Adventure and Experiential Travel Roundtable: What Consumers Want

At Signature Travel Network’s Annual Conference, held at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas from December 2 – 5, 2019, Luxury Travel Advisor gathered top suppliers and travel advisors to talk about the latest in the realm of adventure and experiential travel. Participating in the event were: Mark Conroy, Silversea; Theresa Gatta, Ponant; Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent; Elfa Ragnarsdottir, Nordic Luxury; Alicia Kjeldgaard, Backroads; Helena Price, Explora Lodges; Libby Cooke, Luxury Lodges of Australia; Chris Sturgeon, Luxury Lodges of New Zealand; Debby Denham, Preferred Travel of Naples; Karimah Dossa, Hill Barrett Travel; Daniela Harrison, Avenues of the World Travel; and Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network. 

Here is a condensed version of our conversation: 

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: What are some new experiences that clients are seeking and what are you doing to meet those requests? 

Mark Conroy, Silversea: Our segment of the market is Baby Boomers and their families, and they’re staying healthier longer. They’ve been more adventurous, and they want things like expedition travel. What’s hard today is trying to serve each of them well — it’s hard to be something for everybody. But the great news is they really have this desire to continue to learn.

Elfa Ragnarsdottir, Nordic Luxury: We feel clients are always trying to disconnect and are looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences. We definitely have destinations that can get into that, like Greenland and Faroe Islands — they’re both quite unexplored and offer new things to many people. People want more adventures. In Iceland, for example, you can go inside a volcano. I believe that’s a very unique thing. We also have manmade ice tunnels there, which is very spectacular.

Daniela Harrison, Avenues of the World Travel: We’ve been seeing an increase in requests for fun toys. A lot of people have been asking, “Which new ships have submarines?” I’ve seen more of my clients getting certified for skydiving and scuba diving, so they can do a lot of these experiences more independently. We’re also seeing increases for new skill-building: People have been asking to do more cooking classes, but private, so that they get to spend more time with somebody very experienced that can teach them on their level.

Libby Cooke, Luxury Lodges of Australia: We’re seeing travelers seeking more of a positive impact, opportunities for enrichment, engagement, hands-on experiences and opportunities to educate the children, whether it’s via conservation, or culture or community.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: With regard to the expedition cruising market, we’re adding inspirational experts to add to the wellness or active components that new cruisers are looking for. They don’t consider themselves cruisers, but they’re now interested in expedition cruising. For example, Alex Pancoe, a pediatric brain cancer survivor, has completed the Explorers Grand Slam. He will be leading people on expeditions. So, it’s not just the experiences, it’s actually the experience with an expert, who’s inspirational.

Chris Sturgeon, Luxury Lodges of New Zealand: New Zealand has been world-renowned for action and adventure and our scenery for many years. We’re seeing an explosion in popularity in indigenous interaction and cultural understanding. The Maori culture in New Zealand is pretty well-known around the world, and it’s not difficult to actually get involved with the local community.

Debby Denham, Preferred Travel of Naples: Being located in an area of the country where we have a high quota of senior citizens and Baby Boomers, their kids aren’t necessarily looking for the traditional cruise experience. However, their parents have gotten used to the luxury side of cruising, so when it comes time for all of them to get together, those families start leaning more towards not just luxury cruising but expedition cruising. Seeing all these new ships coming out is just going to make the whole segment boom.

Theresa Gatta, Ponant: What’s hot right now for us are the Black Sea, Southeast Georgia, Bulgaria and the Ukraine. We’re also adding components to existing cruising. For example, we have a new ship coming out in ’21, Le Commandant Charcot, which is an extreme polar exploration yacht; in addition to the ship being able to reach further south in Antarctica or further north in the Arctic, we’ll have opportunities onboard where we will have a tethered hot-air balloon, we’ll have snowmobiling, we’ll have all kinds of different activities. It’s satisfying a request for something different.

Helena Price, Explora Lodges: With Explora, we look for ways to make enhancements by going off the beaten path. One way is the adventure at the dinner table. For example, in the Sacred Valley of Peru, we created a partnership with one of the world’s top chefs — he is the owner of Central Restaurante in Lima, which is considered one of the top-ranked restaurants worldwide. He’s now designing dishes, which are exclusive to Explora. So, the adventure is in the outdoors and then it’s also on the dinner plate. Regarding family travel, they really want to maximize that time for bonding. They don’t want to separate but the choice to separate is there if they wish.

