Selling Luxury Travel: Marketing the Good Life

Keeping abreast of the latest developments in the luxury travel market is no easier nowadays than staying on top of all the changes in the travel marketplace in general. But success in both comes down to service -- although the affluent traveler requires more attention in planning because he expects to receive faultless services on the road.

Agents focusing mostly on the luxury traveler agree that a key to success is destination knowledge -- of the best hotels and restaurants, or the most reliable safari operators.

Definitions of the luxury traveler vary, but according to Rina Anoussi of the Travel Business in New York, the epitome of the true luxury client market is the FIT traveler who flies first or business class, uses chauffeured limousines for transfers and sightseeing and often stays in suites at the world's finest hotels. Furthermore, she says, you have to be meticulous in delivering the product promised, covering your bases not once, but again and again.

Speaking six languages helps Anoussi to handle her deluxe client arrangements. She calls suppliers abroad directly to confirm arrangements, not only for specific hotel rooms, but for special requests such as beds with a duvet and not blankets, 10 pillows and not four.

Most of her new clients come from word-of-mouth referrals, says Sybil Wild, owner of Sybil Wild Travel in Scarsdale, N.Y. When it comes to evaluating new clients, it is helpful to find out first how they were referred to you and where they have already traveled, before you move onto where they want to go and what they want to do.

"The experienced traveler can be very definite on where he wants to go," Wild says, "and often one has to be very diplomatic in guiding that client in planning an itinerary that may work better than the one he has in mind, yet provide the best experience."

What takes the most time, says Wild, is getting to know different areas, and it helps to have an innate curiosity about places, about cultures and art.

"You don't get it by taking a course. Rather, you read everything you can, travel as much as possible, and be prepared to say, 'I don't know ... but I can find out.'"

For Martha Gaughen, co-owner of Sterling Travel in Atlanta, the key to serving the upscale market is developing supplier and tour operator relationships that get things done, because "you have to be able to get the best rooms with the best views, know the right guides."

This requires time, experience and continuous education on the part of the agent, who must read constantly to know what is new and trendy.

To keep up with destinations, she says, "I keep my agents up and traveling on fam trips as much as possible, for when we are dealing with the upscale traveler, we need to be savvy, and destination knowledge is hard to teach from a book, or even from a CTC course."

An important part of staff fam trips, she adds, is having an efficient program of reporting findings and impressions back in the office.

At Sterling Travel, each of the 12 people in the office picks two destinations in which they want to excel; in addition to travel, they need to read articles, keep in touch with the API network, of which it is a member, get feedback from clients -- in short, know everything it takes to whip out an instant itinerary.

At Sterling, 90% of their clients come from referrals from FIT travelers or those who have been on group trips that the agency plans for garden clubs or arts and historical societies in the Atlanta region.

"People who go with us on these trips, which someone from our office personally escorts, are a leading source of steady clients for all their travel arrangements," Gaughen says.

Karen Johnson, president of Preferred Adventures in St. Paul, Minn., points out that traditionally the affluent traveler shuns the group travel experience, opting for FIT travel and the freedom it provides.

At the same time, she adds, the adventure vacation, often a group experience, is the fastest growing part of the leisure market.

"These 'new adventurers,' -- hard, soft or in-between -- want to get involved," says Johnson, "and the destinations they are choosing are far-away places for which a group tour or an expedition cruise may be the best, or only, way to get there."

This kind of travel represents fulfillment, she says. But, "if you send a deluxe client, say, on an icebreaker to Antarctica, make sure it's the best icebreaker with comfortable (if smaller than most ships) cabins, the best (if not elaborate) food and the best lecturers to provide the most informed experience."

Demand is also growing for FIT arrangements for wildlife trips with private guides, or even short modules for such activities as bird watching, hiking or kayaking added on to a destination experience, she says.

Johnson feels that adventure travel is a very profitable niche market for agencies to develop because travelers are spending thousands of dollars for both physically and culturally involving experiences. She adds, however, that "if I were a client who was going to spend $20,000 to $30,000, I'd want to talk with someone who'd been there."

Another exceptionally profitable luxury sales niche, according to Martin Gould, also of the Travel Business in New York, is the gay market, one which is filled with many dual income, childless couples with the time and the money to spend on the best.

For his business, favorite destinations are the capitals of Europe and resorts that are gay-guest-friendly. He points out that privacy is important to gay travelers, whose top vacation choices are villa rentals in St. Barts, Mustique and Tuscany, as well as private yacht charters.

The gay market is also a big cruise demographic, for "an upscale cruise with all its pampering and services is comfortable for gays."

According to Gould, his biggest hit in gay vacations is the spa vacation, claiming that spas present a nurturing and nonjudgmental environment for the gay traveler. Whether the guest mix is gay and straight, young and old, singles and couples, everything works.

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