Luxury roundtable

The pandemic years have had a profound effect on almost every aspect of society. But during this period, other forces — climate change, social justice, the desire for seclusion — raise the question: Is luxury travel keeping up with consumer sentiment?

Front row, from left, Laura Redman, Afar digital content director, and Ellen Asmodeo-Giglio, founder, the ExELLENce Group, advising Beach Enclave. Second row, left to right, Keyona Coward, director of sales, Beach Enclave; Angie Licea, president, Global Travel Collection; Evita Robinson, founder,  Nomadness Travel Tribe; Mark Lakin, founder, The Legacy Untold Travel; Klara Glowczewska, Town and Country travel editor; Vasco Borges, CEO of Beach Enclave; Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor; and Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly. (Photos by Putu Aryanto)

Front row, from left, Laura Redman, Afar digital content director, and Ellen Asmodeo-Giglio, founder, the ExELLENce Group, advising Beach Enclave. Second row, left to right, Keyona Coward, director of sales, Beach Enclave; Angie Licea, president, Global Travel Collection; Evita Robinson, founder,  Nomadness Travel Tribe; Mark Lakin, founder, The Legacy Untold Travel; Klara Glowczewska, Town and Country travel editor; Vasco Borges, CEO of Beach Enclave; Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor; and Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly. (Photos by Putu Aryanto)

How has the pandemic changed luxury travel? Seven industry professionals — advisors, suppliers and media — gathered in Turks and Caicos to discuss shifting trends and attitudes.

Representing the travel agency community were Angie Licea, president of Internova’s Global Travel Collection, and Mark Lakin, founder of The Legacy Untold Travel; suppliers were Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, and Vasco Borges, CEO of Beach Enclave; and media included CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, Town and Country travel editor Klara Glowczewska and Afar digital content director Laura Redman. Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann moderated the discussion.

The group was hosted by Beach Enclave. The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, though the topic might have recurred at intervals during the course of the conversation.

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: With increased focus on climate change, more travel companies are coming forward to say what they’re doing around sustainability. When it comes to luxury travel, is the industry leading or following? And has there been a change in the balance between the indulgent luxury traveler and the conscious luxury traveler?

Laura Redman, digital content director, Afar: I think there is more attention being paid to hospitality as an interaction. You hope for good hospitality on the receiving end, but you can also be a better, more responsible traveler when you arrive. I do think the slightly more woke travelers care about that a lot now. They don’t want to have a negative impact on the places they’re going, especially since the pandemic began. They want to know which companies are paying attention to the local communities, and how they can better give back to the places they’re visiting.

My greatest concern is the co-opting of the word sustainability. It’s become an umbrella term that, for some, means only lip service and for others, something tangible.

Klara Glowczewska, travel editor, Town & Country: I was at a conference not too long ago and, at the end of a presentation, every company said, “And of course, we’re sustainable.” It became almost comical. What’s behind that? Part of the problem is that there really isn’t a single set of standards, a governing body, criteria that you have to meet to be able to use that term. And a lot of it is aspirational. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all heard about building back better and a reset and how much nature matters. But in the pandemic, nature bit us back.

Evita Robinson, founder, Nomadness Travel Tribe: There are levels and tiers, because sustainability means different things to different people. There’s the environment, but another part is, what are hospitality and tourism doing for the local economies, for the local workforce, for the local land? And it looks different in every location around the world.

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‘Diversity can’t just be an initiative, because an initiative begins and ends.’

Angie Licea
president of Internova’s Global Travel Collection

Redman: We think about it as pillars: economic, environmental, cultural and social. Economic and environmental are well-defined. Cultural is having radical empathy for the people you interact with. Social is truly thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion and how it applies across the industry. But, again, those are still very broad.

Mark Lakin, founder, The Legacy Untold Travel: Eco should be the foundation. I run a company founded in conservation principles, and the more I learn, the more I find out what I don’t know. These are complex issues, and people don’t really understand how to address them. Some do care, and they’re doing their best. 

But a luxury traveler usually isn’t looking for something that starts with the word “eco.” If you look at the leaders in this space, they don’t use that word. It’s just endemic within their brands. And I think that’s the Holy Grail: How does sustainability just become part of the five-star, six-star standard?

Angie Licea, president, Global Travel Collection: I think that when it comes to sustainability, whoever truly gets there first sets the definition. So, who’s going to establish the true definition of sustainability?

