Post-Recession Strategies in Upscale and Group Travel

Suppliers share their favorite secrets on how to sell more luxury and group travel By: Kenneth Shapiro


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 Few areas of travel are as important to today’s agents as the luxury and group business. At the recent ExecConnect event, this panel came together to discuss the latest trends in the luxury travel market, along with ways that agents can develop this market in order to bring more business into their agencies.

Panel participants included Susie Casillas, director of sales of the Western region for Club Med; Trisha Petty, regional sales manager for Gogo Worldwide Vacations; Paul Allen, vice president of sales for Holland America Line and the Yachts of Seabourn; Sandy Bell, area travel industry manager for RockResorts; and Gerard Quirk, managing partner of Sixt Rent a Car in North America.

Defining Luxury

The panel began by discussing what the term “luxury” really means these days and how the concept of luxury has changed in recent years.

“There are different definitions of luxury today,” said Casillas. “Of course we still have the traditional ideas — like a penthouse suite at a five-star hotel — but luxury could also mean a mother and father being able to travel with their kids and everyone being taken care of, being happy, and maybe even finding some time to lay on the beach. That can be considered a luxury in today’s world as well.”

Bell pointed out that in addition to amenities, luxury also relies on service.

“If your service levels are not up to par,” she said, “you cannot be considered a luxury product regardless of what your amenities are.”

Allen took that concept a step further and said that good service is not even enough: luxury customers these days are looking for personalized service. He said that at Seabourn, they have even made a note that a customer “likes the alarm clock on the right bedstand and not the left.”

“We keep track of things like that in our database because it’s important to the customer, and that’s really what luxury comes down to,” he said.

Quirk said that the agents focusing on luxury should look at the whole experience, instead of simply the most obvious elements of the trip. He said that Sixt can provide travelers with a Ferrari or a Rolls-Royce but, for some people, “driving a Mini Cooper with the roof down from Nice to Monaco, in the company of loved ones, is the definition of luxury. It’s about the experience to the customer.”

Agents should also be aware that today’s upscale traveler may not fit into traditional profiles.

“We’re realizing that the focus should not be all on the boomer market. The younger client — who has been exposed to so much travel growing up — is an important market to target also,” said Casillas. “They have the money and want to travel.”

Group Travel

Turning to group travel, Petty said that at Gogo Vacations they are seeing a strong trend toward personalization when it comes to the type of group trips people are booking.

“We’re seeing customers making up their own groups,” she said, “based on themes such as spas, girlfriend getaways or adventure travel. People want the freedom to do whatever they want.”

Casillas said that in recent years Club Med has been pursuing more group travel, including business groups, but that the vast majority of the groups at Club Med are multigenerational groups.

“Up to 70 percent of our business is made up of multigenerational groups,” she said. “That’s partly because we have activities for everyone — our kids program starts at four months — so we have guests from babies to grandparents covered.”

Bell said she sees a lot of incentive groups at RockResorts. According to Bell, due to the boutique nature of the resorts, groups feel like they get the opportunity to have the whole resort to themselves. Bell said another main source for group business is destination weddings. Under a current promotion, if anyone spends more than $25,000 at any of their resorts, the honeymoon is free.

“We see couples having weddings at our properties in St. Lucia or Jamaica, for instance, and then having a honeymoon in Vail,” she said.

Allen said that while larger groups are very successful on Holland America Line ships, on Seabourn, groups have an opportunity similar to what Bell mentioned at RockResorts: groups of 200 or so can actually charter an entire Seabourn ship and be on their own and customize the entire experience.

“With these kinds of groups on Seabourn, usually we just say ‘yes,’” Allen joked. “Whatever the question is, whatever the passenger requests, we just say yes before we even know what the question is!”

Action Steps

The panelists came up with several tips for agents interested in growing their luxury and group business:

* Keep a detailed database: In order to fulfill the expectations of the luxury customer, an agent’s database should include an abundance of customer preferences. The more detailed the information, the better — these days, personalization is a key to luxury.

* Network to your local community: Being a travel agent is not a 9-to-5 job; it’s a lifestyle. Group business often comes from the people and organizations that agents know best from their own lives.

* Ask questions: The panelists had many examples of agents who were booking leisure travel for a client and discovered that they were also looking to arrange an incentive business group. If the agent never asked about it, he or she would have lost that business.

* Develop strong lines of communication with all parties involved: The agent should be constantly talking to clients — as well as the supplier’s point person — in order to make sure that the client is getting whatever he or she needs. Delivering on the expectations of the client is probably the most important element of working with luxury clientele.

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