Luxury Travel Roundtable: Will “Authentic” Replace “Exclusive?”

The luxury traveler has changed quite a bit over the last decade-plus, but none more so than since the COVID-19 pandemic. Things that were once considered “wants” are now “needs”— and a lot is falling onto the plates of luxury travel advisors and suppliers. Signature Executive Vice President Ignacio Maza led a discussion at the travel network’s annual meeting in Las Vegas in November 2022, centered around luxury clients, their asks, and how advisors and suppliers can better work together.

Joining Maza were Victoria Batten, vice president sales, Langham Hospitality Group; Jennifer Virgilio, president, Queen of Clubs; Jodie Wert, luxury travel advisor, Plaza Travel, a Frosch Company; Carole Pertusini, product coordinator, IC Bellagio; Christine Smith, senior luxury advisor, Global Escapes; Sam McDiarmid, global sales director, Auberge Resorts Collection; Mina Agnos, president, Travelive; Katie Cadar, director of luxury leisure sales, TravelStore; Wendy Taylor, senior luxury advisor and director of luxury leisure, Preferred Travel of Naples; Marett Taylor, vice president sales, Abercrombie & Kent and Chris Coon of Luxury Travel Advisor.

Here is a condensed and edited version of the conversation:

Ignacio Maza, Signature: Have you seen the U.S. luxury traveler change since we came out of the pandemic? And if so, how?

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: We’ve seen two divergent trends. One is the travelers going deeper into single destinations. So, rather than trying to hop across three countries in Europe, they’re going deep into Germany or deep into Italy. Then, on the flip side, we’re also seeing people do longer, multi-country journeys where they’re really making up for two years of lost time. Instead of going to just Vietnam, they’re going to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand to get it all done in one trip. The average booking value has gone up something on the order of 35 percent over 2019.

Bai Dinh temple complex in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Multi-country journeys are becoming popular. Instead of going to just Vietnam, people are going to Vietnam, Laos and  Thailand in one trip. Shown here is Bai Dinh temple complex in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. (Getty Images)

Wendy Taylor, Preferred Travel of Naples: I agree that clients are also going deeper. Because they couldn’t travel, they’ve changed their mindset and now it’s an investment of their time.

Katie Cadar, TravelStore: Trips have gotten longer in general, I agree. The spend is bigger. They’re not as concerned anymore with the expense but more with the experiences that they want to create. The multi-gen, the family togetherness and the connections they want to make are important. They are doing things now that they put off, and they want it to be right and they want it to be special.

Mina Agnos, Travelive: Authenticity for us has been key. So, a lot of focus is on really getting local and getting to know how people live and work within the destinations we’re visiting. We’re seeing a lot more interest in off-the-radar destinations.

Ignacio Maza, Signature: Give us an example — for Greece, I know for a lot of travelers think of the Greek islands, Mykonos and Santorini.

Mina Agnos, Travelive: Mykonos and Santorini remain the top two islands, but we’re seeing the market shift, whereas Mykonos is getting a lot less of that market percentage than it used to have. Santorini remains bucket-list, but they aren’t staying as long. In our top 10 now we have Paros, Naxos, Milos and Zakynthos, which really came out of nowhere because of Instagram. The Peloponnese is our No. 11 destination in Greece, which prior to 2019 was something of an afterthought.

NAXOS is one of the top 10 islands that travelers are looking to visit in Greece.
Naxos is one of the top 10 islands that travelers are looking to visit in Greece. (Getty Images)

Sam McDiarmid, Auberge Resorts Collection: We’ve certainly seen a younger consumer coming to us. Our overall demographic came down quite a bit in age throughout the pandemic. We are finding that they are spending a lot more time on property. There’s a very heavy interest in experiences. We created a program during the pandemic called Itinerary Designer that goes to the consumer before they arrive to the hotel to book all the different things to do on property. There’s this real desire to do more and find creative things.

We also have an Experience Curator; their job is to go and learn everything that the destination has to offer — all the best restaurants, who’s the best supplier we can work with? They try everything to bring that to us. We’ve seen a real interest in getting all of that booked ahead of time. The amount of interest leading up to a trip and the amount of pre-arrival planning has been quite interesting for us.

