The Power of the Advisor

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When Samsung Electronics recently released its new smartphone, the company’s CEO said the device, which costs a sweet $2,000, “answers skeptics who said that everything that could be done has been done. We are here to prove them wrong.” The Galaxy Fold smartphone looks typical, but it actually opens like a book to a display that’s tablet size. And naturally, it runs on the super-fast, next-generation 5G mobile networks.

This quest to consistently produce something entirely new in the very competitive telecom world (hello, Apple!) falls in line with a conversation I just had with Deepak Ohri, CEO of Lebua Hotels. Only we were speaking about the affluent consumer, not smartphones.

“What is going to happen is that the standards for luxury travel are going to get higher,” said Ohri. “It’s going to become even more bespoke, and the best will survive.” Aside from his range of five-star hotels, Ohri is known for creating “firsts.” He opened the first rooftop bar in Bangkok and the highest whisky bar in the world (think Chivas) and the world’s highest Champagne bar (Perrier-Jouet). His Dome at Lebua in Bangkok is going to be the world’s first vertical destination, he said, rising in to the sky with bars, nightclubs and restaurants. 

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Ruthanne with friend
Albert Herrera, senior vice president of
Virtuoso, with Ruthanne Terrero

Ohri says that at Lebua, they consider themselves to be like travel advisors in that they understand what the affluent customer wants and needs. “These are the people who understand food, who understand wines,” says Ohri. “Advisors are people who understand experiences. The need for personalization is never going to go away and luxury will never go away.” For that reason, he says, there will always be a need for luxury travel advisors.

Michael Johnson, the new executive vice president of Travel Edge Leisure, just joined the travel network after a 20-year career in retail, primarily focused on driving customer experience. In his last role, he was the senior vice president of store operations and customer experience for Saks Fifth Avenue, Hudson’s Bay, and Lord & Taylor. He says his new job is all about “unlocking the value of the advisor,” in part, by giving them the right tools. 

“So, in retail, we call them the sales associate. In travel, it’s the travel advisor, but ultimately, it’s someone that really understands how to drive a memorable client experience,” says Johnson. “Retail and travel are very different, but the opportunity and the power of the [sales associate’s] and the advisor’s experience is very consistent.”

One pitfall that retailers get hung up on, he says, is the “Amazon affect,” i.e. pushing content to the consumer by way of an algorithm that has no human element to it.

“In travel, there’s a lot of concern around what does digital mean?” says Johnson. “My experience has been that the advisor offers something that the digital experience cannot, which is empathy. It’s really about connecting with that client to understand what’s driving their interests.”

Once the advisor determines what that ultimate experience looks like, they can customize a trip based on their knowledge of the client, as well as their knowledge of the destination and of the premium providers they work with, says Johnson. “It’s not an algorithm that spits out something that may or may not be relevant. It is custom, and absolutely relevant to the client.”

Empathy is also what separates the travel advisor from the travel professional who is only seeking to complete the transaction.

In our cover feature for this issue, Kathleen Stahl speaks of the difference between the two. Case in point: She had a client who announced he was planning to rent a car late one evening upon landing in Sydney, Australia and driving nearly two hours to his resort. Stahl wasn’t having any of it, and painted the picture for the client of what it would be like to land after an extremely long flight, go through customs, get his luggage, go to the car rental place, get in a vehicle that had the steering wheel on the right and traverse the densely wooded hills in the dark to get to a strange place. She, instead, strongly advised him to take a room at the airport hotel and begin again in the morning.

Stahl says that that type of input is what makes a travel advisor a travel advisor. “A travel facilitator is one who simply says, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what we’ll book.’ The client could be doing all of that on their own,” says Stahl.

Bucket List Déclassé?

By the way, have you noticed lately that the term “bucket list” is becoming less popular? That’s because it indicates a roster of things people should do before they die. Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, prefers the term “wanderlist,” which relates to what people want to do while they’re alive. 

In fact, Wanderlist is the name of Virtuoso’s newest program, which helps travel advisors consult with their client to develop a long-term travel roadmap for them. It pulls in the destinations they would like to visit and the experiences they would like to have. “A lot of the really great travel advisors are never just booking one trip at a time,” said Upchurch. “They’re always planting seeds.”

Similarly, Ann Epting, senior vice president of product development at Abercrombie & Kent, isn’t necessarily hearing about “bucket lists” these days. “There’s this thirst not just ticking things off a list, but for really having close, authentic, interactive experiences with people,” says Epting. She says at A&K, their clientele is skewing younger than in the past because people with disposable income are retiring earlier. They’re looking for more “active activities” on their travel programs, but then again, so are older clients, says Epting. For that reason, A&K always has hiking, biking and rafting as options to choose from and will continue to add in product because the consumer is still evolving.

Epting had a “wow” moment, on a recent A&K journey, when clients across all age brackets lined up to take part in an optional zip-lining experience. “Nobody was more surprised than me,” she says.

How Low Can You Go?

Keep in mind, as the luxury customer continues to raise the bar on what they demand from their travel experiences, there are those who will stoop to the lowest levels possible. I read recently of an advisor whose “client” ended up booking her trip directly, using all of the intel the advisor had provided. 

The advisor only found out about it because the would-be client emailed her when she was on the actual trip, asking if she, as a favor, could still get the Virtuoso amenities the advisor had mentioned to her during the planning process, namely, the free daily breakfasts and a room category upgrade at her hotel.

You cannot make this stuff up.

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