Jim Taylor tracks trends for the Harrison Group research firm. He spends a fair amount of time focused on the wealthy and their habits, including how they think about spending on travel and what they actually spend.
Although he steeps himself in data pertaining to the luxury space for his clients and annually addresses an audience populated by executives of luxury brands, he's often the only speaker they'll hear who does not speak exclusively in reverential tones about the sector.
He might root for the luxury sector and his clients serving those markets, but he also places the current boom in luxury travel in a broader context.
As a result, I've found him to be one of the most clear-eyed, down-to-earth reporters of the behavior and habits of the upper classes as they relate to travel.
I asked him earlier this month to outline what he's seeing, and he divided his response into "happy" and "unhappy" trends.
Happy: There has been a significant rebirth of the escorted tour industry, he said, as another wave of baby boomers hits 65. This has added another 12 million-plus people into the retirement spectrum, with travel — safe travel — a key objective.
Unhappy: The income gap continues to grow. Those in the top 1% of net worth now have assets of more than 10 times the average of those in the upper middle class (i.e., those making $100,000 to $200,000 annually). Worse still, the upper middle class has declined in size by more than a million households since the recession.
Hoteliers take note: The upper middle class, he said, provides the core of the mid-range resort market.
Moving comparisons further down the economic scale, the average one-percenter now has assets that are close to 180 times the assets of the average middle-class family (and incomes that are 22 times higher).
This continuing trend is fueled, Taylor said, by a difference in the savings rate, the strong performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (about half of all stock is owned by the wealthiest 1%) and the elimination of debt and securities risk.
He notes, incidentally, that one-percenters are not looking to expose themselves to class criticism when they vacation. They will stay among themselves.
(And as an aside, Taylor further notes that "vacation" is not a word people use anymore: "They travel, and go on trips.")
Happy: The upside of the previous downside is that the travel boom for luxury travel continues, with roughly 60% of affluent consumers increasing their travel budgets, which should boost this segment of the market by about 10%. The industry as a whole will see a more modest increase of about 3.5%.
Unhappy/happy: Taylor sees some weakness in the domestic market. But that's only unhappy if that's where you're focused. If you're selling international, including Mexico, things are looking stronger. Mexico, he said, is recording numbers it hasn't seen since narco-traffickers sent inbound numbers spiraling downward a few years ago.
Happy: Specialization within luxury hotels by location (rain forest, desert, tundra, mountaintop) or niche interest has exploded in popularity as the number of rooms globally continues to expand. Type "independent hotel luxury" into Google and you'll see myriad examples, he suggests.
Happy: Consumers link travel with a strengthening of family ties, and as a result, an increasing number of consumers have concluded that travel is a necessity rather than a discretionary purchase.
Happy: Destination real estate is booming, with the demand curve rising from 3% to 4% in 2009 to more than 23% today among top 10% of households, indicating possible sales of 250,000 units (new and resale) this year. While intention is usually overstated by 50% to 75%, he said, consumer confidence among the affluent and upper middle class is fueling this trend.
Happy: Consumer confidence is also fueling increased spending by travelers during trips. Consumers feel liberated from routine fiscal constraints when in an exotic destination.
Happy: Off-summer travel is on the rise for adults taking three- to seven-day trips.
Happy: Taylor is seeing a significant rise in the number of six-star travelers (defined as those who spend more than $30,000 per trip), especially in destinations keyed to business interests.
Happy: China continues to significantly increase the number of travelers it exports to the rest of the world.
So happiness wins, at least in the sheer number of positive trends.
Still, not all of these data points are equal in impact. I'm cheered — very cheered — by strong positive indicators in luxury, but I'm also increasingly concerned about the impact of widening economic gaps among Americans.
It's not really possible to predict the future simply by following trend lines as if they'll go on indefinitely, but the shrinkage of the upper middle class and the squeezing of the middle class isn't slowing.
Many travel retailers found happiness escaping the commoditizing effects of Web-based sales by cultivating a luxury clientele. But underlying Taylor's analysis is a suggestion that true happiness for sellers of luxury travel would be a growing wealthy class, rather than a wealthy class growing wealthier.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.