Christine Smith, Global Escapes: I’m seeing a lot of emphasis on planning ahead of time for unique experiences. Like Sam, I’m seeing a trend toward a younger demographic. The people who have already retired or on the cusp of it certainly aren’t traveling as they always have, at least not in our area. But we’re seeing a younger demographic of people who are not waiting for retirement. They are prioritizing these experiences while they’re young enough to enjoy them. They’re also traveling further away and traveling with their children while they’re young, that sort of thing.

Village of Trevi in Umbria, Italy. The travel industry is seeing a lot more interest in  off-the-radar destinations like Umbria.
Village of Trevi in Umbria, Italy. The travel industry is seeing a lot more interest inoff-the-radar destinations like Umbria. (Getty Images)

Carole Pertusini, IC Bellagio: We now have more friends and family gatherings; they want to spend some quality time together. Sometimes they do prefer to rent a private villa instead of booking different hotel rooms. Maybe they’ll do fewer tours but focus more on the activities they can do as a family or as a group of friends, as they spent a lot of time apart during COVID.

As Mina already mentioned, lesser-known destinations are being very much requested. I’m talking about Umbria, for example. A lot of clients used to stop in Orvieto during a transfer from Rome to Florence. They now want to stop in Umbria to explore the region, perhaps do a hike or bike and combine that with wine or with cooking classes.

It’s no longer all about private access and exclusive tours; it’s more about getting in touch with the local people and our local festivals, perhaps just sit with one of our guides in front of a café and see our culture compared to theirs.

Jodie Wert, Plaza Travel: With my clientele, I have two extremes. I can relate to the younger clients who are spending money and traveling now. But I also have quite a few much older clients who didn’t really travel, who have waited. The pandemic has caused them to say, “What am I waiting for? I’ll only live once.”

They’re going on multi-gen trips where they want to take everybody and they want to stay at one resort, or one villa, and do day trips — really immerse themselves in the culture and have authentic experiences. It’s not necessarily exclusive or private; it’s more, “We want really authentic. We want to come back from Italy with a true taste of what Italy is.”

Signature Roundtable
Plaza Travel’s Jodie Wert says clients are no longer asking about private or exclusive experiences—rather they want something more authentic. (Signature Travel Network )

Jennifer Virgilio, Queen of Clubs: Three things that we’re seeing a little bit differently are seasonality; instead of travel to Europe in the summer or for Christmas and Thanksgiving, they’re going to Paris in January and February to avoid the crowds. Private jets are also big. Pre-COVID, we were always a private jet supplier, but post-COVID, it became its own division, and it just keeps growing. That trend did not go away at all. We are also seeing a lot of bucket-list events and people are not waiting it out anymore. They’re going to F1, they’re doing the tennis matches, they really want to go to soccer matches. But now they don’t even want to just go to that normal match, they want to go to the Champions League.

Victoria Batten, Langham Hospitality Group: Just a few points: There’s no rate resistance at all — long may that continue. Experiences: We’ve invested in our concierge teams so that we have that expertise to be able to create experiences, make recommendations and open doors that the guests can’t do by themselves.

From a slightly different angle, for once the guest is in the hotel, we’ve implemented a texting service so that clients can say, “I’d like some more towels please.” A minute later we can respond, “Yes, they’re on their way.” Obviously, it’s all about the personalization, but we are reacting to the way that these younger guests particularly like to communicate. Sometimes that means they don’t want to talk to anybody.

Ignacio Maza, Signature: While we are on that subject, has the luxury traveler changed the way they behave when they are staying at one of your hotels?

Victoria Batten, Langham Hospitality Group: They want personalized experiences, and they want to get to know the destination. We created an initiative called “Resort in the City,” so, we do activities in the hotel that feel more like a resort — whether that’s a wine tasting or flower arranging or something with the chef, so that people feel like they’ve learned a little bit more at the hotel rather than always feeling they’ve got to be out exploring the city.

We’re also seeing a high demand for our club lounge product, the Langham Club. You’ve got a smaller group of guests who are going into that space. They feel like it’s an exclusive haven within the hotel, and there’s more opportunity, perhaps to strike up a conversation with another guest — sort of networking, blurring business and leisure.

Jennifer Virgilio, Queen of Clubs: I would say airport assistance and theater services are now mandatory. It’s not just a luxury anymore; now it’s something that everybody really wants and they feel that they really need it. At train stations, they want luggage assistance. It’s true that people always wanted handholding in the past, but they really feel they need now.

Carole Pertusini, IC Bellagio: We have seen in the last season a real increase in the number of requests for restaurant reservations.

Mina Agnos, Travelive: I would second that. Our concierge team has grown more than double over this past season because it’s not just the dinner reservations, it’s also spas, beach clubs, lunches throughout the day. In the past, we used to have people maybe book one or two reservations per destination. Now it’s every night at least. They’re also communicating a lot more with our in-house concierge team. So, a lot of talk is about what do you recommend, or what should I do here? It’s more for local recommendations. It’s not necessarily for something along the lines of, “I need help.”

Katie Cadar, TravelStore: Our clients didn’t use to want every single day planned. Now they do. Even if they don’t use it, they want to have every day planned, because they’re afraid they’re going to miss out.

Wendy Taylor, Preferred Travel of Naples: I’m encouraging my clients to do that. It’s part of our job to educate these travelers. I tell them, “Even if you don’t use it, let’s book it. Otherwise, you’re going to be disappointed.”

Victoria Batten, Langham Hospitality Group: One thing we haven’t talked about is wellness — whether it’s just the basics of perhaps going to a city hotel and wanting to continue with their morning yoga or their gym routine to much bigger full-on wellness experiences and trips. We’ve brought Peloton bikes into our fitness centers, so that people can continue with what they normally do.

Sam McDiarmid, Auberge Resorts Collection: I think of our Hacienda AltaGracia in Costa Rica where you can do as much or as little as you want, and it can be your version of wellness. Maybe it’s the spa, maybe it’s eating well, maybe it’s getting up and going for a morning hike. But we found that that has been a big part of our itinerary planning.

At Auberge, luxury is becoming a little bit less formalized. Hence, no black suit for me anymore. We are not allowed to wear suits at Auberge, which is fascinating. After the pandemic it didn’t fit very well, anyway. But we address guests by their first name, which really threw me off the first time that I came in. Of course, if somebody prefers their last name, we’ll use it. But that’s a changing dynamic of the relationship with the guests. We’re also doing a lot less formal check-in. There’s a lot more, “Let’s whisk you right to the room. Let’s show you around.” And those are new for me, coming from a more formal brand.

Sam McDiarmid at Signature roundtable
Wellness your way is expected to be a big trend in 2023; it may be morning yoga or a more holistic approach. Sam McDiarmid says it has been a big part of their itinerary planning. (Signature Travel Network )

Ignacio Maza, Signature: On this topic, how do you think luxury in general has changed?

Jodie Wert, Plaza Travel: It’s not just about an amazing hotel. Sure, they still want great hotels, and they want the amazing tours, but it is about those authentic experiences.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: It’s the un-Instagramable. They don’t want it if they saw it on Instagram.

Mina Agnos, Travelive: We used to see people coming to us with photos from Instagram or from influencers saying this is where we want to go. Or, “My friend did this, I want to stay here.” Now, it’s the complete opposite. They want to do something their friends have not done. They want to be the first to do it, but it’s also become much more personal. Luxury is not just the hotel or the experience, it’s all of it together. It’s what is important to you and how do we deliver that service in a way that’s meaningful to you as an individual. So, luxury has become a lot more individualized than it used to be. You used to be able to just copy that same thing and sell it over again to a lot of different people. And it was luxury and they loved it. It’s not that anymore.

We’ve got a team of about 46 now, and we do inspections on a regular basis. If they have a budget in terms of trying different restaurants or going to try different activities, and that really gives us a good idea of who it’s good for, when we should be selling it, what we should be recommending. I mean, really keeping it local so that we can stay on top of everything that’s happening.

Ignacio Maza, Signature: From the supplier side, if you had a magic wand, what would you like to see from the advisor community to make the lives of your colleagues easier?

Signature roundtable
Always provide suppliers with more information than you think is necessary, says Marett Taylor. The more they know, the more they can personalize a stay. (Signature Travel Network )

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: Qualifying and giving us more than you think in terms of details. I couldn’t ask for more from the advisors here, but you’d be surprised how often we do get just a very generic request. If you give all the information to us up front, it is just so much quicker for us to be able to turn it around.

And then, thinking outside the box, [considering a different season] is key. That’s a really great way to make it easier for us to find the space and for you to close the sale. So, if they say that fall is the new summer. For Europe, you have to push them towards next October. Our sales directors often know the trends and you can consult with them, and they can say, “Well, I know that this is already really busy in this month.” I had a sales director shift a booking from July in Paris to Kenya last year. They were going to pay so much money to go to Paris and we had no guides available because it was last-minute. That’s just selling smart.