Weissmann: Is it perhaps 1 Hotels, which put a stake in the ground long ago saying it’s going to be sustainable, from A to Z?

Robinson: I stayed at 1 Hotel in Miami and was impressed with a lot of the things, from the key being made of wood with a chip in it to the actual room itself. They do an amazing job and put themselves in the forefront. I don’t know if they are the be-all, end-all of our definition, but I think that they’re making a conscious effort.

Redman: Their version of sustainability is very easy to digest, but I think you have to zoom out. We ran a list of the best new sustainable hotels. And among them were places like Turtle Bay, which has been practicing sustainability for a long time in Hawaii. And Paradero Todos Santos in Mexico, where the design pays a lot of attention to space and they have a working farm on-site where you learn to garden, you learn to farm. In-room amenities are just the tiniest bit of this larger conversation.

Robinson: Were they luxury properties? Because I have found some of the most ecofriendly properties are not luxury properties.

Peter Greenberg, travel editor, CBS News: Let’s talk about short-term and long-term. In the short-term, most luxury travelers remain selfish. The fact that they’re actually considering the environment is a complete coincidence. Take a look at the reaction of luxury travelers in the middle of a public-health crisis. What do they do? Charter private jets to go to a place where they could breathe with nobody else around them, the most elitist decision they could make. And they were willing to spend gobs of money without regard to carbon offsets or anything else. In the short-term, behaviors haven’t changed. People are still very, very selfish.

That is, unless you help them understand. Every time I check into a hotel, there’s that plastic card — plastic — asking me to save the environment by not washing towels. I couldn’t laugh harder. But one day I mentioned this to a bellman, and he said, “I want to show you something.” He took me to the hotel laundry, and I saw washing machines that were humongous. I could then connect the dots with how much phosphate it took to clean my towel. I got it.

But the second question is: I know they’re going to save money and help the environment. But where’s the money going? Does it go back to the community? Does it go to projects that are self-sustaining by definition? Nobody at that hotel could tell me the answer. By not connecting the dots, they did not enlist me.

Glowczewska: On that topic, I want to give a shoutout to Beach Enclave. This morning, the table in my villa was spread out with a huge platter of croissants and various pastries, enormous platters of fruit, eggs, bacon, etc., and I said to the butler, “What’s going to happen to the food? We’re not eating all this. It’s going to just be wasted.” And he said, “No, I’ll leave the fruit and pastries out here for the rest of the day and if they’re not eaten, it will be given to community members who need it.”

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‘Short-term, luxury travelers remain selfish. Look at their reaction to the crisis.’

Peter Greenberg
CBS News travel editor

Weissmann: Increasingly, some luxury travelers will feel uncomfortable with what might be described as the excesses of luxury. Brands need to make sure that, in the guest’s mind, luxury doesn’t equate with waste. Klara, I had a similar experience at the ITC Hotel in Delhi. I was staying two nights and was given a bar of soap that could last me a month. I asked the butler about that because they had been touting their sustainability initiatives to me, and it seemed wasteful. He said that when a guest checked out, the top layers of the soap were shaved off and then the bars distributed to staff.

Greenberg: There’s the experience and there’s the process. People do want to know.

Vasco Borges, owner, Beach Enclave: There’s a definition for sustainability that I like a lot: meet the present needs without compromising the future. The present needs may be that you need air conditioning. How do you address that? How can you make that a little bit more sustainable? 

There are properties doing beautiful things, but they’re so rough. What can we do today at the luxury level that addresses what our guests want? That, to me, is the main thing.

Licea: Do you think the luxury consumers want choice? If they go to a hotel and are told “we’re going to pick up your towels every other day, give you clean sheets every other today,” what’s your response? If they say you have this option, or get this service every day, which do you choose?

Greenberg: I can answer that. In the midst of this public-health crisis, we’ve morphed from worrying about how I’m impacting the environment to a fear of how the environment is impacting me.

If you have a choice to go on a cruise ship that is 100% vaccinated or one that’s not, I know which one you’re going to pick. You’re picking based on your own self-interest and your fear. The real key to deriving a sustainability definition is to play on fear.

What’s the economic consequence of not being sustainable? Why can’t we come up with a definition so people understand that there’s a reward and there’s a consequence. If you don’t, they’re always going to act in their own self-interest.

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‘What has changed for the indulgent luxury traveler? The conscious luxury traveler?’

