Selling Luxury Travel: Where the Elite Retreat

Following is a select rundown of luxury travel products available throughout the world.

Cruises: Haute Cruising

There seems no end in sight to the cruise boom. Yet while ships are getting bigger and bigger, small is still beautiful to the luxury market.

Author Kay Showker in her "Unofficial Guide to Cruises 1999" (MacMillan, 1999, $19.95), puts small boutique cruise vessels, such as those in Silversea Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line fleets, at the top of the deluxe cruise choices. She adds to this luxury inner circle the two larger ships of Crystal Cruises.

"The Unofficial Cruise Guide" is strong on rating and ranking cruise lines and ships, a useful feature for agents planning cruise travel. Following are some of the guidelines excerpted and quoted that Showker includes in her luxury cruising evaluations.

Crystal Cruises

The 940-passenger Crystal Harmony, which made its debut in 1990 created a niche all its own, says Showker, for it is the size of most superliners, but carries one-third less passengers; its twin sister, the Crystal Symphony made its debut in 1995.

As a result, Showker says, "Crystal offers the best of all possible worlds -- the facilities and spaciousness of a large ship with the personalized, pampered service of a small vessel."

  • Fellow passengers: "Professional and top level executives, retired or semi-retired, experienced travelers, 45 to 70 in age. The typical passenger is an affluent, active, fashion-conscious, friendly 55- to 60-year-old couple or mature single."
  • Recommended for: "Travelers who care about quality and appreciate style with a bit of flash, who want the facilities of a large ship, and who, whether first-time or repeat cruiser, can afford it."
  • (800) 446-6620; fax (310) 785-3891; www.crystal-cruises.com.

    Silversea Cruises

    Ultra-luxury, all-suite ships, the Silver Wind and the Silver Cloud are identical, carrying 296 passengers each, and according to Showker are possibly the nicest accommodations afloat, although not recommended for late night revelers or children. "On the water," she says, "Silversea is about as good as it gets."

    Silver Wind operates in the Far East, South Pacific, Mediterranean, India and Africa, and Silver Cloud cruises in South America, Europe and the Baltic, Canada and New England.

  • Fellow Passengers: "Experienced cruisers, they are convivial, well-traveled and outgoing, ranging in age from young professionals in their 30s to lively 80-year-olds. The majority, however, are over 50 and most are American."
  • Recommended for: "Sophisticated, knowledgeable travelers who prefer a finely crafted ship and low-key atmosphere to glitz, fun and games; those who appreciate fine details and expect exacting service in an atmosphere of casual elegance."
  • (800) 722-6655; fax (305) 522-4499; www.silversea.com.

    Seabourn Cruise Line

    Built with a certain person in mind -- one who normally stays in the best room at a luxury hotel and books a deluxe suite on a luxury liner -- the Seabourn ships -- Seabourn Legend, Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit are tailored to those people who like the space and facilities of a large ship, but want the exclusivity and personalized service of a yacht. The result, a trio of six-deck vessels which are almost identical, carrying a maximum of 212 passengers in all-suite accommodations.

  • Fellow Passengers: "Sophisticated, well-heeled, experienced travelers; 80% are from North America, and most are age 50 and older, also some are young professionals and honeymooners with rich parents. A high number, sometimes 50% or more, are repeaters."
  • Recommended for: "Seasoned travelers accustomed to the best; affluent passengers whose first priority is service; those who seek exclusivity; people looking for a good trip rather than a good time."
  • The Seabourn Goddesses (the former Sea Goddesses acquired from Cunard) will sail this winter as Seabourn Goddess I and Seabourn Goddess II, each carrying a maximum of 116 passengers. Itineraries for the rebranded vessels will focus on the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

  • Fellow Passengers: "Obviously affluent, they are successful business and professional people, new money rather than old, self-assured but not stuffy, active but not fanatic about fitness. Almost all are couples, ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-60s or more, and likely to be honeymooning or celebrating a birthday or anniversary."
  • Recommended for: "Clients looking for the ultimate sybaritic fantasy: luxurious surroundings, gourmet cuisine, lazy days and romantic evenings, activities and entertainment that are low-key and minimum, indulgent spa care and people catering to every whim. The small number of passengers results not only in highly personalized service, but in shipboard camaraderie."
  • (800) 929-9595; fax (415) 391-8518; www.seabourn.com.

    Hotels: Taming the Wilderness

    Not every client will hear the call of the wild; but for those who do, luxury is alive and well in the farthest corners of the globe. Nowadays we find the most luxurious touches and services in the most unlikely places all over the world. Just consider this worldwide sampling.