Mina Agnos, Travelive: The more information we have, the more effective we can be. One of the things that my team finds frustrating is when they hear from agents, “Oh full disclosure, I’ve sent this to two or three other DMCs.” For us that’s really disheartening and it feels like it’s a waste of time. That’s our biggest pet peeve.      Open communication, for me, is the biggest thing that you can provide. Even if you have a problem and if you’re not happy with something that we’ve sold or recommended, just let us know and let’s talk about it because there’s always a solution. We are here to become better, as well. So, if there’s something we can do to be a better partner, then we would like to know that, too.

Sam McDiarmid, Auberge Resorts Collection: I get a lot of emails that say, “This client is VIP.” I always I ask, “Why?” Does that mean that they spend a lot of money in the bar? Then great, we’ll make sure that we tell them about the rare vintage bottles that we have.     [Rather than asking us about space and rates], with availability still being so limited in certain destinations, I recommend if it’s available in the GDS, book it in there and then we can do all the other [VIP] bits and pieces. I feel like we get hounded a lot to get rates back and our teams can’t do it very fast. It’s sometimes a challenge to keep up with how fast it’s all shifting.

Jennifer Virgilio, Queen of Clubs: When it comes to personalization, the more that we know about the client, the better we can personalize. We had an advisor who was saying, “Oh, make sure they get the VIP amenities.” The amenity was a bottle of alcohol and we found out that the clients were recovering alcoholics. The advisor either didn’t know that or didn’t tell us. Knowing your clients is super important. So is knowing a budget; it’s always very difficult to get information about a budget out of the client, but in Paris you have five-star palaces, you have five-star boutiques and you have four-star hotels charging five-star prices. So, what is their comfort zone? Knowing what are they comfortable paying per night is so helpful.

Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent: And if nothing else, where did they stay before?

Victoria Batten, Langham Hospitality Group: To add, if you have a client who perhaps along the trip had something go wrong and is now stressed and anxious, you know that when they arrive at one of our hotels, they’re going to be in a difficult frame of mind. If you tell us that ahead of time we can be on high alert for when they arrive and we can also try to think of things that will help them de-stress.

Signature Roundtable
Feedback from advisors is just as important as feedback from travelers, says Mina Agnos of Travelive. If there’s a way suppliers can improve, they want to know about it. (Signature Travel Network )

Ignacio Maza, Signature: I think Carole said it best because it really is thinking about all of you being on the same side of the table. We’re all trying to exceed expectations. We’re both trying to do a good job. If the client isn’t satisfied, it doesn’t reflect well on the advisor or the partner. And the more we can collaborate, the more we can succeed. We all want to do a good job and we want the client to come back happy and we want a repeat sale; we want all three, and the way to get that is by collaborating.

Jennifer Virgilio, Queen of Clubs: I also suggest having a phone call or a Zoom call with the advisor and the person designing the itinerary. Do that early and later in the process, so that we’re all on the same page. I think that a phone call at one time or another throughout the process is super important.

Ignacio Maza, Signature: It’s very important to stay in touch with your clients while they’re traveling. I’m not saying you’re going to call the client every 20 minutes, “Are you okay? Are you happy?” But if you can just connect with them, “I’m thinking about you. I know today you are arriving at Singita in Serengeti, is everything going well?” That lets the client come back to you and tell you, “We’re really not happy with the long drives. We don’t like getting up so early in the morning, so we’ll only do the sunset drives,” whatever it is.

I also think that a way to bring down the temperature [if things have gone awry] is to let them vent about whatever went wrong and then just say, “What can we do for you now?” Perhaps the flight was canceled or the driver didn’t show up  or the hotel was oversold, whatever it is. “But okay, here we are today, what can we do for you right now?” Sometimes with that question the client takes a breath and says, “Well, we really just want a nice place for lunch at this point.” You say, “Okay, I can fix that.”

Obviously, people want to be heard but then you also have to come back and say, “I understand that; I hear you, but we have to move forward.” Because that’s the only answer.

For more from this conversation—which covers luxury travelers' desire for new locales and which destinations advisors and suppliers feel deserve more love—check out "Part 1" here.

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