Arnie Weissmann
editor in chief, Travel Weekly

Glowczewska: A lot of consumers are aware of the consequences. I think the difficulty is that, if you don’t get a vaccine, the consequence is immediate. You get sick. The consequences for environmental issues are long-term. Your great-grandchildren are important, but they may not affect your daily decisions.

Borges: Private companies can do something. There’s a vaccine requirement to get into Turks and Caicos, with an exception for children and specific medical reasons. The government can’t mandate that citizens get vaccinated, but I can, and I believe we are the only resort in Turks with 100% vaccinated staff.

Robinson: At Nomadness Travel Tribe, we’ve mandated that everybody, staff and guests, be vaccinated.

Weissmann: You can mandate vaccines for staff, and even guests. But if we’re comparing the pandemic and sustainability, as a private company, would you also purchase carbon offsets to compensate for your businesses’ impact?

Robinson: I would be open to having the conversation and seeing where it can be implemented.

Weissmann: And if you did it, would you tell guests? You could just add the cost of the offsets to the cost of the trip or you could advertise the fact that your trip includes a carbon offset.

Robinson: I would tell them. I’m very transparent with my community, and I think that they would receive it really well.

Greenberg: But when you say you’ll tell them, you first have to explain it to them, because 99% of luxury travelers could not tell you what carbon offset even means. And educate them about how it benefits them.

Licea: Every little bit helps. That’s a message we could send, too. You may not be able to do a complete offset but stay in a property that has big shampoo bottles instead of little ones.

Lakin: Plastic is actually an amazing tool for carbon sequestration, whereas if you switch to glass it actually has a higher carbon footprint. How are we supposed to sift our way through this? All of this is coming at us, and at the end of the day we’re just trying to walk on the beach and let go of stress or celebrate with our family. 

Certain hospitality brands are doing incredible things. As a travel designer, if I put my client with Singita, I know it’ll be all right. It’s green energy. It’s rainwater harvesting. Ninety-five percent of their employees are from the local community. They’re doing all the stuff right. And I think that, to me, is the solution. Let’s not let perfection be the enemy of progress. This is a huge step in the right direction.

Borges: The travel industry offers experiences. We’re not manufacturing things that ultimately cause pollution. We offer kayaking in the ocean, taking a yoga class. And I think we sometimes suffer because we worry about the impact of traveling, but we should also celebrate our positive impact: We make people feel better.

Glowczewska: So much of it is education. There’s a burden here for travel advisors who sell stays at properties. The properties should train the people who sell them about their great sustainability story. I think there’s a real gap there now.

Redman: And we, the press, should be carbon offset explainers. Produce eco-graphic videos that make it digestible. We also should counsel travel advisors, teaching how to tell the story so it doesn’t feel like a science argument gone bad.

Licea: And travel advisors love nothing more than sharing the information that makes them more knowledgeable and consultative. They genuinely want people to have amazing experiences, and [they want to] understand and have knowledge about the local places they’re sending people.

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‘All of this is coming at us, and we’re just trying to walk on the beach, let go of stress.’

Mark Lakin
founder of The Legacy Untold Travel

Weissmann: Just as sustainability has risen during the pandemic, so has the question of social justice and issues around diversity, equity and inclusion. Has luxury travel gotten the message? Are people of color featured in collateral material? Is everyone greeted equally? What still needs to happen?

Robinson: Being a Black, female American traveler who was finding myself in spaces where I’d never seen people like me appear in mass media or social media, especially when I started Nomadness Travel Tribe 10 years ago, I think there are two tiers to this question. There’s the publication space of Afar, Town & Country, Conde Nast, Travel + Leisure, and then there’s the location and the actual property itself. What I’ve seen over the last 18 months is, for instance, that Conde Nast Traveler gave me two pages of op-ed where I vented to their readership and their staff about “Are you with us for the movement or for the moment?”

With Afar, we re-did a whole dataset, going into our community and surveying 5,300 of our members to come up with a quantitative and qualitative report on what the Bipoc (Black, Indigenous and people of color) travelers are looking for, their desires and how and whether they’re represented in marketing. The highest percentages came in saying we need to be able to see ourselves in a place, and the article that came from the survey also showed clearly that Black travelers are not a monolith. 

And the whole package from Travel + Leisure for Black History Month was phenomenal. So, in the publication space, we’re seeing it.

Greenberg: There’s an economic consequence if they don’t.

