Some commentators argue that luxury tourism, with its wealthy clientele and more exclusive, social-distanced experiences, will bounce back before the rest of the industry. We ask experts what they think.
Three months ago, when the world’s borders slammed shut and travel as we know it became something we do in armchairs not airports, it seemed unimaginable that the global travel industry would be talking about ‘green shoots’ this early. But there are definite signs of a spring awakening, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of Oceania, where the region’s successful suppression of COVID-19 has given new hope that travel ‘bubbles’ and corridors will kickstart recovery sooner than anticipated.
Nobody is much surprised that eager consumers are driving the mood, especially in the luxury market where they have the resources to travel privately and securely. Intrepid and destination-savvy, the luxury consumer is already setting sight on international destinations as soon as borders open. “We are already seeing that our average traveller is almost on the verge of desperate to get away somewhere,” says Sujata Raman, Regional Managing Director APAC for Abercrombie & Kent.
“All our top customers absolutely have this pent-up demand to travel,” says Craig Adamson, Managing Director APAC of The Leading Hotels of the World. “A lot of our ski customers are dying to book European ski trips irrespective of whether they are going to be able to travel. They just want to have plans in place.”
Still, those guests will have new demands. Safety and hygiene have become the ‘new’ luxury amenities: qualities that stand-alone villas, connecting hotel suites, private group tours, small ships, private jets and rail carriages, and buy-out resorts and islands already have in their DNA.
The new challenge for many operators is to provide these health and safety protocols without losing the human connection, the hand-holding, that the luxury customer expects. As Adamson says, it’s hard to imagine checking into the Ritz Paris with hand sanitiser at the front desk and concierges in face masks. “It takes the romance out of it, doesn’t it?”
With well-seasoned travellers chomping at the bit, we asked five industry leaders for their take on the future of luxury travel and the mood of the consumer.
Ready to go
“Outside of the financial ability to do it, the need to travel is in-built within the luxury consumer. Taking that away from them is like taking their oxygen away. We’ve found, from talking to the luxury travel agents and our Leaders Club people, that they [luxury travellers] are definitely waiting, they’re ready and they’re starting to look at options they wouldn’t have looked at before.” Craig Adamson, Managing Director APAC, The Leading Hotels of the World.
“We understand travellers’ concerns for travel in the future, but Australians are resilient and confident travellers, especially those who are looking for a luxury experience. In fact, we feel, luxury travel will be the first sector to bounce back. We foresee the appeal to be exactly the same as it was pre-COVID-19.” Alice Ager, Head of Sales, Australia, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.
“People are looking for destinations that are remote; boutique properties where there aren’t many people around and the service is very personalised. From that end, doing private touring, having your own guide, being on your own with you or your family, all of that, is what luxury travel offers. I also think people are going to want to have their trips tailored more than usual to meet their current circumstances and needs. That tailor-made, hand-stitched travel itinerary is really a hallmark of the luxury travel market.” Sujata Raman, Regional Managing Director, APAC, Abercrombie & Kent.
“We provide the antidote to what people have survived and are going through. Great, open spaces, clean fresh air and wild nature at its best. The materialistic side of travel will diminish to an extent. Authenticity is an overused word in our business but people are searching for a new understanding of life and what life experiences bring, and what actions they take, what knock on effects they have.” Grant Hunt, Non-Executive Director Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.
A new normal
“Intrinsically the industry has changed. I think the tourism of tomorrow will need a big, adaptive force to reinvent the way we go about things. I don’t think it’s ever going to go back to what we all knew as normal. Particularly the social distancing aspects of it probably will have an influence on the way tourism is viewed by travellers. I think small-group travel will be very popular and clearly we see that as a benefit for our company.” Sarina Bratton, Chairman APAC, Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions.