Luxury Travel Advisor Roundtable: Plotting 2023 and Beyond

Luxury Travel Advisor recently invited travel advisor executives in the New York area to a roundtable discussion on what their business looks like now. Following a summer of intense booking activity and facing a rosy landscape that shows the luxury traveler spending freely, traveling further and staying longer in high-end destinations, advisors shared their perspectives on the new world we travel in.

Joining us were Jack Bloch, owner, JB’s World Travel Consultants; Joshua Bush, CEO, Avenue Two Travel; Grace Cammann, director of travel & lifestyle at Roman & Erica, Inc.; Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, president, Fischer Travel Enterprises; Michael Holtz, owner, SmartFlyer; Ignacio Maza, executive vice president, Signature Travel Network; Mark Rothman, CEO, Magma Global; Jeffrey Traugot, owner, Traugot Travel and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president, Valerie Wilson Travel.

Following is a condensed version of the lively discussion, which was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/Editorial Director for Luxury Travel Advisor.

Ruthanne Terrero: Please share what you’re seeing in terms of client behavior, as well as any other luxury travel trends.

Grace Cammann, Roman & Erica, Inc.: I’m seeing wellness as a strong trend. In the past, people may have gone to wellness retreats where they were allowed to drink, and that kind of thing, but now we’re seeing people being really hardcore about wellness; they’re really taking it seriously post-pandemic. They want to better their lives.

Many clients also want to travel with larger, multi-gen groups. I think that the pandemic really helped us realize who’s important in our lives, and with that, people want to travel with all of their important people, all of their loved ones, all of their family, and so they’re seeking more privacy. I see more bookings with private islands, with yachts and with villas.

Grace Cammann
Grace Cammann (Luxury Travel Advisor)

Michael Holtz, SmartFlyer: We’re seeing that people are traveling everywhere and anywhere. The “work from anywhere” has been a blessing for all of us because people can unshackle themselves from their offices. Before COVID, if someone said that they wanted to go work out of their in-laws’ place in Jackson Hole all through the summer, their boss would probably say, “Just leave your resignation note on my desk on the way out.” Now they say, “Are you okay getting up at 5:00 a.m.? Will you have good Wi-Fi?” If you say “Yes,” the answer is “Go for it.”

People are taking the whole family, they’re taking friends. They’ll go anywhere. The demand? We’ve never seen figures like this, and frankly, knock on wood, I’m not too concerned about the economy, because even though the stock market has had a horrendous year, our numbers are at an all-time high. We’re in more than double 2019. In 2021, we beat 2019, and as long as the world keeps spinning, I think all of us here are going to be in a great spot.

Jack Bloch, JB’s World Travel Consultants: Well, they have reserves from the two years of the pandemic and the stock market. It’s basically stockpiled money, so they can say, “What are we going to do with this? We’re not going to live forever.”

Joshua Bush, Avenue Two Travel: That’s the point, it’s the mindset. I totally agree with Michael in that now they’re looking at hotel stays or traveling as an extension of what their home life would have been, because you can now work from anywhere. People are not afraid to pay much higher ADRs because they’re looking at it as what they would’ve paid for their mortgage or their normal rent. It’s just a new facet of the way that they like to live; it’s a semi-nomadic lifestyle.

Jack Bloch: We rented a villa in Italy in the summer, and my daughters worked on different time zones because they had one week off but not the whole month. Their hours were 4 p.m. to midnight, but they still had the whole day — so exactly to [Michael's] point, you could work from the villa. It’s acceptable.

Michael Holtz: I also want to add that the larger agencies who have serviced their independent contractors the best and who never really shut down during COVID are now reaping the rewards. At the end of the day, my real clients are these advisors.

Ruthanne Terrero: Stacy, from your perspective, what have you seen?

Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, Fischer Travel Enterprises: During COVID we got really close to the client. The lifestyle portion of our business excelled and paid the bills, which was really helpful. Yes, people were traveling, obviously not as much. Everything was private travel. We’ve hired 12 people over the course of a year. We have no independent contractors; they’re all Fischer employees.

We have a wait list of 17 very high-end clients waiting to get in. We’ve increased our initiation fee from $100,000 to $150,000. People are still saying they want in because people want service. They want to be taken care of and they’re not feeling that they’re getting it from the people that they’re currently working with.

We all know how difficult it is. It’s difficult to get answers, difficult to get guides and difficult to get great drivers, so we really leveraged our relationships with our vendors, as well during the pandemic by touching base, really getting close to those special people who are an extension of who we are.