Robinson: Yes, an economic consequence, but also a social consequence. You don’t want to look like — I’m about to curse — an asshole.

Redman: It’s hard work, and we think beyond words and photos. It’s foundational. The leaders at these magazine brands are working actively to diversify their staff. Not just bringing on an intern but shaking up the highest levels of senior management.

Licea: Diversity needs to become infused into a company’s culture. It can’t be an initiative. An initiative begins and ends. As an industry, we have to look at it as a culture that we’re embracing.

Greenberg: Let’s talk about the visual. I’m from television. When you look at print advertising or television advertising or television reporting in the luxury space, I would be hard-pressed to see a single cruise ship brochure, a single advertisement, a single resort advertisement that features a Black couple.

Robinson: That’s exactly the point.

Redman: And it’s predominately a couple, man-woman.

Greenberg: And they all look the same: An older Ken and Barbie. The guy looks like Commander Whitehead’s younger brother, and they’re always toasting with wine glasses.

Robinson: I think representation in marketing has to be as diverse as the groups you are hoping to reach. And I’m talking about marketing to the intersection, people who have accessibility and ablism issues. I’m talking about the intersection of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Greenberg: Although, I will say this, the LGBTQ community has done a whole lot better than the African-American community in that regard.

Robinson: Yes, they’re more organized.

Greenberg: The reason is that it finally dawned on the industry that they vote with their wallets.

Robinson: And that’s where data comes in, and why it’s so important. The African-American annual spend is $109 billion, and that’s only grown with the Black travel movement on social media. And I even look at Muslim travel; their expected expenditure in 2020, before Covid, was, like, $220 billion!

Greenberg: And it goes beyond the hajj. Way beyond the hajj.

Robinson: So, like, have a halal menu!

Greenberg: I’ll give one shoutout — it’s going to come as a very strange shoutout — to Alabama. They asked me if I were interested in doing a television piece on the Civil Rights Trail and the entire Black experience of the South, starting in Selma. We went there to do a seven-minute piece and ended up doing a 30-minute special.

Robinson: While I think that’s amazing, I would take it to the next step, and what I would have said to them is to find somebody who is a correspondent of color.

Greenberg: I disagree. You’ve got to get to the audience’s comfort level, where they’ll accept the information.

Robinson: I’m tired of people being comfortable. It’s time to shake it up.

Greenberg: We shook it up with a 30-minute special that never would have been done five years ago.

Robinson: That’s fair, but, I mean, we’re five years ahead.

Greenberg: It’s not only fair. It’s a 30-minute special.

Lakin: But to Evita’s point, so often people who are not people of color are making these decisions and are afraid to make the wrong decision or ask the wrong question. And I think what happens in those moments is that they end up not doing enough. They’re frozen.

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‘My definition for sustainability: meet present needs without compromising the future.’

Vasco Borges
CEO of Beach Enclave

Robinson: Black travelers and travelers of color are really tired of the meetings and the conversations about diversity and inclusion that begin, “Change is going to take time.” You’ve had the time. I feel like we have an opportunity to go into those same meetings with these same people and say, “What is the biggest amount of change that we can make in the shortest period of time?” Why does the conversation not start there?

Licea: One of my friends at our company is of color, and we were talking about this. She said when someone asks, “Where do we start?” she said she’s tired of answering that question. “You guys should know where to start.”

Robinson: And the answer is: Not at the beginning. 

Borges: There’s another angle of inclusion and equity that I’d like to also discuss, which is social mobility. And I think, again, that’s another thing to celebrate in the travel industry. We’re so well positioned to help with social mobility. It’s an industry that is in far-flung places and can hire local staff. 

We hire locally. We have scholarships for local kids. There are things you can do that give confidence to people who haven’t necessarily gone through a formal education, and you see them moving up. All our resort managers now are local. That, to me, is fantastic.

Redman: The safari industry is starting to pay more attention to that. Singita has a culinary program where they’re training local people. It can be small-scale. It starts with your company, Vasco. It starts with brands just doing it, not just talking about it.

Greenberg: Well, Micato Safaris, what they’re doing — unbelievable. Everybody who books a safari with them, they put one kid all the way through college.

Glowczewska: It’s a reason to take one of their safaris. It’s good for business, and it’s just good.

