Preview 2013: Luxury

By Donna Tunney
Experiential travel and destination-immersion are luxury market buzzwords for 2013, marking a turnaround from the niche industry's "cautiously optimistic" mantra of recent years.

Indeed, as 2012 draws to a close, luxury travel executives believe consumer confidence at upper income levels is returning, or has returned, to prerecession levels.

Providing authentic experiences is a leading trend identified in an annual report published earlier this month by the International Luxury Travel Market, a major conference and trade show held every December in Cannes, France.

"Memories are what matter now to well-heeled luxury travelers, and brands riding this wave are creating new types of immersive, themed experiences that focus on escape, learning and communal connections with others," according to the report, titled "Luxury Futures: A Global Snapshot of New and Emerging Trends in the Luxury Travel Market."

"Once-in-a-lifetime experiences are the new stock-in-trade" for luxury customers, the report asserted.

Los Angeles-based luxury operator Cox & Kings said it was experiencing a "strong increase in long-lead bookings," some as far out as a year from departure.

"We remain confident in continued growth and look for these [booking] trends to continue into 2013," said Scott Wiseman, the company's president for the Americas.

Wiseman predicted that 2013 will see "the return of the big trip" to far-flung destinations.

Cox & Kings each year reveals its top exotic-destination picks, based on "unexpected offerings and the element of surprise that these countries bring to the table."

Bhutan MonasteryFor 2013, the anticipated hot spots are Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Colombia and Botswana.

Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck, the upscale operator based in Norwalk, Conn., called improvements in consumer confidence a "present-tense reality."

"Our customers recognize the enormous fiscal problems that are out there and that need to be grappled with on a nation-by-nation basis," Mahar said. "But the present-tense reality is that these customers are OK right now.

"In the post-meltdown era, there's been a resetting of priorities."

And travel, said Mahar, is among the top priorities for the affluent. Luxury clients, he said, view travel as an opportunity to spend quality time with friends and family.

"They want authentic experiences and, of course, they want top service and value," he said. "So even with the uncertainty that still exists, our customers are making travel plans well in advance."

Companies are are embracing experiential travel and destination immersion with new products. Tauck, for example, will introduce its Botswana, South Africa & Zambia safari, which, during a visit to a lion research center near Livingstone, Zambia, offers travelers an opportunity to "actually walk with and among a pride of juvenile lions as they play, relax and begin to develop the skills they'll use later to survive in the wild," according to the brochure.

"The trend over the past five or 10 years has been for exotic vacations," Mahar said.

"And while the percentage of growth in the exotics is way up, the tried-and-true destinations still [draw] the majority of [customers]. In either case the focus must be on seeing these destinations with more depth and insider access."

Luxury on the seas

The idea of the tried-and-true, combined with the attraction of more far-flung destinations, extends to the cruise industry.

Luxury line Seabourn, for example, will base all six of its ships in Europe for seasonal cruises in 2013, but come November, the Seabourn Quest begins a series of four 21- to 24-day Antarctica cruises.

The southern deployment is a first for Seabourn.

"Europe is a destination that's timeless and that our guests will go back to a number of times," said Richard Meadows, president of Seabourn.

"In fact, we'll do some more detailed cruises exploring the Adriatic, including Montenegro and Croatia, for example, but Antarctica was the only continent that Seabourn did not feature in our itineraries. This expands our global reach to all seven continents."

Passengers will spend five days in Antarctica, and Seabourn will provide "an experience second to none," said Meadows, who also is executive vice president of Holland America Line.

An experienced Antarctic expedition staff will be onboard along with scientists, naturalists and other lecturers who will speak onboard and accompany guests ashore to add insights.

Meadows is enthusiastic about the luxury travel market in 2013.

Preview 2013"Even if the economic outlook might still be a little cloudy, you have to consider how the affluent look at travel," he said.

"For most of them, travel is not considered a luxury. It's really a way to help define themselves, it's part of who they are. When they think of travel, they see it as an important part of establishing relationships, growing personally and learning. Travel is a key part of that personal exploratory process."

Seabourn's products, Meadows said, are designed to accommodate the specific types of customers drawn to the line.

"We have a couple of key customer groups," he said. "For example, working executives tend to book shorter trips, so we have seven-day itineraries. Another group has more discretionary time, perhaps they are semiretired or fully retired, and for them we have crafted longer cruises with a generous selection of ports."

Meadows added that in Europe, the line is offering more cruises roundtrip from "iconic ports" such as Venice, Monte Carlo and Rome, because many passengers will book extra days in those ports to do some exploring.

"It's all about choices in itinerary options for different audiences," Meadows said.
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