We also raised our yearly annual renewals.We were thinking that we would have people leave, which would open up room for new clients but we’re at a 99 percent retention rate. We’re really feeling encouraged.

As Michael said, this is not going anywhere. There’s a huge pent-up demand for travel and we’re just grateful. I had a big birthday this summer, so I’m taking seven girlfriends away to the B.V.I. So again, it’s being together with the people that you love and that you’ve missed. I didn’t want a party. I said, “I want to travel.” So, we’re fostering that with our clients, whether it’s a special birthday or not. Just celebrate life.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Valerie Wilson Travel: High-end leisure travel, hands down, is so robust. We’ve definitely seen a little bit of “A Tale of Two Cities” in the leisure space. The luxury client is traveling and will continue to travel. Nothing’s going to change on that front. We’ve definitely started to see that mid-market traveler, the aspirational traveler, being a bit more hesitant. That’s not our sweet spot, but I know that there’s conversation out there which has actually made us really look at who our preferred partners are. That premium market is not nearly as strong as the private islands, the private jets, the large suites. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. There’s more of a spread, especially when you look at your audience of travel advisors in the marketplace. Not everybody plays in that high-net-worth sandbox.

We’ve also seen small groups really take off with celebration travel but also corporate travel. People want to reconnect with their team members. They’ve bought businesses over COVID but they’ve never met the people that they bought it from or who they sold it to. We’re seeing small, very high-end executive travel coming in. Corporate travel is still on the slower side, it hasn’t fully come back to the same levels that we were seeing before, but that goes back to everything that we’ve just talked about. People are working remotely. You don’t need to be that road warrior traveler as much anymore. People are being more selective as to why they’re taking a business trip.

COVID showed the value of the travel advisor in a way that we’ve been trying to educate our consumers for years. COVID really showed the value of why you would trust an advisor with one of your most valuable assets, which is travel. 

Ruthanne Terrero: In our most recent audience survey 75 percent of the luxury travel advisors responding said they’re getting more business from people who have never used a travel advisor in the past, which is great. The new business, as you say is coming in. The old business isn’t moving out, so it’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty: It’s a great recruiting tool for finding talent. I know one of the issues is that there aren’t enough people to hire, but it’s now a great industry to now promote people to get into travel. 

Joshua Bush: We’ve seen that 33 percent of our trips this year are new-to-travel-advisor clients. Some of that has to do with new-to-the-industry advisors that we’ve brought on and their sphere of influence. To add to what Kim’s saying, a windfall that has come out of COVID is that people want that service, they want that safety net, and they’re looking for somebody who is truly an expert in the field.

Ruthanne Terrero: And younger consumers haven’t been through the cycle of seeing travel agencies going out of business in the 90s because of airline commission caps and seeing travel agencies on “Main Street USA” close down because of the onset of online booking. They don’t have the mindset that travel agencies have been through all of that. Instead, they’re finding out that, “Oh, wow, somebody can actually book travel for me and create great itineraries for me?” They see it as something special; it’s a service they want.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty: And to your point, that younger customer is so used to paying for things. Think about all the apps they pay for on their phone, from Netflix to Hulu to their gym membership. The fees go up and they still pay them.

If you position yourself as to why you are an expert, this younger audience is truly our future customer. I love that we don’t have to convince them why they should use an advisor. They’re already on board with it.

Michael Holtz: I would take it one step further. I wouldn’t say that’s our future customer, that’s actually the present customer. We now have more clients in their thirties and forties than any other age range. Before COVID, our number-one age range was in their fifties. Everything has dropped between a generation and a half of a generation.

We want to educate the public about travel advisors. Our competition is not other people, it’s not in this room. It’s either Amex Centurion or Platinum, or DIY travel. If someone has a good travel advisor, they’re set.

Jeffrey Traugot, Traugot Travel: In fact, if someone has a good travel advisor, they tell their friends. We have referrals come in constantly. I often get phone calls saying, “I’m dealing with someone and I’m not too happy with them. Can you help me out?” I constantly get referrals left and right. It’s a good problem to have, but it happens frequently.

I’ll ask, “Who referred you to me?” and they’ll say “Well, I go biking with somebody whose brother went to Amsterdam and they said that you helped him.”

Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network: I’d say that the competition is really the general public that doesn’t believe that we exist, that doesn’t believe that we can add value. It’s this mindset on the part of many consumers — and many affluent consumers — who think that they can do better until they realize that they can’t, and that there’s a whole world that they are missing out on.

