If one is to succeed selling retail travel, it's crucial to stay on top of changes in economic and business environments, demographic shifts and the evolution of customer preferences.
Jack Ezon not only tracks these dynamics, he shares his analyses with friends and colleagues in the travel industry. And at least partly as a result of what he has observed, particularly changing customer preferences, on Jan. 1 he will be repositioning his own business, evolving from president of Ovation Vacations to founder of Embark, a "luxury lifestyle partnership specializing in bespoke travel experiences."
Embark will remain under the Ovation umbrella as a luxury host agency/co-op, catering to ultrahigh-net-worth clients and sharing ownership among advisers who join as partners.
For the past two years, my last column of the year has been devoted to examining Ezon's predictions for the coming year. This year's forecast indicates changes that are perhaps a bit more subtle than usual. He predicts that 2019 will "amplify many things that have been trending the past two to three years."
Newer directions, he writes, are still "germinating."
What are those things that have been trending over the past few years? It might be helpful to trace their evolution from an even longer perspective. If I were trying to encapsulate the evolution of leisure travel over the past 15 years in one phrase, it might go something like this: experiential to authentic to curated to immersive to transformational.
None of these buzzwords goes away. Rather, each leads to rising expectations of what a client will get out of a vacation.
What's the next level? Ezon thinks it will involve the label "impactful."
"If I am going to travel, I want it to at least have purpose; I want to be impactful," he says, describing the mindset of travelers, especially millennials.
I, too, have observed this trend, the seeds of which were first identified in a Phocuswright/Tourism Cares study in 2015.
(Double disclosure: Phocuswright is owned by Travel Weekly's parent, Northstar Travel Group, and I serve on the board of Tourism Cares.)
Ezon writes, "This quest for meaning has morphed into a quest for purpose, self-discovery and self-realization." He adds that for "people with a millennial mindset, ... value must be framed in context of meaningful goals."
The 2015 study gave high marks to affluent travelers for being socially responsible, but in looking at Ezon's analysis, I do wonder if there might be a bifurcation in what "impact" means to people in the luxury sector versus its meaning for the general population.
What initially struck me as possibly divergent is that in luxury, Ezon observes that "self-discovery and self-realization" are primary motivators, whereas the Phocuswright/Tourism Cares report suggested a more altruistic motivation among travelers who devote at least a portion of their journeys to improving the world. For that subset of travelers, the "transformation" is primarily outward rather than primarily inward.
All of which raises several interesting questions: Are the wealthy of 2018 (or any era, for that matter) more self-obsessed than the general population? Does the ability to explore the world without budgetary restraints lead to a self-centered focus within travel? Are today's high-net-worth millennials direct descendants of the "Me Generation" that writer Tom Wolfe identified in the 1970s, a class whose efforts at self-improvement are not far removed from self-absorption?
From a business perspective, it's likely that the motivation doesn't really matter. I suspect that Ezon's underlying proposition is correct for most travelers, whether wealthy elite or hoi polloi. When one begins to layer meaning onto travel, meaning invariably returns to "self."
Ezon references Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a theory proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation," which explores the drive to find meaning in activity. For Maslow, it doesn't matter if people are working, spending time with family or setting off on a vacation. Regardless, life drives them relentlessly toward self-actualization.
Likewise for travel advisers, whether a trip is rooted in narcissism or altruism is, perhaps, beside the point: The trend for travelers seeking, in Ezon's words, "fulfillment, ... exploring passions and pursuing dreams" is very good news.
Which do you think is more likely to engender loyalty: Selling vacations or being an integral partner in a client's life journey? The latter is likely more rewarding, not only financially but emotionally, for the trip planner, as well.
In fact, taking Maslow at his word, if advisers view their career as assisting clients on quests of self-discovery versus simply "selling travel," one's profession can itself become a path toward self-realization, rather than just making a living.
There's a lot more in Ezon's 23-page report than I've touched on here: observations about media, changes in villa rentals, shifts in hospitality staffing, the continuing rise of destination celebrations, the desires of Gen Xers, the rising fortunes of independent hotels, lists of the top (and rebounding) destinations and the most anticipated hotel openings and refurbishments.
If you want to see the full report, just write to Ezon at [email protected].
While you're at it, ask to be added to his subscriber list; he has pledged to distribute reports every three months, examining different aspects of travel trends each time.
And 2019, I believe, will be that much more interesting with Ezon's insights coming to us quarterly.