    Fiji Islands

    Located on private Wakaya Island set in the coral-ringed Koro Sea, the Wakaya Club is a deluxe South Seas haven that was the first member of the newly formed division of Abercrombie & Kent's new hotel group. The club accommodates 18 guests in nine air conditioned cottages, each with a large sitting area, wet bar and fully stocked refrigerator, four-poster bed, soaking tub and separate shower, hair dryers and large verandah; meals with fine wines are included in the cost, as use of facilities such as pool with waterfall, tennis, croquet, scuba diving, snorkeling, glass-bottomed cruise boat, nine-hole golf course, windsurfing, and of course hiking and nature walks in the rain forest. Access is via a 50-minute flight on the resort's own Air Wakaya from Nandi.

    (800) 828-3454.

    Indonesia

    The Oberoi on West Lombok Island provides clients with beach resort joy and incredible architecture. Remote and exotic is an easier sell when it comes with its classic pavilions and 50 luxurious thatched-roof accommodations, built on stilts over the water, and with grand verandahs and expansive marble baths; three swimming pools cascading into each other and the sea beyond, tennis, health spa and guided tours to Mt. Rinjani waterfall and traditional villages.

    (800) 5-OBEROI.

    Kenya

    Abercrombie & Kent's Tented Safari Camps bring comfort, and luxury in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. The company pioneered these alternative accommodations, which come with, among other assets, bathrooms with hot showers and electric lights; beds with standard mattresses; dinners accented with fresh linens and silverware, served by white-gloved waiters.

    For example, at A&K's tented safari camp, Kichwa Tembo, in Kenya's great Masai Mara Game Reserve, clients can balance authentic in-the-wild game viewing with such services as hot coffee delivered to the tent in the morning and after-dinner drinks around the campfire. Kirawire Camp in Tanzania's Western Serengeti also fits under the A&K safari camp umbrella. Owned by the Aga Khan, Kirawire is a shining example of extravagant simplicity: private airstrip; 25 tents, fitted with four-poster beds, Victorian antique furniture, and proper bathrooms, and your own valet.

    (800) 323-7308 or (708) 954-2944.

    Dubai

    The Al Maha Resort, an ecotourism project of Emirates airlines, opened this year in a nature reserve desert setting that covers 3,500 acres. The lodgings, distinguished by arabesque decor, offer two Royal suites and one Owners suite with two bedrooms, plus 27 luxurious Bedouin-style suites with such amenities as his and hers dressing rooms, individual outdoor plunge pools, TV & VCR and computer fax sockets. Guests dine on Mediterranean and Arab specialties, and have the use of a landscaped pool, lounge and library.

    The reserve is a resettlement point for indigenous fauna, such as oryx, gazelle, ostrich and fox, and hotel activities focus on Arabian heritage such as guided desert safaris to the Hajar mountains and bedouin settlements, falconry, camel and horse trekking and horseback riding. Guests may also go sand skiing and take lessons in dune driving.

    Reservations: (011) 971-4-303-4222; e-mail [email protected].

    Chile

    Tucked on the shores of Lake Pehoe at the heart of Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, Explora Patagonia, views are spectacular from almost any point in the 30-room hotel. Rooms offer total comfort: handcrafted furnishings, big beds with feather pillows and comforters, good reading lights, big baths featuring towel warmers and terry robes. Views are panoramic from lounges and bar, and from the dining rooms as well where hearty meals are served with fine Chilean wines. Facilities also include a spa with indoor heated pool, sauna, massage.

    Activities include guided hikes, as well as horseback excursions show off the grandeur of the national park, and are included in the four- or seven-night packages, as are meals with wine, and van transfers to/from Punta Arenas.

    (011) 56-2-206-6060; fax (011) 56-2-228-4655.

    Mexico

    Away from it all (a two-hour drive from Puerto Vallarta) on a deserted 40-mile stretch of pristine beach, the Hotelito Desconocido is an elegantly rustic eco-lodge resort with 21 cabanas on stilts over a Pacific lagoon. It has no phone or faxes, but some rather fanciful outdoor solar-heated showers, a menu of homegrown product, and a sanctuary for wading birds and sea turtles.

    Decorated by an Italian fashion designer, cabanas feature locally crafted furnishings, king-size canopy beds, porches and candle lighting. There is a beachfront pool with bar, steam bath, yoga, watersports, horseback riding and turtle reserve tours. All meals are included in the rates.

    (800) 223-6510.

    Alaska

    Nature rules the roost at Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, a naturalist retreat at the southern end of Kenai Peninsula near Homer (a scenic five-hour drive from Anchorage and 30 minutes by boat). Accommodations are in three guest cabins nicely furnished with living rooms electricity, wood stoves and private shower-baths.

