Traditionally considered “bulletproof” in tough times, the luxury
travel market sustained some dents this year due to the economy,
the war in Iraq and SARS.
In addition, the belief that the wealthy will keep spending in
any economic environment has spawned a boom in luxury suppliers,
resorts, spas and destinations, all seeking to draw affluent
So while the luxury travel market remains relatively strong this
year, the combined factors have created an increasingly fierce
competition for carriage-trade clients.
“Business was a struggle earlier this year,” said Diane Moore,
Crystal Cruises’ senior vice president of passenger sales.
SARS ultimately prompted the cruise line to pull its ships out
of Asia, and the war hurt its bookings in Europe. Still, since
mid-April, Crystal’s call volume has risen 50 percent, and the line
is seeing a resurgence in bookings for Europe, particularly the
Mediterranean, she said.
Abercrombie & Kent’s affluent clients are staying closer to
home but are “looking for exceptional travel experiences,” said
spokeswoman Pamela Lassers.
Many are seeking wilderness locations that combine physical
activity with natural beauty and luxurious accommodations, she
In Europe, Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe are strong travel
destinations, though France took a big hit.
South America is strong, particularly Peru, “due in large part
to clients looking for an alternative to China,” Lassers said.
Bookings to Alaska and Antarctica have also been good this year,
Active-vacation specialist Butterfield & Robinson reports
that Italy, Prague, Spain and Vienna are selling well, while tours
to Patagonia are sold out, as are all trips during Christmas.
Luxury operators say clients now book international travel four
to six weeks in advance versus the more traditional six to nine
Private trips, which can be arranged at the last minute and may
be customized, are also selling well agents can easily book private
trips with one call, they note.
“With busy professionals, vacation time comes up when it comes
up and they have to go,” Gray said. “They turn to us to plan
everything from A to B.”
If they’re retired, “they postponed travel to see what would
happen in the world,” Crystal Cruises’ Moore said. “Now they have
Another recent change: Affluent clients are shopping around for
the best value. “That’s another sign of the times,” Moore said.
Still, high-end clients are “sophisticated, well-informed and
well-traveled consumers who view international travel as their
birthright,” said Ignacio Maza, executive vice president of
supplier relations for Virtuoso, a luxury agency consortium.
“Although overall volume to certain destinations abroad may not
be as strong as in years past, it is still substantial, and leads
the numbers produced by other travel organizations in the U.S.,” he
Virtuoso agents are dealing with this year’s challenges by
streamlining operations, concentrating on top clients, marketing
aggressively, staying apprised of new developments and supporting
Virtuoso-preferred suppliers, Maza said.
“Upscale clients want expertise at the point of sale, value for
money spent, custom-tailored experiences, exceptional service
before, during and after the trip and the ‘inside track’ for every
destination,” he said. “In summary, they want a ‘super-agent’ to
handle their travel. The expectation has never been higher.”