Karimah Dossa, Hill Barrett Travel: We’re seeing that our clients are reshaping the expectation of luxury to quite an extent. They’re interested and willing to let go of a lot of those standard requirements in the interest of a reshaped experience, with two caveats. The first one is, the ultra-lux client has an expectation of safety, so there’s a ton of work that we have to do behind the scenes to make sure it still looks and feels authentic, but we also have to guarantee the clients are safe on their, say, walk through the Amazonian jungle. The second is that you have to set the right expectations. We really have to know the product, so if we’re going to have somebody going to Mumbai, we say to them, “You can have an unusual experience, you’re going to go to the fish market before dawn, and you’re going to get jostled around, and it’s going to be an incredible experience.” That might not be something that you would associate with a luxury experience — but it’s an adventure; it’s an urban adventure. 

Alicia Kjeldgaard, Backroads: I think people are really looking for that unique experience; they don’t want to go where everybody goes — they want to come home with a story that’s unique to their group. We’re seeing a huge growth in the multigenerational and family-type trips. To cater to this market, we have four different categories for families — we just added 20s and beyond. We also, this year, added trips to northern Portugal, Jordan and Israel, and Lapland, to name a few.

Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network: The only other trend that I have is that we’re seeing the willingness of consumers to travel very long distances for a short amount of time. If it’s interesting enough, people will be on a plane for 18, 20, 22 hours, experience it, and then come home. But whatever happens in the destination has to be extraordinary.

Karimah Dossa, who said clients are reshaping the expectation of luxury to quite an extent, makes a point. 

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: Are there services or amenities that luxury travelers are not willing to give up?

Mark Conroy, Silversea: Wi-Fi. And guests expect it to be just like it is in a hotel or better — no matter where you are. You can be in the North Pole, South Pole, middle of the jungle, and they expect the Wi-Fi to work. It used to be, if you were going on an expedition to the Arctic or Antarctic, the Amazon or even Cambodia, you had to really compromise your lifestyle. Today, the table stakes have gone up, so they really want a genuine expedition, but they also want those comforts that they’re used to having. They don’t want to compromise their lifestyle when they’re on vacation.

Theresa Gatta, Ponant: Definitely Wi-Fi. But also, it’s small comforts. When you come off of an expedition and back onto the ship, it’s about that glass of hot tea with maybe liquor added to it, or having a violin playing — that’s something that guests don’t want to give up. They want to come off of a rugged expedition, but also be welcomed warmly with these beautiful experiences on board.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: Personalization, even in a group. If you can imagine the logistics of three choices on a Design-Your-Day for a group of up to 18 travelers. Obviously, we’ve done Tailor Made trips for years, but making that happen in the group setting is catering to that desire for personalization.

Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network: I would add that they are not willing to compromise on their diet, whether you’re a vegetarian or gluten-free, which is very challenging. If you’re in the middle of nowhere in Botswana, it’s not like you can walk down the street to Safeway to find a gluten-free bread, but people expect that wherever they go.

Chris Sturgeon, Luxury Lodges of New Zealand: I almost have a little bit of an issue with what services a luxury traveler can or can’t have because, in my mind, it actually removes some of that genuine rawness and realness of what travel has been about. There is something exciting about not being unsafe, but just pushing the boundaries a little bit. People might grunt that the air conditioning or Wi-Fi is not working perfectly, and I know these are things people aren’t prepared to lose, but it does disappoint me sometimes. It’s like, this is not what the real experience is all about.

Libby Cooke, Luxury Lodges of Australia: I think they demand a consistency in the services and the product but taking into account for the cultural nuances. In our destinations, it’s very relaxed, it’s a first-name basis, and yet the service has to be on point and the product has to be exceptional.

In-Depth Analysis: From left, Marett Taylor, Libby Cooke, Daniela Harrison, Elfa Ragnarsdottir and Mark Conroy  discuss in detail some of the top trends of adventure travelers. Among them: Wanting to travel with experts; ways to teach children about conservation; seeking more certifications; looking to disconnect and explore further off the beaten path; and desire to continue to learn.

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: It’s all about managing expectations, is it not?

Karimah Dossa, Hill Barrett Travel: I think it’s entirely our responsibility to set the right expectations, and you can take the wealthiest client and put them in really unusual places and as long as you’ve told them what to expect, they’ll enjoy it. You might call them three days before they go on safari and say, “It’s raining really heavily where you’re going, so your kids might have to jump out of the vehicle and push it through the mud.” My clients sent me pictures with mud covered all over them. It’s just telling them that in advance, “Here are some of the things that are going to happen, be ready for it, enjoy it and just go with the flow.” That’s where the adventure comes in.