    Days are spent taking guided hikes and boat excursions to observe the abundant wildlife and wildflowers, plus occasional whales and porpoises. Evening meals are a feast of fresh catches of salmon and trout. Open May 1 to Dec. 15, lodge packages include all meals, guides services and boat transfers.

    Reservations: (907) 235-8910; fax (907) 235-8911.

    Tour Operators: Destination Specialists

    On the 30th anniversary of the Hollywood film, "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) released a survey that showed how tour products among its 57 members had changed since the days when touring meant boarding a bus and seeing ten cities at a frenetic pace.

    Broad outlines included many factors important to meeting the demands of a changed marketplace with a more upscale audience: escorted tours are far more flexible and less regimented today; escorted tours are often the best way to go to out-of-the-way destinations; hotels and motorcoaches are of high quality; tours today are more likely to concentrate on a single country or region; tours now emphasize "doing" rather than "seeing."

    "If there was ever a time for agents to go for the luxury market, it's now," says Robin Tauck, co-president of Tauck Tours, in Westport, Conn., a USTOA member, "and our challenge is to develop both domestic and international tours that deliver tops in service and accommodations to the increasingly upscale and sophisticated traveler."

    Tauck points out that while her company's growth is in international luxury tours, the luxury clients' demand for quality, insider experiences is equally well met by taking a tour in the U.S.

    "Clients who are visiting national parks, for example, will find that escorted tours can offer not only the best accommodations, but a way to travel that they can't do on their own and an itinerary that guides them far from the maddening crowds."

    According to Tauck, the same is true when exploring the Southwest cultures or visiting Hawaii. "People ask why take a tour to Hawaii?," and Tauck responds that the experience goes beyond the islands' scenic beauty.

    "In recommending a Hawaii tour, agents are providing their clients with such deluxe elements as luxury accommodations and customized flights, plus guides who deliver the enriched experience of the differences among islands, their culture and people."

    In addition, she pointed out, "when traveling anywhere, time is precious to the luxury traveler who is willing to pay the price for the destination expertise that a deluxe tour can deliver."

    (800) 468-2825; fax (203) 227-1030; www.tauck.com.

    Nathaniel Waring, president of the U.S. office of Cox & Kings, in Tampa, says that clients who have the money to do everything in the best way, usually want to do things differently.

    "Agents must first get an idea of a traveler's special interests," he says. "in order to plan either the most satisfactory FIT or, in the case of India and other such culturally demanding countries, to realize that needs can best be met joining a tour."

    For the deluxe market, India is a destination served equally well by both escorted tours and FIT arrangements, says Waring, who pointed that two Cox & Kings tours, a three-week Classical Journey of India and Nepal and a two-week Splendors of the North, are designed for the deluxe traveler market, with plenty of leisure time and a la carte dining.

    The repeat traveler, he adds, tends to do South India including Cochin, Madras and the southern temples, or the mountains, linking the hill stations of Darjeeling with Sikim and Bhutan.

    When it comes to "different," the company (founded in 1758 to service the travel needs of India's British East India Company) relies on its destination knowledge to tailor FIT itineraries with such features as just the right suite in a Palace hotel or private air charters that broaden the scope of what a client can do.

    Further for travel with a difference for the most discerning clients, Cox & Kings has developed a portfolio of 15 "Signature Events," which for the first time are listed in the company's 2000 brochure. "We have known the maharajahs for so long," says Waring, "that we can arrange lunch and conversations with some of the leading families at their clubs, such as the Bombay Gymkhana (club to the officers of the Raj), or attend a match at Delhi's Jaipur Polo Grounds, as a guest of a premier polo player."

    (800) 999-1758; fax (813) 258-3852; www.coxandkings.com.

    Surveys, such as API's "LuxeReport" put South America at the top of the most under-rated travel destination, and Michelle Shelburne, president of Ladatco Tours, in Miami, reminds us that it is "because the countries don't promote themselves and have no active tourist offices in the U.S., agents and their clients do not find it easy to understand all there is to see and how to see it."

    Ladatco and other specialists in South America travel are finding that today's luxury traveler is not presented with a big, satisfying choice of escorted tours. "Many of us are not offering scheduled departures any more, for what the high end of the market is buying are customized travel arrangements," says Shelburne.

    According to Shelburne, upscale travelers want to do it right: They want the worry taken out of travel with private car sightseeing, transfers, top accommodations in the cities (that means hotels with style such as the Copacabana Palace in Rio and the Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires) and the most amenities possible in relatively undiscovered places.

    Most luxury travelers choose two- or three-week itineraries, says Shelburne, focusing on a region, such as the ancient civilization centers of Ecuador, Peru and Lake Titicaca, or the scenic southern zone of Chile and Argentina, perhaps with Rio added on.

