For California-based travel advisor Cate Caruso, much of spring and summer was a depressing slog through her catalog of dedicated clients. As the Covid-19 pandemic closed borders and shuttered travel, she was stuck in a rut of cancellations and rebookings.
“I was going over the travel plans I have with clients that can be three and five years out, and we were rescheduling this year’s trips and pushing everything else back,” said Caruso, owner of True Place Travels. “After a while the conversation started to turn. They were sick of talking about what’s canceled and what they can’t do, and they wanted to start thinking about what’s next. In the last six weeks or so I’ve seen a real uptick in people looking for those long-term, bucket list items.”
Encouraged by what she was hearing, Caruso reached out to clients and “planted some seeds” for future, epic travel plans, then waited to see what they would yield.
Surveys show avid travelers’ pandemic patience is wearing thin, and they are ready to dream about vacations and, in many cases, book, putting plans into place for calendar years 2022 or 2023. Tapping into the wave of wanderlust, travel providers are rolling out new tools, tours and options that make planning, booking and daydreaming about future travel easier.
Not only are people yearning to travel again, there is a trend of people looking to make up for the lost year of 2020 by going big and bold on their next vacation. Tour companies and cruise lines are reporting unprecedented interest in longer journeys, big events and hard-to-reach places.
“People who sat on their budget this year and want to double up for next year is for sure a theme,” Caruso said. “What’s interesting about it is it’s almost all or nothing. Some people are not ready to have the conversation at all about booking travel, while others are ready to dive right in.”
Like Caruso, many travel advisors and tour operators are seeing a boom in interest after so many 2020 plans were lost to the pandemic. More than six months of deferred honeymoons, family reunions and canceled hard-to-get reservations at renowned restaurants from Paris to Napa Valley have turned travel itches into full-blown wanderlust rash.
“A lot of my clients feel ripped off,” said Josh Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel in Philadelphia. “They only have so many good years left to travel, and they’ve been robbed of a year. It’s a perfect time to take the budget they would’ve used this year and apply it to next.”
A Travel Leaders Group survey with Canadian and U.S. respondents conducted in September found that 99% of frequent travelers were eager to hit the road again, with 70% saying they were scheduling a vacation in 2021 and another 23% planning a trip before the end of 2020. Travel Leaders Group also reports online inquiries are on the upswing, rising 88% in October from their nadir in April.
After sitting dormant for a year, intrepid travelers are ready to get going, many advisors said, and even more cautious customers have started exploring options, especially for the second half of 2021 and beyond. In some cases, they’re booking trips they’ve dreamed about for years but have always hesitated to book.
“Some of the more long-term plans, the bigger trips and far-out expeditions are selling out quickly,” Bush said. “I see it as waves. The intrepid traveler is already looking to get back out there and book things. Then there are people who also love travel but are taking a more wait-and-see approach. But even they are starting to get their ducks in a row.”
Several cruise lines have announced promising fall sales drives, with some generating unprecedented demand for voyages two and three years away. Azamara’s release of its 2022-2023 cruises attracted three times more bookings in its first week than the previous year’s schedule release. The upper-premium cruise company has seen strong interest for its British Open itinerary in 2022, which will mark the 150th installment of the golf tournament. Other grand adventures such as a Suez Canal-Europe to Asia itinerary, another that includes the Dubai World Cup horse race and a Scotland Intensive sailing have also proven more popular than usual, alongside favorite itineraries like the Mediterranean, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland and Norway.
“We’ve seen some demonstrative differences in patterns and the types of requests we’re getting, and some people are certainly in the mode of asking what is possible,” said Azamara COO Carol Cabezas. “We had one couple based in Florida that is planning to sail with us from October 2021 to October 2022. They are doing the Athens-to-South Africa voyage and then finishing up with a full season in Europe. It’s the first time we’ve gotten that kind of interest, and it shows people are willing to do something quite different right now.”
Oceania Cruises’ Labor Day upgrade sale was the most successful holiday promotion in the company’s history. Nearly half of the new reservations came from new-to-brand guests, and less than 5% of reservations used cruise credits from previously canceled voyages. Regent Seven Seas Cruises broke its own booking record in a matter of hours after announcing its January 2023 world cruise, which is slated to be the longest world cruise from the company since 2011 with 72 ports in 42 countries, doubling the bookings of its 2022 world cruise in the same time period.
