operator for 50 years, and we also have that company.
Robyn Knable-Potter, Robyn Potter Travel: I’ve been in the industry for 30 years. I am a Virtuoso agency and I do luxury travel, just for leisure clients, no corporate. I love this industry; it’s in my blood. I keep telling clients that I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here hopefully for another 30 years. I’m not going anywhere.
Jolie Goldring, In the Know Experiences: I’m 18 years in the business. I am affiliated with In the Know Experiences and we’re Virtuoso, as well, and part of Travel Leaders. I specialize in FIT luxury travel planning. I do a lot of families. I find that my clients are similar to me demographically and that’s been my success — planning trips and holding people’s hands through this whole thing. My clients know that travel is going to be back with a vengeance but they’re still really not ready, with the few rare exceptions. But once things get back to normal, there’s going to be so much demand. I think advisors are still very relevant.
Evelyne Gaudin, Direct Travel Luxe: I’m based in California, born and raised in France. I’ve been in California for 40 years and in the travel industry for 35. Out of that, I spent 20 years on the supplier side and the rest of the time on the agency side, which has given me an interesting perspective of the industry.
The reason why I went back into the agency side is I decided to slow down my life, but to focus on what I had learned. I was very fortunate to work with numerous high-end properties, mostly in Europe, but [also in] South America, Thailand — you name it, all over. I’ve used my knowledge, experience and travel and applied that to do what I do now for the last six years.
Evelyne Gaudin, Direct Travel Luxe
Ruthanne Terrero: What are your clients asking for? What is the state of your client’s mindset these days?
Evelyne Gaudin: Safety.
Jolie Goldring: Privacy.
Camille Holubar: More smaller, family-run properties and exactly what we’re going to talk about today too: Villas and residences.
Jolie Goldring: Mine are all asking for private homes, except for some people that wanted to go to large places, like The Breakers. They want private homes, if the resorts’ kids’ clubs are not open yet because people are tired of being camp counselors.
Camp has been canceled, so the opportunity for us is huge. It’s just that people want to go tomorrow and they’re asking today.
Robyn Knable-Potter: I started a campaign on Facebook, which ID Travel Group actually white labels and it’s Camp Robyn Potter Travel. I put it out the day after my daughter’s camp was canceled. And it has really struck a chord.
I’ve been running into clients everywhere I go. And the first thing they said to me was, “That campaign that you put on Facebook and Instagram is amazing.” I’ve had a lot of clients reaching out to me and asking what it’s about, and how they can get on board with their children.
I did research for a good three weeks, just trying to find properties that did have private homes so that the clients could feel safe and secure, and then I went into what their protocols were. I didn’t want to just offer a home and not know the answers if clients asked.
This has been a learning and research experience for me because I specialize in Italy, Greece and more so Europe than the U.S. I’ve actually gone onto AAA and found rest stops along the way, if they’re driving, that were safe and secure. So, this way, they have all the information ahead of time and they can make a decision based on where they’re comfortable driving to, as well as where they can stop along the way, and not have to go into somewhere that’s not comfortable for them.
I think that was a big awakening and a learning experience for me, as well as my clients. I have somebody who is leaving today for Sea Island, for a month.
Camille Holubar: I do, too, because they [Sea Island] have villas, they have the beach club, they have all those residences.
Robyn Knable-Potter: And they’re Virtuoso, so they’re giving our clients a $200 credit a day.
Camille Holubar: I have a question to all of you. Have you all run into the problem where, two weeks ago, it was like OK, send your clients to the U.S., but then we went ahead booked everybody in Charleston and had people going to Los Angeles and going on road trips ... Have you seen a trend where people are now calling you saying, “Oh, I can’t go there”? And right now, there are some places that you really can’t send people to, even in the United States. So has that been a problem for anybody else?
Jolie Goldring: I’m very hesitant to comment on “safe.” That’s something I shy away from and I’m extremely upfront. If somebody says, “Is it safe there?” I say, “I don’t answer if something is safe. You have to be comfortable with the destination. I can provide you the facts. I can provide you with the protocol the hotel or resort or villa has taken to ensure cleanliness and safety, etc. I can provide you with my thoughts. I can tell you if I would go, if I’d be comfortable going, but I will not comment on whether something is safe or not. It is just too arbitrary.”