Licea: There’s a certain prejudice around people moving up. If you have somebody who didn’t go to college and they work their way up, you’ll find many times that the person won’t talk about their journey because they’re afraid they’ll be perceived as less intelligent because they don’t have a formal education. So, I do think we need to tell the story of people who start without that level of education, but grow. There is a bias and a prejudice against people who are not educated.

I will just say it here: I never went to college. For me, raised on a farm, that wasn’t an option. And I don’t usually tell my story, but now I’ve said it.

Weissmann: Angie, I think the reaction may actually be the opposite of what you might think. I think it’s impressive.

Licea: But it is very hard for people to tell their story. And we should give them the opportunity. So, my face is red, right? I don’t usually tell people that, but since it came up, I think it’s important for people to understand.

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‘I’m tired of people being comfortable. It’s time to shake it up.’

Evita Robinson
founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe

Weissmann: Thank you, Angie.

I’d like to ask about a trend that really developed in the luxury space during the pandemic, and that is about vacationing in isolation. There has been a big move to private: private planes, private villas, private tours, private access. It has always been there but accelerated during the pandemic. Is it here to stay at the current level? Is this a pandemic moment or something which, now that people have had a taste of it, is how they’re going to travel?

Borges: That’s a question I don’t like. I don’t like the word “isolation.” I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think there are people going for privacy and for seclusion, and that’s a movement that started a long time ago. Privacy and seclusion, in your villa.

When you get into a crisis, it gets accelerated or exaggerated; we go back to privacy and seclusion. It’s very important. We no longer wish to travel to a hotel with 400 rooms. It’s not what we seek. But it’s not isolation, either. It’s actually connecting, but within a certain group of people.

Greenberg: Yes, but then you have a responsibility. You really have to encourage guests to immerse themselves in the community.

Borges: Very much so. And, by the way, the other dimension to it is that whilst you do want to be secluded and private, the luxury traveler still expects exactly the same amenities as before, so we bring all that into these villas. You don’t want to go into a bunker in New Zealand and not have a tennis court. You still want all the amenities.

Greenberg: This brings up another issue, which is high-tech versus high-touch. Because the pandemic has allowed everybody go to high-tech. Now you open your door electronically, nobody walks you to your room. You have no human contact. And that’s not my definition of a luxury travel experience. I want to have a conversation with somebody. I don’t want to go to a kiosk. Every time I see a kiosk, I run. Without the art of the conversation, there won’t be luxury travel.

Licea: I don’t think going on a private jet or being housed in a villa means people are purposefully excluding themselves from community.

Greenberg: During the pandemic, they are, I’m sorry.

Licea: I think people have found that there’s a way to have both. You don’t have to be in a 400-person hotel, but you can still experience community.

Borges: On the spot. I totally agree with that.

Greenberg: We used to define a successful trip by experiential one-upmanship. Right? “Oh, you had dinner at the restaurant? Well, I cooked it with a chef with a fish that I’d caught earlier.” People were looking for that. But right now, they’re just afraid of it.

Lakin: Personally, I have less interest in being around Americans that seem to be like me and a ton of interest in being in the community. But during the pandemic, I felt irresponsible going to the community, mostly for their well-being. I do think that wanting to return to the community, for curious travelers, is going to come back in full force.

Robinson: Covid isolated us so much that we’re starving to experience a community that can be bridged safely. I think when it comes to the luxury traveler and how they’re approaching vacationing in quote-unquote “isolation,” a lot of it is about people paying for safety now.

Redman: There’s safety and fear and also guilt about enjoying a celebration. We have lost the joy of travel. To bring it back, just get out there and be with the people you love.

Borges: We actually had a guest who took pains to make sure his family did not find out that he’d been to the Caribbean.

Licea: Many of our advisors are so fearful about what they actually say to consumers at the time of booking because if they say, “You’ll be safe,” and something happens, they’re liable. But if they don’t give the hope of safety and health, they don’t get the booking, and their livelihood is diminished. For a travel advisor in this space, it has been very, very complex to navigate. If they go too far to one side, they’re liable. If they go too far on the other side, they don’t get revenue.

Robinson: For us, it wasn’t about inspiration or hope, and it wasn’t saying that you were going to be safe. We created our own in-house protocols, including that everybody had to be vaccinated at least two months before we depart. We kept it factual and allowed consumers to make the decision on how safe that made them feel.

Licea: I think the difference between your environment and our advisors is that they’re reselling your product. You’re setting the protocols, so you know that you’ve done everything you can to create an environment. For an advisor who’s independent, they must rely on you and others. What level of assurance do they have that the protocol is actually set? An advisor who’s reselling has to rely on you and everybody else who is the end provider of service and product.