    Additionally, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands cruise, aboard newly upgraded vessels with suite accommodations such as the Santa Cruz and Galapagos Explorer II, as well as the Isabela II and the Polaris, is South America's most popular soft adventure experience for affluent travelers.

    To fill the information void on selling South America, Shelburne advises travel agents to take advantage of every opportunity to join fam trips to South America's leading destinations; attend educational seminars (and there are many of those, sponsored by airlines and tour companies); establish a clip file of magazine and newspaper articles; get on the Web to become familiar with available travel products.

    (800) 327-6162; fax (305) 285-0504; www.ladatco.com.

    Costa Rica, the darling of ecotourism destinations, is a Latin American country that is well known and popular with all travelers.

    However, Dan Conaway, chairman of Elegant Adventures, in Atlanta, says "being a popular destination is not enough for the luxury market whose agents need reliable advice on what a particular inn, or rain forest, or river-rafting trip is really like."

    Conaway's best planning tips for Costa Rica start with the essential personal meeting and transfer on arrival at the airport and include custom-tailored arrangements that move clients easily from point to point by private car and driver, or alternatively when suitable, by private charter flights.

    Affluent travelers are usually very savvy about Costa Rica's inventory of jungle lodges and seaside hideaways, says Conaway, and among those properties he feels deliver the greatest comfort and the best experiences in their respective environments are: the Monteverde Lodge in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a favorite nesting ground for the resplendent quetzal; Villas Si Como No whose villa complex overlooks the Pacific at Manuel Antonio National Park; Punta Islita, a remote tropical retreat on the Nicoya peninsula, worthy of being a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World; Capitan Suizo, a seaside resort member of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica on Tamarindo Beach.

    On the Caribbean coast, at the Tortuguero National Park where the green sea turtle comes ashore to nest in July and August, he says you can't beat the Tortuguero Lodge for both families and fishermen; on the Osa Peninsula, he chooses the award-winning deluxe eco-lodge, Lapa Rios; and coming up on the favorites horizon at Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula is the Aguila de Osa Inn, with its own fishing charter boats and scuba diving trips to Cano Island.

    (800) 451-4398; fax (770) 859-0250; www.elegantadventures.com.

    API Survey Goes to Agents For Take on Client Preferences

    API travel consultants serving affluent clients at affiliated agencies returned 3,500 survey responses in a poll conducted last year to identify the hottest travel trends and travel habits of America's affluent. Here are some excerpts from the findings.

  • The hottest trends among all travelers responding are adventure travel (35%), traveling with children (24%), educational travel (10%) and more frequent and shorter trips (9%).
  • The hottest trends among API's affluent travelers (34 to 52 years of age) include small-ship and expedition cruises (31%), adventure travel (22%), traveling with children (11%).
  • The most popular country in 1999 (as forecast by API's survey in 1998) is Italy, followed by France, Australia, England and Mexico.
  • The most underrated (or underbooked) travel destinations are South America (34%), Canada (19%), Eastern Europe (13%) and Asia (12%).
  • The most popular family destinations are Orlando/Disney (63%), cruises (11%), Hawaii (9%), Colorado (7%) and the Caribbean (4%).
  • The hottest 1999 adventure travel destination is Costa Rica followed by Africa, Alaska, South America, the Galapagos Islands and Australia.
  • Europe is far and away the most popular area for hiking and biking (54%).
  • For More Information

    Agents need the most current information in serving the affluent market, or any market, says Lyn Sorenson, consultant and founder of TravelStrength in San Carlos, Calif. Sorenson, who will present a seminar at this year's ASTA Congress Nov. 7 to 12 in Strasbourg, France, offers some key information sources, on the Web and off.

    To locate ground services anywhere in the world, there are three major associations of destination management companies and receptive services operators. Each has a searchable database of ground operators and the services they offer. They are:

  • World Association of Travel Agencies: www.wata.net.
  • American Sightseeing International: www.sightseeing.com.
  • Gray Line International: www.grayline.com.
  • ASTA members can check the ASTA Membership Directory for international members. The best sources for hotel information are the STAR Service, (800) 360-0015, and the Hotel & Travel Index, (800) 446-6551.

    For off-the-beaten-track tours, accommodations and ground services, see Specialty Travel Index at www.spectrav.com.

    For tour operator listings, see Travel Weekly's "The Source," coming as an insert in the Sept. 30 issue.

    For consolidators, use Index to Air Travel Consolidators & Wholesalers, (800) 241-9299.

    A useful who's who in travel is Fairchild's Travel Industry Personnel Directory, issued annually, (800) 927-9792.

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