But also, during the pandemic, you had a lot of people get burned with the online sites and then realize there has to be a better way, which is why a lot of people have built a path to everybody at this table.

Ruthanne Terrero: Right. Exactly. What else are you seeing in your network, Ignacio?

Ignacio Maza: I’m representing a network, not a particular agency, so I see it from a different vantage point. During the pandemic, we got closer to our members. We have 210 agency owners that we serve and our primary mission in life is making sure that they are served and supported and trained. We were also open to other agencies looking for different solutions to come to us. During the pandemic, we added over 40 agencies and thousands of advisors. We also made sure that we continued to do marketing and that we stayed in front of the customer. Even though they couldn’t go to a lot of places, they could still dream about where to go. Staying in touch with people during the pandemic was really, really important. We did a lot of virtual events which were really successful with consumers. People felt that they were on the inside track and that generated business.

We’re seeing advisors raise their service fees and we’re seeing advisors fire clients who are more trouble than they’re worth, to make room for new people that appreciate them. We are also seeing a lot of new clients; the database has grown quite a bit.

We’re also seeing new-to-industry advisors. We’re recreating a program that we had to get new-to-industry people schooled up quickly. We just relaunched that in light of all the new technology that we have so that we can make these new people as efficient and effective as soon as possible.

A few of the trends that we’re seeing include a real push for experiential expedition cruise product. Of all the cruise categories that our network sells, the fastest growing is the expedition cruise category.

I agree there are no limits to travel. If something is interesting enough or wonderful enough, people will go. I just got back from Argentina and I got into the new Explora Lodge. It opened on October 1 and they told me they were expecting to reach their peak occupancy sometime around Thanksgiving or in December, but they were already at peak occupancy when I was there. The lodge is really hard to get to, yet it’s full. It’s 10 hours to Buenos Aires plus three-and-a-half hours to Calafate plus three-and-a-half hours in the car. So, if you create something that is interesting and magical enough, people will get there.

We’re very bullish and very optimistic. 

Michael Holtz, Stacy Fischer- Rosenthal, Kimberly Wilson Wetty and Ignacio Maza
Sharing client trends: Michael Holtz, Stacy Fischer- Rosenthal, Kimberly Wilson Wetty and Ignacio Maza (Luxury Travel Advisor)

Ruthanne Terrero: Pre-pandemic a client mindset was: “If there’s a plane, I’ll go.” But now, you have an even better situation where clients have the money, they recognize the value of travel, of spending time with each other, and on top of that, they don’t have trepidation about going anywhere. 

Ignacio Maza: That also speaks to the need of the advisor to always be one step ahead of the client and to always be presenting them with new experiences and destinations to keep them engaged. Yes, you can go to Italy in the winter. Sicily is probably a fantastic place to go in the wintertime. People think that the weather’s going to be horrible; not at all. You won’t have the crowds and you’ll be in great destination. 

Mark Rothman, Magma Global: We’re seeing that clients are more demanding. I know someone said before, “People don’t care about the ADR being higher.” I’d say that’s the biggest double-edged sword that we’re dealing with right now, because during the pandemic, people were getting rooms for, let’s call it 70 cents on the dollar. In New York, they’re now selling rooms for $1,500 when it was $400 during the pandemic. So I think there’s a little bit shell shock, but at the same time, there’s also inflation.

I was with a hotel company yesterday. They admitted they’re selling rooms 30 percent higher than they were in 2019. The bottom line is if you’re going to sell rooms for 30 percent higher, the expectation is for service to go up. But the biggest challenge right now is they can’t get housekeeping people, they can’t get salespeople, they can’t get on-duty managers, they can’t get front desk people.

Ignacio Maza: How you manage that gap between the price and the expectation and what actually is delivered on the ground is one of the biggest problems that we have right now, because the rates, I agree with you, have never been higher, and yet sometimes you get to the hotel and you’re told: “Oh, this restaurant’s closed,” or “The gym’s not open,” “This is not available.” Or, check in used to be 2 p.m., then 3 p.m., then 4 p.m., and checkout used to be at 1 p.m., then noon, now sometimes it’s 11 a.m.

The consumer is getting squeezed as a lot of hotel companies try to make up for lost time. People have to really pay attention to what they’re charging and what they’re offering because eventually they’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Those who can deliver service and value are going to win.

Mark Rothman: The problem is, though, a hotel gets hit with COVID and that wipes out the cleaning staff. That’s why we’re not out of this pandemic yet.