Borges: In late 2020, we went really deep into protocols. We got all our staff vaccinated. We were able to test. We promised a bubble. We launched a program where we flew private. Your butler was waiting for you at the airport, took care of customs, got you into the taxi, so you’re only exposed to a couple of people. And that made a lot of sense to a lot of people. There was fear, but they wanted to travel. 

Today, no one asks about that. Now, people are vaccinated and they know that this country is doing well.

Redman: When did that shift happen?

Borges: I want to say around May, June, July. I think it had to do with how many people on the island were vaccinated. It just changed. A huge change!

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‘There is more attention being paid to hospitality as an interaction.’

Laura Redman
digital content director, Afar

Weissmann: How are staffing shortages affecting things? Is this a long-term problem for luxury hoteliers?

Greenberg: Because of the pandemic, a lot of Americans, regardless of occupation, are rethinking their lives, their happiness, their location, their lifestyle, their cost of living. This has less to do with people not coming back because they're still getting unemployment benefits. It has to do with people just not coming back!

Weissmann: "The Great Resignation."

Greenberg: If I go to a restaurant in Italy, there's a reasonably good chance that my waiter or waitress sees their position not just as their job, it's their profession. They would tell you, proudly, "This is what I do." In Los Angeles, a waiter at the restaurant is waiting for a movie call. It’s not long-term to begin with. Where are they going? They're going to places where the cost of living is lower. They're moving out of big cities. In a world where we can work remotely, live remotely, nobody's punching a clock, it's crazy to see what's going on. Because the staff shortage is being caused by that. 

Redman: Well, there's an added element of just bad behavior by guests. The pandemic is starting to recede for some people, and they're, like, "I have money, and that entitles me to do whatever I want." So, they go to restaurants and they just treat the wait staff poorly. There's a selfishness.

Licea: That is driving workers to say, "I'm not getting enough money to put up with this!"

Greenberg: It's going to change the dynamic of the minimum wage, which it should. But look, I was in a hotel that was open at 100% capacity and had no housekeeping staff. Zero. And at the restaurant, one woman was trying to work three shifts. It was absurd. That wasn't only because the hotel had a staff problem. They tried to operate at 100% while they were understaffed.

Redman: They're trying to scale back up, laying tracks while the train's still going. 

Licea: It's not a forever problem. But it is a long-term problem.

Borges: And going forward, is it going to be staff shortage, or will it lead to staff cost inflation? Luckily for us, we had a meeting on salary-per-hour for our staff in late 2020, and we’re 15% above the average in the country. So, we don't have any staff shortage. It's a new world, and you’ve got to pay people better. And when you do, and they’re happier, the guest is happier. The perceived value of our experience actually went up. But in a lot of places, I felt like the value I was getting out of the stay went down. For instance, no housekeeping. The value went down. Guest expectations are being poorly managed by many of us in the industry. 

Redman: And there's no price correction.

Greenberg: I recently was in a hotel and said, “Can you press my suit?" "We don't do that anymore." "All right, what about an iron?" "I can't do that." "OK, what about a restaurant?" "Not open." "What about housekeeping?" "Housekeeping comes once every four days." "And what's your rate? Have you adjusted your rate?" "No." So I told him, "Shame on you! You can't have it both ways."

Lakin: You have people that are largely paid by tips who are not getting travelers coming, who now are saying, "This doesn't work for me. It's not filling my soul. It's not filling my pocket. I'm out." And I think to Vasco's point, once the money is corrected, and they're paid real salaries, it will turn around. We're all desperate to reconnect. When I traveled during the pandemic, including to Tanzania, people could not have been more excited to receive me. From the depth of their heart. It was so touching!

Weissmann: Your experience, the economic impact of the pandemic and Tanzania all come together in another outcome for travel. One of the things Tanzania is hoping to do is run a cable car more-or-less halfway up Mount Kilimanjaro. And the operators who are now leading climbers to the summit are saying this is a terrible idea for them, but also a terrible idea for the mountain. They say that to build the cable car, they’re going to take out some of the popular trails for climbers, which will put more stress on the other trails. But the prime minister told me, "I've got to get back to pre-pandemic tourism levels and I want to get there in four years.” She is less concerned about the environmental impact or the experience of the climbers than the economy. Do you think other countries, in a rush to restore tourism, may take a similar approach? 