It’s too much of a liability for us. I do believe strongly that there has to be some onus on the clients to do their own research, and to understand what is open, what isn’t open, what the protocols are. Because truthfully, it is such a dynamic situation. It is changing state by state, even city by city, even parts of states are opening, some aren’t. So as much as we try, I think we need to always cover ourselves a little bit to an extent, and put some of it on the client to really be comfortable with. I don’t ever want somebody to say, “I didn’t feel safe and you said it was safe.” It’s just a tricky thing.
Angela Hughes: I think that you have two things happening. I was in Laguna Hills [in late May], staying at The Ritz-Carlton and I had just come from Zion National Park and stayed in a house there. Interestingly enough, they were only letting 400 people in. And, so, that’s another issue: Even though things are opening, it’s a really limited capacity.
At The Ritz-Carlton, there were few facilities within the hotel open. And, so, that makes for a different Ritz experience — when the gyms and spa are closed. Now again, they had just opened up [in early May]. So, they’re phasing into that.
Jeffrey Traugot: As Jolie said, you can’t tell someone what’s safe and not safe. Of my clients, very few will fly, but most of them want to drive. So, what are the driving destinations to go to?
I think the question is, what are clients looking for and whether it’s just their own personal space or their own house, or will they have a swimming pool that they can swim in. Things like that are very important. There are private houses and private villas, and there are a lot of properties that have individual units that you can stay at, too.
Winvian in Connecticut is opening up very soon; their spa is not going to open up, but at least the property’s units are. Out in California, Rancho Valencia is opening up pretty soon. We’ve mentioned Kiawah and Montage Palmetto Bluff and Sea Island. Having the social distancing is very important for clients, whether they can fly there or drive there.
Becky Lukovic, Bella Travel Planning
Becky Lukovic: It depends on the clients. I have some clients who are working in healthcare in the Midwest, and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t want to see anybody.” Then I have some clients saying, “I don’t care if it’s a hotel. I want to get out of here. I want to be safe and feel safe.” I’ve done a lot of Blackberry Farm and resorts like that for people, but there is definitely a push for the homes. Because I think it is like a known quantity; it’s like, OK, we know everybody that we’re going to basically come in contact with. But it really just depends on the client for me.
Robyn Knable-Potter: I have clients who are arriving today and I put in a whole food order for them two days ago. So when they arrive today, they will have their entire kitchen stocked. They wanted a pool, they wanted a beach and they wanted the resort facilities.
For my clients, the main thing is they want to have their own private space. They want a pool and they want a beach. They want to be able to have all their food brought in.
Those are the main questions people ask me. They’re bringing their families, they’re bringing their dogs, they’re bringing their nannies. So, they’re coming as family and my clients are looking just to be away from people.
Ruthanne Terrero: They don’t want to deal with the person who walks by and doesn’t want to wear a mask. It’s just disturbing, if that’s what you want them to be doing. Sometimes you even feel like you need to say something to them if they’re close to you.
Evelyne Gaudin: Hence, the villa and residence stay. Hotels are going to have a harder time. Larger properties are going to have a harder time, or, as Angela said, why pay so much [when] the spa is closed, the restaurant is closed? They don’t have the facilities open, so it doesn’t really make sense right now to put them in a hotel.
I’m just making a list of places with private entrances, private residences and private villas.
We have to be creative. We have to think outside the box. For instance, I’m sure everyone knows onefinestay. They don’t have villas in a lot of places. They have a villa in L.A., one in Malibu, around it there’s not much, so you have to think outside and figure out companies and charge fees when you do find them.
Becky Lukovic: I just had someone ping me on our neighborhood email, saying, “Hey, I have this beautiful villa in Savannah.” And then I’m like, “Oh my gosh, how many of us know people who have the private residences?”
[So then the question is], if we booked direct with you, would you be willing to pay a commission or a finder’s fee? They’re sure giving it to Airbnb, they’re giving it to Vrbo. I’ve started getting creative and trying to find these more curated private homes with my colleagues to have a list of places we trust.
Ruthanne Terrero: How would you vet those places?