Alicia Kjeldgaard, Backroads: I think there’s a balance. I find that people like to get out of their comfort zone, but when you have them get out of their comfort zone during the day — whether it’s a crazy hike or there’s cliffs on the other side of the road — they want to have that moment where they go back to their room and they can relax. But a lot of the times, they surprise themselves when they’re a little nervous or scared, and they do it, and then they are so proud of themselves at the end. I think that’s actually the allure of doing this type of experiential travel.

Alicia Kjeldgaard, Karimah Dossa and Helena Price share a smile during the discussions, which saw both Kjeldgaard and Dossa noting that travelers are seeking unique experiences but a lot goes into making them feel comfortable abroad.

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: What are some more niche trends that travelers are seeking?

Helena Price, Explora Lodges: With Peru, obviously there’s great cultural interest and history. It’s important to infuse that. Even if we have athletes coming to the lodge, we still want to share with them what there is to experience but, equally, it’s important to offer a balance to someone who is interested in culture and maybe afraid of that extra walk. I think it starts with sensitivity and the staff getting to know the individual traveler. It’s being good listeners, it’s training the staff to welcome people at the hotel and say, “How are you feeling today?” Especially when you see someone come in with brand-new hiking shoes.

Theresa Gatta, Ponant: It’s also making adventure accessible for all. For example, if somebody has a disability, you have to make sure they understand that it’s easy to get on and off of a Zodiac. If they don’t want to spend a long period of time doing a short excursion, I’ll use Antarctica for example; they can go and touch the continent, they can hold up their No. 7 that they’ve reached that continent, but they can easily get right back to the ship within a few minutes. So, we have to make adventure available not just for the extremely active but creating different levels of activity so that everybody can enjoy it.

Karimah Dossa, Hill Barrett Travel: One trend that we’re seeing is that the parents are really trying to work their kids’ interests into their trips. If they’re interested in science, they might take them to certain specific projects around the world, or if they’re into running, they might go into the Kenyan highlands and run with a marathon runner there. 

Theresa Gatta, Ponant: One more thing, and that’s creating an additional element to the experience. For example, with our Quintessential Collection, we’ve taken a theme and we’ve brought in a guest speaker that will actually be mixing with the guests throughout the whole cruise and also hosting lectures. It’s having the hands-on experiences, but it takes it to another level.

Theresa Gatta says it’s crucial to make adventure accessible for everyone.

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: What are some new destinations that either your clients are asking for, or that you’re adding to your itineraries?

Daniela Harrison, Avenues of the World Travel: We’ve been seeing a lot of Mongolia. I think it’s part of the improvements that the suppliers are doing. The roads are really bad, you sleep in the huts and on straw mattresses, the food is very limited in diet, so having more luxury suppliers that are coming in and servicing the destination to help make it more accessible has been huge.

Mark Conroy, Silversea: Russian Far East is another amazing place, because it’s just so different than the European part of the country. There are still native tribes there that might not have even seen a ship before. 

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: We have a new journey to South Korea and Japan, which I think is an interesting one. Egypt is off the charts. Namibia is strong; Zimbabwe is coming back. I think Ethiopia is going to be one of the very hot, new Africa destinations. 

Elfa Ragnarsdottir, Nordic Luxury: We’re seeing a lot of increased interest in both Faroe Islands and Greenland. A lot of travelers want to go there if they’ve already been everywhere else and want to see something new. They can go to Greenland during the summertime, go dog sledding and see the ice sheet. The Faroe Islands are very off-the-beaten path and a lot like Iceland nature-wise, but there are a lot fewer tourists, so that might increase interest. Finnish Lapland is very popular for us during the holidays. Families will visit the home of Santa Claus and they can go dog sledding, reindeer sledding and sleep in a glass igloo.

Debby Denham, Preferred Travel of Naples: One of the experiences that we have enquiries for a lot lately is the Northern Lights — and you can do that from multiple destinations.

Libby Cooke, Luxury Lodges of Australia: Both Western Australia and Tasmania — that’s kind of the new frontier. There’s a little bit of an allure; Western Australia is lesser-traveled, and there are opportunities for swimming with whale sharks and cruising in the Kimberleys.

