A 'Who's Who' of luxury travel

CANNES, France — In the travel world, the annual International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) is widely viewed as the premier event for connecting the world’s top buyers and sellers of luxury travel.

Indeed, the roster of attendees reads like a “Who’s Who” of luxury, ranging from the world’s top agents to the most famous and exclusive hotels and resorts, not to mention still-to-be-discovered properties, private islands, cruises, spas, safaris, even airlines.

But not just anyone can attend. For agents, it is an invitation-only, hosted event, and those selected are culled carefully based on the affluence of their clientele and their sales volume of high-end travel.

For each exhibitor, ILTM sponsors a luxury agent, ensuring that there is a balanced, one-to-one ratio for three days of interactions. This year, 1,500 agents were paired with 1,500 representatives of luxury brands in 60,000 meetings over two-and-a-half days.

So how does one get invited? The event’s manager, Gareth Baguley, said the process of identifying potential attendees begins immediately after each year’s show ends, based on Reed Exhibitions global database of 12,000 agents and its relationships with consortia such as Virtuoso, Signature and Ensemble, plus key agencies and exhibitors.

Many of the world’s top luxury agents are invited regularly, but Baguley said the goal is to have a minimum of 30% new agents each year. This year, about 300 agents were invited from the U.S.

While many attendees are selected based on recommendations from top agencies, consortia and exhibitors, Baguley said individual agents can also apply through ILTM’s website. But there is a rigorous screening process, and those selected must provide references to ensure they book a sufficient amount of luxury travel in multiple regions.

And while the show, in true Cannes style, includes plenty of social events, it is not just a junket. Invitees are often prescheduled for long days of meetings, and repeat invitations in subsequent years are based on agents’ attendance and how much product they buy.

CANNES, France — Although people are increasingly glued to their mobile phones and other devices, when it comes to luxury travel, their desire and expectations for personalized service and the human touch are higher than ever, new research shows.

The trends and data discussed here at the International Luxury Travel Market paint a bright future for travel agents. But fast-evolving technology and the ubiquitous addiction to mobile devices also present new challenges.

In the keynote at the premier luxury show that connects travel suppliers with professional buyers from around the globe, Claire Bennett, executive vice president of American Express Travel and Lifestyle Services, detailed results of a new survey suggesting that high-touch service matters the most to affluent travelers; in fact, it is becoming more  important, not less.

But the options for ways to connect with consumers to bring that immediate and highly personalized service through technology are also accelerating, she said. “So, that high-touch piece becomes even more important as devices become ubiquitous.  And linking those two together is the critical piece.”

Today, she said, 80% of Internet users connect from their mobile devices. And while the survey revealed that 90% of millennials use their desktop to book travel, they start their search using a mobile device. What’s more, mobile booking is expected to rise as more companies roll out mobile booking apps.

In responses to the American Express survey, conducted by the Futures Company, 93% of consumers said human touch is irreplaceable, and 45% of all travelers and 35% of millennials would travel more if they had personalized service.

“In the next 10 years, the customer experience will actually outpace the price and the product itself as the most important thing for consumers,” Bennett said. “So we’re going to continue to see this be critical, as well.”

To keep up, Bennett said, the industry must focus on upgrading its technology and ensuring it can connect through all devices and interact with consumers throughout an entire trip, not just before and after or when a problem or emergency arises.

“These are big investments,” she said, but ones that must be made.

“We’ve seen examples in the industry recently of companies that aren’t harnessed by the technology that they’ve had for hundreds of years [being] able to quickly launch new things,” she said. “So I think the onus for all of us when we think about the future of the travel industry is making those investments and making sure we disrupt ourselves … before others disrupt the industry. That’s really the opportunity.  I think it’s also a very exciting opportunity.”

For example, just a few years ago, many consumers were wary of sharing their personal information. Today, Bennett said, the American Express survey suggests that 76% of respondents globally favor letting brands track purchases to deliver a more personalized experience.

At American Express, she said, the company is focused on updating its technology to connect its global offices and databases. For example, it used its American Express Connect system during the Paris terrorist attacks to contact clients to make sure they were safe and to see how the company could assist them.

She said the company continues to expand that system’s capabilities to offer travelers local deals when they arrive as well as things like last-minute show tickets that might be available and of interest, based on their personal profiles.

The ability to remain connected with consumers and share their preferences and profiles globally is part of what is driving new partnerships and mergers, Bennett said. And while that presents competitive challenges for smaller agencies that rely on sometimes antiquated GDSs, Bennett said, it also offers opportunities for technology startups to find ways to connect the smaller players to information that global giants will have an easier time tapping into.

Underscoring the demand for tailored travel, the survey revealed that 45% of all travelers and 35% of millennials would travel more if they had personalized service.

That desire is driving growth for travel agencies, which in the early years of the Internet were widely predicted to be dying, industry experts said.

Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch said the luxury travel consortium grew 26% in 2015, to 11,429 advisers, with expansion of existing agencies being a key driver of that growth.

Also helping to fuel that expansion, he said, is growing demand for personalized service and experiences from tech-savvy millennials, who many feared would shun personal service in favor of their devices.

The merging of technology with that increasing desire for personalization and the human touch, Bennett said, offers many opportunities for the industry to create, rebuild and innovate in the next few years.

“I think it’s just really exciting, “she said. “It’s going to be a really fun time to be in the travel industry.”

Data in this article came from an American Express survey, conducted by the Futures Company.A previous version of this article erroneously stated that the study was conducted by Walker Research.


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