Evelyne Gaudin: I’m going to the owners directly and saying, “Listen, would you be willing to rent it to me?”
Ruthanne Terrero: So you have to have very frank, upfront conversations and say, would you rent it to me?
Camille Holubar: Exactly. And as far as Europe goes — because we’re still booking a lot of Europe toward the end of the summer — as far as the villas and residences there, I do not put any of our clients anywhere that I haven’t seen or inspected or have a good relationship with the owners to trust in them. Because what they may think is someplace that Americans would like, may not have air conditioning or other things. That’s really important, even if they look beautiful in pictures. So what we do in our company is we stick to a lot of the villas and residences that are affiliated with a property. So we’re really careful about sending our clients, because it is a big responsibility; if we don’t see it, it’s really a liability.
Jolie Goldring: We’re also not realtors. We can’t vet everything. It’s much more important for us to have a partner at a resort that’s got villas and standalone homes.
The other thing for New York is weather. A perfect example: Somebody was booked for Gurney’s this weekend, but the minute they think there might be rain, they cancel. So things are just so much more sensitive because of the new measures they’re taking.
I live in Connecticut and we’re allowed to actually finally go out to restaurants to eat, but it’s all patio. And, so, there are a lot of rules, and if the weather isn’t good, and you can’t be outside, then it ruins the whole stay. Why pay $1,000 a night to stay somewhere?
Robyn Knable-Potter: That’s the other thing, that things have been changing so rapidly that clients ask, “Can I go to a restaurant?” What was closed a week ago is today opening up. I live on my computer 24/7 now, more so than I did when I was busy, because things are constantly [changing] and unless you’re living in that location, you don’t know. That’s why I rely on Facebook a lot right now, because we’re all chipping in and putting out what we know.
Jolie Goldring: I’ve been guiding my clients to look on Instagram at the Chamber of Commerce for the particular destinations, because they’re going to quickly post all of the dates. And then I’ve also been advising them to just go onto each state government’s website because they often have the openings there. Other than that, I’m not going to be checking something five times a day. This is an example of where I don’t think the onus is on us to tell them about every little thing that may or may not be open. It is on the clients; the client has to have some responsibility to try to research the destination that they’re visiting. We can guide them, but in terms of, “Are the restaurants open or not?,” that’s going to be by the state governments and the Chamber of Commerce will announce that.
Jolie Goldring, In the Know Experiences
Camille Holubar: I leave in 11 days to spend 86 days in Europe. I’m going to see firsthand really what’s going on, especially in Italy, because I know most of us on this panel deal a lot with Italy, Austria, France, and there’s so much going on and so much changing every single day. I just pray I get into Italy. I think I have all the paperwork I need to get in, because they’re very strict about letting Americans in right now. But the U.S. Embassy in Italy has told me I have all my bases covered. I have them covered in Italy and Austria right now. Hopefully, the others will let Americans in. But, for us, it’s really important, because we still have many groups that haven’t canceled yet for August or September.
So, for me to send people to France or to Italy, I need to know for Americans what exactly is going on, and even some of the Virtuoso properties that we thought were opening this summer are now not opening. And, so, the clients that are booked there in the summer, that could actually get there, now there’s nowhere to send them.
I just heard yesterday, one of them decided they’re not going to open for the summer. So, all of this is very concerning to me; so to see it myself and like Evelyne, and I’m sure all of you, we have direct contact almost on a daily basis with the suppliers in Italy. I speak to them almost every day and it’s been very, very difficult on the Italian supplier side, I have to say.
It’s difficult emotionally, financially. Most are family-run businesses, the families are literally having to pay the staff out of all their money, because the government is not reimbursing or paying people yet. So it’s been a very trying experience and I understand why some of them can’t open now.
I think in one way or another, I’ll try to keep everybody informed on our Facebook page and let you know what I see firsthand. But my first two weeks of supposedly quarantine will be in Lake Como. That’s not a bad place to quarantine, but I do have to do the quarantine for 14 days.
Evelyne Gaudin: I think people are worried — not about traveling, they’re worried of being stuck once over there.
