What’s the most over-the-top luxury experience you’ve heard about this year?
It’s a great question—and a great group of panelists at The New York Times Travel Show on Friday had some wonderful tips for travel advisors on how to put together and sell luxury vacations.
At the Focus on Luxury breakout session, Albert M. Herrera of Virtuoso, Lia Batkin of In the Know Experiences, Rick Baron of Tauck, Shannon Knapp of The Leading Hotels of the World, Becky Bullen Powell of Protravel International and Navin Sawhney of Ponant all defined the “best” luxury experience as a personal one for each guest, combining a touch of elegance with an element that touches the heart.
Baron, for example, took the term “over-the-top” literally; for him, it was heading up and over the Rockies, exploring the highest mountains with a small and private group and staying at an elegant ski lodge after the season was over. “The impact of those mountains is far greater than anything you expect,” he said. ”It’s not just a sightseeing experience; it’s an emotional experience.”
And while mountain climbing and other sports are possible, a trek to the mountains need not be overly physical, he noted: “We put up a bridge table on the mountaintop for one group and they played bridge all day.”
Even when she stayed at the elegant and luxurious Royal Mansour, Knapp’s favorite memory from her recent trip to Marrakech trip was the visit to a local coop that sells pottery and rugs. “It was the incredible experience of staying at a hotel in an extraordinary location and seeing the impact of the hotel’s partnership with the local community,” she said. “It was transformative.”
For Sawhney, it was sailing in a pristine environment like Antarctica, and then coming back to a beautiful ship for a pool party with convivial conversation, fine champagne and blinis with caviar.
And while the Manhattan Sky Suite at the Park Hyatt New York is truly luxurious, Herrera said, it was his private peek into the Weeping Room at the Vatican, where newly elected Popes retire for a moment or two of solitude, that most affected him lately. “It was just amazing—and as we left, here came the Pope!”
Batkin’s favorite luxury story is the 40th birthday surprise trip one husband planned for his wife, who loved all things culinary. They spent a week traveling through Europe with her favorite chef, visiting a different Michelin restaurant in a different city every day. Each morning the traveling chef and the local chef took her to the market to source the food, and then they all came back and cooked it together.
For Powell, it was getting permission for a client who’s a golf buff to play Augusta with his two sons after the Masters Tournament.
The key to delivering a great luxury experience is listening for the tidbits of information that will make for a unique and personal experience, all agreed, and having the right partners to make your client’s dreams come true.
The Advisor’s Role in the New Luxury Environment
Where once luxury was about chandeliers and formal clothing, “the balance of power has shifted; now guests define what luxury is to them,” Powell said. And indeed, the fact that luxury is so much more difficult to define is pushing travelers to seek out a knowledgeable travel advisor who can narrow down the options that will delight them and push them into places they wouldn’t necessarily think of.
In the separate breakout session on Family Travel, Sally Black, owner of VacationKids.com, noted that she follows her clients on Facebook to get insights into their interests, and uses those to push them a little out of their comfort zone.
One family with a four-year-old, for example, was hesitant to travel anywhere adventurous, and instead opted for a Carnival cruise. But Black saw on Facebook that the child loved sloths; everywhere she went she carried her favorite stuffed sloth. So, Black arranged for them to visit a sloth sanctuary when the Carnival ship stopped in Belize for the day—and now all they want are vacations that involve unique experiences.
Amanda Dunning of G Adventures agreed that just asking “Where do you want to go?” is not likely to produce the kinds of insights travel advisors need. Instead, ask what they like to do, what YouTube channels they like, what apps they have on their phones. Then, present options that fit their interests.
Black said she likes to get everyone on the call when planning a family trip, including the children, and asking each what they like to do on a Saturday afternoon. While the trend these days is for families to stay together on vacation, she tries to include one experience each day focused on a different family member’s interests.
She also noted that an internal study at her agency revealed that 72 percent of clients ended up buying something different from what they first asked for. As a professional advisor, she feels it’s her role to offer up unique and different ideas.
“Most people don’t know what they don’t know,” she said, “and you, as their agent, can have a huge effect on them. If they ask for a cruise, I’ll give them two cruise options and a ‘Sally’s Wild Card,’ something they never considered.”
Even if they don’t go for it right away, it plants a seed that often blossoms down the road.