Ignacio Maza: But there are brands that are doing a great job. I was at the Fairmont in the Canadian Rockies right after Canada opened. They capped the occupancy at 50 percent. They were turning business away because they didn’t want to damage their brand. I have tremendous respect for that. 

Michael Holtz: We did a SmartFlyer trip during COVID. The director of sales of the hotel said, “Michael, we have a problem. All of our housekeepers called in sick.” I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” I went to breakfast and said, “How many of you guys have full-time housekeepers at home?” No one answered. So I said, “Okay, great. There’s no housekeeping today. It’ll start up tomorrow.” They understood! People understand.

Joshua Bush: It goes back to the narrative of the value of the travel advisor. When there are these service issues, it’s our obligation to inform the client of what that is. But what we’re doing is exactly what Michael did. It’s setting expectations and it’s saying that travel today is very different than it was in 2019. You can’t just roll in and have breakfast at 8 a.m. You might need a reservation for breakfast these days, and you want to be setting spa appointments months in advance because while they have 10 treatment rooms, they might only be operating five of them because they have fewer therapists.

It’s our job to work with those partners to see where they are with their service levels. That way we’re setting the expectation with the client so that they don’t have a bad experience. The constant that hasn’t changed is that it’s our job to understand the feeling clients want to have when they arrive and then how we can make that happen for them.

Jeffrey Traugot: Setting expectations is so important. Sometimes clients mention TripAdvisor to me, and I’ll say, “How many times do you go on there and write a positive review about something?” In my experience, people post on TripAdvisor when they go to a place and the bathrobe has a big hole in the armpit or their breakfast comes and there are flies surfing around the eggs. When everything is wrong, that’s something you can write about. People don’t write, “When I arrived, there were rose petals in the room and everything was lovely.” 

Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: Also, things happen every day. When we address it we then go into recovery mode. People who don’t use travel advisors don’t have that recovery.

Jeffrey Traugot: The beauty about us is that when things do happen, we usually have the relationships to correct them.

Jack Bloch: We do 50/50 leisure and business. We thought Zoom would take over business travel. But since March of this year when the flood gates opened, I’ve seen people flying to Paris, Tokyo, everywhere internationally for just two days to have a meeting with someone. It’s amazing. Their airfares are like $20,000. They’re not that $4,000 or $5000 like they were before, and they have no qualms spending it because they didn’t spend it during the pandemic. If they get the seats, they’re happy.

Michael Holtz: The other thing that we need to realize that’s happened is that the DMCs have been hobbled. When you are a massive DMC, the scale back up is not easy. Some shrunk so much they can’t keep up.

Jack Bloch: Many DMCs got completely overwhelmed. We had to pivot to find boutique DMCs who are happy to handle the business. There are a lot of them out there that are smaller with the same connections.

Advisor roundtable
A Meeting of the Minds: Back Row: Michael Holtz and Ignacio Maza. Front Row: Jack Bloch, Jeffrey Traugot and Joshua Bush.  (Luxury Travel Advisor)

Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: Back to the wellness front, when you get the call from a client and they say: “I need something,” It’s so subjective. What do they need? Do they want to detox? Do they want hiking? Do they want to be somewhere that has alcohol? There are so many things and we have to really educate ourselves. Clients are craving for us to be more knowledgeable in this field.

Jack Bloch: Besides wellness, it’s about finding new destinations. All of Asia’s been closed, so now you have to educate clients that Bhutan and Japan are open, Indonesia and Thailand are back. And they have the best hotels because service is their thing. And they’ve been waiting for so long to handle the international traveler that they’re happy to serve them.

Joshua Bush: We’ve identified a lot of the trends. Multi-gen is the trend that never went away. We’re seeing that people are traveling longer, they’re traveling more frequently, and they’re spending more. That’s the perfect trifecta for us to be coming out of this pandemic. We’ve gone from zero to over 100 miles an hour with little in between. I think some of the frustration is being on hold for hours on time to make a final payment. While we might be making more per transaction, it’s taking longer to get a simple transaction done.

Jack Bloch: It’s now about firing clients that are not profitable. You have to look at the yield. Your time is the most valuable thing.

Joshua Bush: We have a company philosophy that if they’re a pain, no matter how well they travel, it’s not worth the aggravation. There are so many other people that are a joy to work with. Another post-pandemic question is, how do we bring the joy back to travel? How do we have that work/life balance and overall wellness? You don’t want the PTSD of working with difficult clients. We’ve helped our team focus on working with the right people to really enable them to succeed. And as a result, their numbers have increased because it’s less effort. It’s more rewarding both monetarily and mentally.

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