Robyn Knable-Potter: I have clients going to Greece at the end of July. In Greece, they are not going to have to be quarantined. They are flying into Athens on Emirates out of Newark. They’re going to be in Athens and then they’re going to Mykonos and then Santorini and Crete, and there are no restrictions at any of those places.
My clients are fine with it, they want to go, they don’t care if they get stuck there. But that was on my mind. And that was the first thing I said to them when they called me and they said, “We’re going forward with this trip. We definitely want to do it. We don’t care.”
I said the only thing I worry about is, what if you do get quarantined? And what if you can’t come back here? And they’re like, “So we’ll be in Greece, we’ll eat well!”
Evelyne Gaudin: Some people can do that, some people cannot. Take Hawaii. My best friend lives over there. They have one of the strictest quarantine policies anywhere. So, we cannot take the responsibility.
Robyn Knable-Potter: As Jolie said, let them have some of the responsibility, but it’s difficult for those clients, especially because many of them are multigenerational who have been working with me forever. They want to know what I think, before they even make a decision. And if I were to say to them, I’m leaving it up to you, then they wouldn’t go anywhere. Because they would think that I’m saying it’s not the right time to go.
Every single client that has canceled, I thank them and I tell them until the time is right. That’s my byline right now on my emails or just to make them feel like I’m ready for them when the time is right.
Ruthanne Terrero: How about Mexico and Caribbean? We’re seeing it in the groups and, of course, getting the press releases and in the news, some things are opening up. Of course, Caribbean, island by island, but they seem to be getting ready to welcome visitors again.
Jeffrey Traugot, Traugot Travel
Jeffrey Traugot: With our clients, you can’t predict who’s what. Turks and Caicos just opened up and I have a client who’s a doctor, he’s in his 80s. And he and his wife are getting on a plane to go to Turks and Caicos on July 26. Other people who would be low-risk might not go. Everyone’s different, and like Jolie said before, it’s your job to give what you think are facts. The clients have to make their own decisions. There’s definitely the demand from some clients and definitely not the demand for some other clients.
It’s important that you feel comfortable that the place that your clients are going to is going to be as safe as whatever safe means, what is humanly possible. You vetted it on your end, maybe that you would go or that you would trust your friends or your grandparents to go there.
Camille Holubar: I want to add something for all of you that have active doctors as clients or nurses in the healthcare system. I have a daughter who’s a frontline anesthesiologist here in Atlanta, and she was supposed to come to Europe for an entire month in July with her husband and children.
She cannot come because her practice, if you fly anywhere, you cannot come back to work. You have to be quarantined for two weeks, and then you may be furloughed for another two weeks. The hospitals have rules in place if you go to any [other country], especially the countries that were high risk for COVID-19.
I had river cruise clients that were leaving in August and they called me, because the husband is a doctor in Memphis and his practice told him that if he goes on this river cruise, he will not be allowed to come back to work for a month, because he is a pulmonologist. So he will be around those type of people.
A lot of them don’t know, they don’t realize. So maybe something you may want to just have. Every single client right now of ours, we have them sign a waiver saying they have contacted their employer and that they know that they are going, even if it’s to Florida or something. Because when they come back, they could be quarantined, if they find out or if they tell them.
Ruthanne Terrero: Do each of you want to give a comment about the future of the travel advisor business?
Camille Holubar: I think the travel industry right now is going through hard times, but it’s going to come back stronger. I think people are going to make better choices and are going to be more informed as to where they’re going and the destination. And it’s up to us, for us to stay informed also, so that our clients can have a great vacation and great memories like they had in the past.
Next year, 2021 is going to be extremely busy, like 2019.
Camille Holubar, Vista Travel Consultants
Evelyne Gaudin: I think patience is the name of the game and creativity. We’re going to have to think outside of the box for now. 2021, I don’t even look at it, because it’s so far away. I’m looking at now.
I’m also looking at revising how I deal with my clients, as far as consultation fee, planning fee, cancellation fee, which I didn’t have. And I did that with two clients that I know well, and they actually paid me a cancellation fee. I didn’t ask them ahead of time.
I’ve been on a lot of conversations like this. And I think cancellation fee, companies do that. We know how many companies have not given refunds. So why should we? We fought for the client, and then we didn’t get anything. We spent hours trying to get something, or in some cases, I got a refund, they were not supposed to get but then I didn’t get a penny. So I’ve asked them for cancellation fees.