Chris Sturgeon, Luxury Lodges of New Zealand: From a New Zealand perspective, it’s not necessarily the destinations that have changed but the timing of when people travel. Historically, New Zealand’s always been a summer destination — in the U.S., it’s winter, so they come on down to the South. But we’re finding a lot of travelers are actually escaping the heat of the U.S. and are coming during their summer. In our shoulder season, they’re coming down and they’re having an experience when the weather is absolutely beautiful and calm. 

Chris Sturgeon has noticed travelers to New Zealand are seeking indigenous interaction and cultural understanding.

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: For the suppliers, what are you doing beyond banning plastic straws, as far an environmentally friendly initiatives go? And, for the advisors, is this something your clients are really interested in?

Chris Sturgeon, Luxury Lodges of New Zealand: Without a shadow of a doubt. Sustainability has always been part of our DNA. It isn’t about straws, but it is very much about the things that you do, giving back to the community. We’re taking a lot more time and energy to actually do things that are sensible, not just for a big promotion. We have a goal of being plastic-free by 2023 and we have a green team that’s part of our business, helping the staff focus on how to do things more sustainably. That’s part of the Luxury Lodges of New Zealand’s charter — to provide sustainable experience. New Zealand is such a dynamic and such a unique environment and we want to protect that.

Libby Cooke, Luxury Lodges of Australia: At the core of the Luxury Lodges of Australia is a “Purpose for Good” and opportunities for the traveler to be a part of our conservation and sustainability initiatives. What sets us apart are our legacies — the results of our purpose for operating in these significant and special places we’re located in. Each of the lodges offer opportunities for engagement. 

Mark Conroy, Silversea: One thing we’ve done in all of our ships is reduce the amount of bottled water we use. Every one of our ships has a machine that filters and carbonates water, and chills it at the same time. We carried 87,000 passengers last year, and the consumer typically consumed three bottles of water a day, so that’s a lot of water bottles. In the Galapagos, we have no water bottles on board; when guests check in, we give them a canister, and in their suite, they have a machine that they can use to fill up their water bottles.

Karimah Dossa, Hill Barrett Travel: I think that our luxury travelers, nowadays, are no longer asking; rather it’s entirely an expectation that if they’re paying in that price level, that hotel, that lodge, that cruise ship better get it right.

Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network: It’s interesting how new hotels coming into the market are taking this to the next level. I recently stayed at the Equinox Hotel in New York and there is no single-use plastic. When you go in the shower, it has containers that are refillable; they have a commitment to eliminate the small bottles and single-use plastic, and yet the consumer doesn’t mind — the consumer’s perfectly happy; in fact, they are happier.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: It’s really important for us to be conscious about two things: Unintended consequences and recurrent cost financing. If you build a well, how’s the well going to be maintained? If you put in a school, is that going to cause a population explosion right next to the Maasai Mara reserve? You have to really think about exactly what you’re doing and where you’re doing it. 

Alicia Kjeldgaard, Backroads: I think it is really important to know the culture, too. A lot of the time, people will think, “Oh, I’m going to bring crayons for the village we’re going to,” and, so, we really make it a point to know and say, “Look, if you’re going to bring anything, this is what they’d like.” Oftentimes people think they’re doing good and it’s actually doing harm.

Theresa Gatta, Ponant: Sustainability is not just the obvious — doing the right things with fuel, single-use plastics, making sure you’re not dropping anchor in sensitive environments, using the right type of lighting on your boat so it’s not disturbing the undersea life — it is respecting the native, indigenous people that live in these destinations. We have asked them if they would like to join our guests on board, and at times, we’ve had 100 people join our small ships. Our guests really enjoy that.

Daniela Harrison, Avenues of the World Travel: The biggest thing that I hear from our travelers is paper; everybody’s worried about paper. They’re coming back from a cruise and they come with a pile of paper. A lot of hotels do that, too. It’s great to have all of our letters delivered, and clients appreciate that, but at the end of the day, if they’re there for a week and they get something every day, they come home with a notebook. So, that’s one thing we’re trying to combat right now, while still being able to deliver those unexpected little surprises.

Karimah Dossa, Hill Barrett Travel: We have the Axus Travel app. We won’t even brief the client until they download it. We do it together and they say, “Oh my god, this is so amazing,” and then they’re on board, and then that’s it. Then they show it to all their friends, and everybody gets excited about it. But more travel advisors should be doing that.

Theresa Gatta, Ponant: And that’s a challenge, because your clients are expecting this beautifully wrapped bundle of documents. It is a challenge because digital makes more sense and it’s easier for all of us, but there is an expectation there.

Mark Conroy, Silversea:  We’re actually starting a test — if they’re willing to use electronic documents, we’re giving them a shipboard credit.