Advisors and tour providers said they still see the pandemic influencing the types of trips and destinations clients are gravitating toward, with safaris, national parks and low-density locales all proving popular.
“I see a quite lumpy recovery, but there has been a surge in interest recently,” said George Morgan-Grenville, CEO and founder of U.K.-based Red Savannah. “By the end of September, interest in travel was coming on strongly, and visitors to the website were back up to almost pre-Covid levels. There’s enormous pent-up demand from people who would have traveled in 2020, and I expect that to manifest over the next few months.”
New tools, tours, opportunities
With 2020 quickly becoming a lost year, with even hopes for a strong holiday season dashed by coronavirus spikes and new lockdowns from Europe to South America, travel companies are turning to new tools and strategies to meet pandemic travel trends and spark vacation planning.
The high-end, luxury travel market was, from the outset, predicted to be the most resilient sector, and providers have adapted to offer more privacy and a greater variety of destinations.
Remote Lands, which specializes in bespoke Asia tours, has pivoted to new destinations after its North American clients were barred from most of the continent. They introduced a mindfulness vacation package and have increased private jet trips made in partnership with Aman from two to three annually to seven in 2021, with new itineraries including Turks and Caicos; the Dominican Republic; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and Utah.
“The jet expeditions are bucket list-type trips, but the high-net-worth travelers have plenty of money and want to travel,” said Catherine Heald, CEO and co-founder of Remote Lands. “We’ve seen a huge amount of interest in the Aman Jet Expeditions.”
Red Savannah added new driving itineraries to address client reticence to fly, including a tour through Puglia, Italy. Excursions on gulets, a traditional boat in the Adriatic and along the Turkish coast, as well as small-boat tours through the fjords of Norway and vacations in Greenland have all garnered extra interest, Morgan-Grenville said.
For advisors looking to meet the demands of their more intrepid customers, deals are available that can turn a standard vacation into a special occasion.
“It’s actually a very good time to look for deals in those typically hard-to-reach places,” said Calvin Kanoho, co-founder of Inner Circle Travel in San Francisco. “I’m getting my clients true upgrades, 100% of the time. I had one client go to Turkey in August. The whole trip would normally cost $25,000, and I got the cost down to $15,000 by negotiating deals, upgrades and using other tools.”
While some companies are adding products to meet the shift in interests and demand, others are augmenting their digital toolboxes.
Oceania attributed its record holiday sale booking volume to enhanced digital outreach, online reservations tools and improved resources for its partners, including a revamp of Oceania Cruises University, the educational platform for advisors.
“Avid cruisers are looking for a more boutique and smaller cruise experience right now, and that’s a huge boost for us,” said Nikki Upshaw, Oceania Cruises senior vice president of sales. “Also, the pandemic has taught us to be much more nimble and creative with our digital and virtual platforms. We did a layered holiday sale with social media engagement and digital marketing, and I believe the cohesive campaign made all the difference.”
To broaden the appeal and accessibility of its tours, Trafalgar Travel partnered at the end of summer with travel loan company Uplift. Customers can lock in a 2021 trip at the current price and then pay in installments.
“It allows guests as they are budgeting to potentially take a trip that is longer or perhaps has more inclusions,” said Melissa DaSilva, president of Trafalgar. “Maybe they can do 12 days instead of 10 for an additional $10 per month in payments, when the upfront costs might be more than they can budget at that particular time.”
Tapping into the wanderlust of those waiting out the pandemic at home, advisors like Caruso and Bush have turned to tools that focus on planning future travel. During the pandemic, Virtuoso rolled out a new, free version of its interactive Wanderlist program, a tool originally launched in 2019 that asks clients about their most- desired destinations and activities. Travel advisors can use the information to build a family or group profile and plan trips far into the future.
Caruso used Wanderlist to choose what travel seeds to plant in the minds of her clients. Then, in early fall, they finally started to sprout.
“I had one family tell me they had a 2023 safari vacation planned for when their twin boys turned 18, and they said, let’s pull that up to 2021,” Caruso said. “They have the travel budget they didn’t get to use this year, and they are splurging. It’s a private, small tour, and they are doing the iconic wildebeest migration, also adding South Africa. It’s a very, very ambitious program, but they felt now is the time to get things done. The world has changed, priorities have changed. They are in that mode: If not now, when?”