Is the industry in the midst of a busier-than-ever normal of travel or a bubble that will pop?
That was the question posed during a Virtuoso Travel Week press conference, held in person in Las Vegas and virtually on Monday.
Misty Belles, Virtuoso's vice president of global press relations, painted a picture of what Virtuoso agencies are seeing right now.
Agency owners' optimism about their businesses has been steadily rising since the omicron variant of Covid-19 began to recede toward the end of January. Pent-up demand continues to be strong.
"In short, travel is back," Belles said.
Virtuoso's global sales from January to July were 2% higher than the first six months of 2019, a year that was the agency network's previous high water mark.
Bookings continue to look strong going into the fall, Belles said. Hotel booking windows are again lengthening to pre-pandemic levels, and average daily rates are up considerably from 2021 and 2019.
Meanwhile, 78% of Virtuoso's travelers said they are ready to travel now, according to Belles. Factors like massive airline delays and cancellations aren't deterring them, and they're even further motivated by the strength of the dollar.
Travel sales for 2023 are pacing 47% higher than they were for 2019, meaning 2023 could become Virtuoso's new high water mark, Belles said.
"Is this a travel bubble or is this the new normal? It can kind of go either way, but the indicators we're seeing really suggest that this is our new travel landscape," Belles said.
She also posed the question to a panel of agency owners.
Anthony Goldman, joint managing director of the Goldman Group in Australia, called May, June and July a "travel tsunami." He said he expected current trends to continue for the next 12 to 18 months.
While Goldman expects some normalization to occur down the road, he believes inflated prices will be part of that normalization, as it's difficult to decrease rates once they've been increased.
Beth Washington, founder of Getaway Guild in Washington, D.C., a SmartFlyer affiliate, agreed.
"I think the demand bubble, maybe this immediate pent-up demand will slow," Washington said. "But I do think that the lifestyle of travel and the concept that we've all learned from the pandemic that we have one life to live, if you want to take the trip, now is the time to take it -- I think that is going to remain. I think that that's across generations."
Luxury travelers today are spending more than ever without complaining about the price, noted Susan Bowman, vice president of marketing and industry relations with Transat in Canada. Transat has a network of 2,200 agents across Canada, 110 of which are luxury specialists.
Goldman agreed, saying, "Clients aren't even asking about costs in some cases."
The underlying factor seems to be the desire to spend time with family and take bucket-list trips, said James Turner, CEO of 360 Private Travel in the U.K. He has particularly noted an increase in African safaris.