I think we have to revise so much of new stuff that we’ve never seen. September 11 is nothing compared to what we’re dealing right now, as far as the business I’m talking.
So patience and creativity.
Jolie Goldring: For me, it’s all about trust. I have these five buzzwords that really sum up my approach, my strategy and what we’re all going through right now: Relatability, transparency, flexibility, creativity and engagement.
Sometimes just by checking on a client, seeing how they’re doing, I’ve had more people. I’ve texted or emailed people out of the blue, “How are you doing? What’s on your plate these days?” And they respond, “Any ideas
So, just engaging with your clients, whether it’s on social media, like a bunch of you said, you had some cool campaigns going on. So, I’ve tried to really use my platforms, Instagram, to post exciting things about hotels that are opening. I always make a comment, like, “Ask me about how we can get the hotel to work with you.”
Another is being able to work with the hotels to have more flexible policies. Obviously, they’re already doing that. And that’s a huge plus. So, it’s letting our clients know that we do have these partners, we’re in this together. We will be as transparent as possible about deposits, cancellations, all of that, which in the past has been a harder line in my experience, what’s gone on in the last few months, the transparency wasn’t there, per se.
So that’s what I’m dealing with, relatability, transparency, flexibility, creativity and engagement.
Robyn Knable-Potter: I look at the future and I think that it’s going to be more one-on-one, more private one-on-ones, especially for our clients going to Europe, where they’re not going to want to do groups or they’re not going to want to be doing tours with other people. I think that they’ll get more of an intimate experience.
For the early travelers, for those who do feel comfortable going, they’re going to be able to see things differently. I was in Europe a year ago and it was swarming. It felt almost like you couldn’t breathe sometimes. For the early travelers to be able to experience it in a different way will be a unique way to travel. I think that that’s something we need to let clients know.
Travel will come back very strong. I have a practice in the morning where I pick four clients a day. I reach out and I just say, “How are you doing?” I make it very light. I don’t bring up travel. I say, “I’m just checking on you, I was just thinking about you, because last year you were here or you should have been here now.”
What I’m hearing now is, “I can’t wait to get away.” That’s the tone of anybody who has travel in their blood, who is a luxury client. They want to go, they’re just waiting.
I think people appreciate travel much — much more than they even realized.
Robyn Knable-Potter, Robyn Potter Travel
Becky Lukovic: We really need to own our expertise and we really need to embrace it and be fearless with looking at our business models. Do we want cancellation fees? Should we increase our planning fee? Do we want to have a travel subscription or a retainer, either as an option or the way we do business?
We need to own the fact that we were travel warriors for our clients and they know it. And their friends and even our friends, who may or may not do business with us, see that they may have done a Bookit.com or something and they’ve lost their money and then they see how hard we are working for our clients.
We need to own that experience and own that tenacity and creativity that we bring to the table.
Jeffrey Traugot: I think there’s relationship, there’s knowledge and there’s trust. When the travel advisor has the relationships with the hoteliers, DMCs, the hotel management companies and the tourism boards, then we can pass our knowledge along to our clients. Clients already have our trust. I think that’s really the only way to go.
Camille Holubar: It’s all about the human connection.
Robyn Knable-Potter: We need a campaign that says we are professionals. We’re no longer just travel agents. Anybody can be a travel agent. We are professionals. As a professional, we should have the respect of our clients and we should be able to charge a fee, because I was on a Zoom call with a doctor and I got a bill for, I don’t know how much money, just to talk to him about something that was not right. I got that bill right away.
Camille Holubar: I think we have earned a lot of respect in the last few months, and that a lot of the self-booking people have spoken to people that have travel advisors, that they’ve gotten their refunds, they’ve gotten their money back. They’ve had their tickets refunded, where they as a self-booker have not. [In my opinion] we’ve earned a lot more respect in the industry.
Evelyne Gaudin: I think we’re going to gain clients, even some of my friends booked direct and have said to me next time I’ll think about booking with you. We need to take an ad and to inform those who do not know [about travel advisors].