Daniela Harrison, Avenues of the World Travel: You’ve just got to give them something else. Instead of paper documents, we like to give them a carry-on with gifts; if they’re going to a place where it might be raining, we give them a raincoat that they can wrap up and reuse. 

Helena Price, Explora Lodges: It’s interesting to hear this conversation, because Explora never had any documents. We have an e-mail confirmation, that’s it. We recently brought on tablets for the guest survey as they’re checking out. They can electronically tell us how they feel about their experience. We were green way before people knew what green was, so sustainability is one of our pillars.

On Sustainability: One common theme discussed was the need to be conscious travelers. Shown here, from left, are Marett Taylor, Libby Cooke, Daniela Harrison and Elfa Ragnarsdottir. 

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: Who are the clients going on these trips — are they older or younger?

Mark Conroy, Silversea: I don’t think it’s a matter of age, it’s a matter of EQ.

Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network: When you look at the people in their 70s and 80s, they’re going on these really demanding trips in Africa where you have two nights here, two nights here, one night here and they are fine; they are real go-getters. Then you have some younger customers that are not up to it, and they’re maybe in their 30s. I think it’s more about the spirit of the person.

Chris Sturgeon, Luxury Lodges of New Zealand: Age is absolutely not a barrier. I very much believe it’s about EQ and the ability for someone to be adventurous and open-minded. Even traveling from New York to Australia or New Zealand — 18 hours, 20 hours on a plane  — was never conceivable years ago. But we’re not too far away from that becoming the norm, and it gives people access to anywhere they want to go. 

Alicia Kjeldgaard, Backroads: One of the things that I think is so amazing is that we’ll look at the demographics of a group, and it’ll range anywhere from 38 to 82, and the fun thing about that is that they all learn so much from each other. I think there’s something so great to be said about how different generations all share the same experience, and they’re all bringing something to the trip — it adds to the whole experience.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: It may be a strange connection, but solo travelers are often active travelers. When we combine active elements and a solo savings of any kind, we see a huge spike in popularity.

Daniela Harrison, Avenue of the World Travel: One of the big things that needs to change on that front is we need to have more female high-end private guides, because a lot of my single women travelers will not go with a private guide because they’re worried it’s going to be a man. So, unless I can find a supplier that can guarantee the guide is going to be a woman, they will not spend that $20,000 to $25,000 on that totally customized experience.

Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network: In my own personal experience, if I’m traveling to a country that is very male dominated, very patriarchal, I will always request a female guide. The reason is that if you have a female guide, they had to work 10 times harder to get certified, because they’re like a salmon swimming upstream. If they actually become a guide in Egypt, in India, in wherever, they’re going to be much better than the men, and it has always proven to be the case.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: We just did this in Oman. We had the most amazing booking, and we trained women guides to take it. It was a major VIP, and they asked for interaction with women, and we said, “Why don’t we train women guides?” So, we trained the first group of women guides in Oman.

Debby Denham, left, sitting alongside Matt Turner, said many of her family clients are taking expedition cruises.

Matt Turner, Luxury Travel Advisor: Do you have any tips for advisors selling this sector?

Mark Conroy, Silversea: Great relationships, first of all. Keep in touch, because what happens is if a client doesn’t know you can book this for them, we’ve seen instances where guests have booked directly or through another agency. So, you have to create that relationship and provide the client with the knowledge that you can book anything for them.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: I think that the brief that you give us is the most critical thing. It’s so rare that I see a full brief, and when I do see one, I just want to kiss the advisor. They’ve given you interest, age, everything. If you don’t add any details, it’s going to be tougher for us to come up with unique ways to customize the trip. So, the more you include in that brief, the better. I’ve never, ever heard a tour consultant say to me they had too much information. I love having too much information.

Alicia Kjeldgaard, Backroads: Don’t be afraid to also tell us something that you may think is insignificant, and it’s really not. I had a travel advisor tell me that this woman that she was booking was “recently divorced, really struggling and this is the first time she’s traveling alone,” and so I’ve put it in the notes. The advisor called me back after the trip and said, “Your trip leaders were amazing with her, they really helped her with the kids.” It’s like, why would anyone care if you’re recently divorced, but it does make a difference sometimes for them to know.

Libby Cooke, Luxury Lodges of Australia: And just a reminder that so many of us have remarkable sales tools for all of you to leverage and utilize, that create the sensory experience — the little video vignettes. It just helps with creating that expectation and helping them feel the destination.

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