Robinson: People want to survive.

Greenberg: By its traditional definition, luxury travel is not based on rate. It's based on value. So, make people pay more for the climb and don’t put that cable car in. 

Glowczewska: It's a sad prospect, a chairlift on Mount Kilimanjaro, it just hurts me in my heart. Some things should remain difficult and inaccessible.

Lakin: I actually wish more things were inaccessible.  

Weissmann: When I first saw the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, in 1983, it cost me $30. But to Peter’s point, they eventually saw the difference between rate and value. The gorilla trekking fee now is $1,500. When I first saw them, I didn’t need a reservation. I just showed up. But now, at the higher price, more people are going, and you’d better have a reservation. 

Greenberg: Look at the Galapagos.

Redman: Exactly. You can lessen the footprint and still make money.

Weissmann: But while much of low-density/high-cost tourism is good for the environment, it does mean that only the wealthy can access what are essentially national treasures. It’s understandable that not everyone can afford to stay at a five-star resort, but will the most amazing natural experiences be available only to those with deep pockets? 

Lakin: There are options. I trekked in the Democratic Republic of Congo for gorillas, and the permit fee was $300 instead of $1,500. And frankly, it was extraordinary. It’s for a different type of consumer but it was mind-blowing. And importantly, those gorillas are the reason that Virunga National Park still exists. It’s the reason [conservationist and park director] Emmanuel de Merode is doing the work he’s doing there. It’s the reason he built a hydroelectric plant that provides electricity to everybody around the park. Sometimes these levels of wealth are relative. Three hundred dollars for a permit is insurmountable for some people. And for others, it’s once-in-a-lifetime. I recently planned a trip for a retired schoolteacher. She had a very small budget compared to what we usually work with, but she said, “I saw you do rhino microchipping. I've been obsessed with rhinoceroses since I was little girl.” I’m like, I’m going to fund this myself. And it was such a great joy. And it doesn’t mean that she can take that trip every year or ever again. But that’s the reality. Not all things are accessible to all people.

Greenberg: And if they’re going to be accessible you have to be responsible. 

Redman: Admittedly, a luxury villa is not accessible to all. But should the Seven Wonders of the World be accessible?

Borges: We have to remember that we live in the developed world. Decisions to put cable cars in some natural wonders were done 60 years ago. They probably shouldn’t have been, but they were. And we’ve enjoyed them. And now we stand here questioning whether Tanzania should build a cable car? Yes, it would be great if Kilimanjaro was not accessible to everyone. But it’s their right to build it. They get to decide how to invest their wealth. Hopefully, they will do it in a low impact, high-value way. But we didn’t do that in our world, right? We enjoyed our wealth, but when another part of the world wants to have the same lifestyle we do, we’re, like, but it’s bad for the environment.

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‘We’ve all heard about how nature matters. But in the pandemic, nature bit us back.’

Klara Glowczewska
Town and Country travel editor

Lakin: Sixty years ago, there were 1 billion people on this planet and decisions were not globally impactful. When you look at [Brazil president] Bolsonaro and his position on allowing destruction in the rainforest, it’s easy to say it’s his sovereign territory, he can do what he wants. But on the other side, it truly is the world’s lungs. How shall we look at decisions that are global when we’re living in a global world? It’s tricky. I agree with what you say on this hand, and then on the other hand I’m, like, right, but that’s not actually relevant today. 

Borges: A lot of these countries have been asking us to provide them with funds to control climate change and [fulfill] the pledges we’re asking them to sign. And we’re not. 

Weissmann: One final question: How has the pandemic changed you as a traveler?

Glowczewska: In the very short run, I’ve become a little bit more irritable. I don’t like it, but I am. It’s partly the staffing issues and partly because my expectations are so high, and I’m so hungry for it. Once I'm on the ground, I feel Covid doesn’t matter. I don’t feel the mask is an impediment to enjoyment at all. I'd be happy to be on the beach in a mask if I could be on the beach. I am constantly thinking about the disparity in wealth -- the pandemic has made us all more aware of that. And I’m trying to, intellectually, come to terms with my love of luxury travel -- not necessarily defined as butlers -- and going to far-off and exotic places, which to me is the ultimate luxury. The fact is, not all of us can have that. How do I make that OK in my own mind? I wish there were kind of a moral carbon offset, but I don’t know what that would be.

Lakin: For me, travel has always been about connecting. And the more different a person is who I can connect with, the more alive I feel. Most of my travels have been what could be referred to as developing-world travels. My favorite places are tribal civilizations that are still living traditionally. All of that stopped for me. It has been so painful. I wouldn’t feel responsible going into tribal environments and interacting with people, for their safety more than anything. It’s been really challenging for me. I’ve spent time in Africa and remote parts of the world during the pandemic but have been largely sequestered where I’m staying. The second thing is that my trips, which were always long, have gotten longer. My last trip was three-and-a-half months, all over Africa and Europe and the western United States. Because we can work from anywhere, I didn’t feel like I needed to return one week a month to be in New York. So now New York feels like a place I change my bag sometimes.

Licea: I’ve been in the industry for almost 33 years. And I think my appreciation and thankfulness for this industry has grown substantially because I saw so many aspects of travel at risk during the pandemic. The industry I knew I loved, I loved more. And I committed to helping it grow. One way it’s changed the way I travel is I’ve taken a lot more responsibility for my potential impact on others. In the past, I didn’t think twice about flying if I had a cold. It didn’t ever occur to me that I can be impacting other people. Rather, I felt traveling showed commitment to my job. I take a lot more responsibility for myself and my fellow passengers and colleagues now, particularly as it relates to health and wellness.

Greenberg: I went, in one day, from traveling 400,000 miles a year to traveling zero. Once we shut down, I got a chance to rediscover my own neighborhood. I’ve lived in the same building in Manhattan since I was six months old, yet I didn’t know my neighborhood as much as I thought I did. I was walking south down Fifth Avenue along Central Park and came to an opening called the Engineers Gate. There’s a bronze plaque dated April 14 of 2020. I’d gone by it thousands of times and never noticed this plaque. It’s dedicated to a guy named W.T. Stead. I Google him. W.T. Stead died on the Titanic on April 15, 1912. He was the father of modern investigative reporting. And I’m like, I have to do more walks. The pandemic makes me want to travel more. And in doing so, I not only rediscovered my own neighborhood, I started rediscovering the world a different way.

Borges: I actually don’t think it changed that much for me. I’ve always traveled -- I always like to travel for a long period of time, just to one place. On one of the last trips I did, pre-Covid, I just stayed in the room for two weeks. That type of traveling, and doing it with friends, is what I’m still doing now. It did change me a little bit as a person because you do give more value to things that you took for granted. And you do realize, yes, I’ve got to be a little more careful when I'm traveling sick. Or I've got to give a little bit more value to seeing my family. It made me realize the value of certain things. But as a traveler, no, I’m traveling the same way.

Robinson: I came up with four words, four P’s: patience, protection, purpose and people. I think that those were really at the guts of what happened with me during Covid. I’ve become more patient -- and I’m not patient by nature -- with staff because I don’t know what their personal story is. I’ve also become protective of staff. And others. I ended up getting into a bit of a shouting match with somebody who refused to put on a mask on a flight. And purpose. We really align with communities, give our stage over to other marginalized demographics, seek out partners of color, making sure that my money is going into Black businesses. And then, people. There’s been a redistribution of how I do business and how I live my life. We saw what happens when stuff completely shuts down. And I think that we have a future in which another shutdown is going to come, due to climate change. I’m trying to prepare now for what the business will look like then, to make sure that we’re as foolproof as possible. Arnie, are you going to answer your own question?

Weissmann: OK. Similar to Peter, I explored my neighborhood. My street runs parallel to a river, and all the side streets dead end into it. My wife and I started doing what we called street flossing: going down one side of these dead-end streets and coming back the other. We found so many buildings we didn’t know were there, beautiful architecture and even small connecting streets and pocket parks we didn’t know existed within a mile of our apartment. Prior to the pandemic I was, let’s say, an obsessive traveler. If an opportunity came up, particularly if it were to somewhere I had never been before, I’d go. Then suddenly I was chained to my dining room table for a year. This may sound strange but, horrible as the year was in many ways, overall, I still enjoyed it. I think interior landscapes became as important as exterior landscapes. My whole family was also shut down. Kids came home from college and lived with us again. We got to know each other better. Now, when I look at opportunities to travel, I balance them against what I’m going to lose in terms of what’s at home. There were a lot of things that changed me, not just as a traveler, but as a human. For all of us, I'm sure.

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