Travel has already changed dramatically and will continue to evolve in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic—and one of the changes will be an increased role for travel advisors. That was one of the significant takeaways from the virtual New Travel Conference—a weeklong event that focused on the future of the industry.
Shivani Vora, a co-founder of the conference, said that with so much uncertainty in the travel world and so many unknowns about what will open and when, “the role of the travel advisor is more valuable than ever.” She said travelers want “answers and hand-holding.” They also want comfort and while travel advisors can’t provide any guarantees, said Vora, “the right advisor can give you comfort and the latest information out there which, as the ad says, is priceless.”
Rainier Jenss, president of the Family Travel Association, said that the association is committed to working more closely with travel advisors—and is spreading the word to its followers that advisors bring valuable resources. And Jack Ezon, a co-founder of the conference and founder of Embark Beyond, a travel advisory, said that with the coming of the pandemic, “we have now become risk navigators and that is something that travelers will increasingly be seeking.”
Travel Is Happening
Ezon said that there have been many new leads from clients in the last few weeks with many baby boomers missing their families and booking ranches and villas for multi-generational trips. He said it’s almost impossible to get space at some of the top ranches.
Also popular, he said, are “micro-celebrations,” marking missed birthdays or anniversaries. Most of the travel is drive-to and cities continue to struggle. While Europe is starting to blossom, said Ezon, with more people asking for it every day, “we are not sure we can get there as Americans.” He said that while his company usually closes 80 percent of leads, that percentage is way down as people hesitate to “push the button.”
The biggest trend is the great road trip, said Ezon, who added that even luxury travelers who never thought of it are considering luxury RVs (recreational vehicles) which, he said, “are like a luxury resort on wheels.”
Jer Goss, president of GossRV, a luxury RV operator, said that after a near standstill in business starting in March, there has now been “an explosion of interest.” He said that before 2020, a conversation with a reservations agent might have taken 15 minutes and now it takes an hour as people ask about three-to four-week trips. “They don’t know where to go, what to do and nothing about luxury RVs.” These vehicles, said Goss, are worth as much as $2 million and have full kitchens.
Many travelers, especially the most high-end, are looking to completely private holidays. Doug Gollan, founder of Private Jet Card Comparisons, said that while commercial air travel is still down over 90 percent, private air travel is back to 80 percent of 2019 levels. He said that while the average passengers incur 600 “touchpoints” while boarding and flying an aircraft, that number is only 20 for private air. He said customers are looking to travel further than the traditional two hours—to the Caribbean, Mexico and even Hawaii.
Gollan said that once people try private air travel, they will stay with it. When they land at an airport, he said, they’re out the door in five or 10 minutes, with overall time savings reducing what might have been an overall five- to six-hour trip to just two hours.
For ultra-luxury travelers, there are lavish options. Catherine Heald, CEO of Remote Lands, which operates private holidays, said an expedition is planned for the fall on a private Airbus A318—configured for just 19 people—that will start in New York and travel around Asia. At every airport, each couple or group will have a private car and guide. The problem again will be whether Americans will be allowed into these countries.
Mike Williams, COO of Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming, said that business is strong for the 30,000-acre property as people who have been cooped up in the Northeast are eager to travel. He said the operators had only planned to open one of their two properties but because of demand will also open Magee Homestead, a Relais et Chateaux property—to buyouts only. Williams said that being located in Wyoming, with a population of only 500,000 and a very low rate of COVID-19, they expect an excellent year.
Looking for Opportunities
The final panel at the conference dealt with how travel companies can actually find opportunities out of the crisis. Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, a tour operator, said he hopes there will be a change in how people travel. Rather than only seeking amenities, they might now try to connect more with the destinations. When destinations are irrelevant, said Bruce, “it’s a dangerous place to be.”
Olivia Richli, general manager of Heckfield Place, a luxury hotel in the U.K., said people should think about going slower, staying longer and connecting with a place. “We should not jump straight back into what we were doing before,” she said; “hopefully, we won’t forget the lessons we’ve learned during this.”
And Zim Flores, founder and CEO Emeritus of Travel Noire, said, “We should be thinking about how we can travel in a way that feels restful and less restless. We should also think about exploring what’s right around us.”
Chip Conley, strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership for Airbnb, said Airbnb searches are up 25 percent as people seek more home-like experiences. He said customers bring their own cleaning supplies with them and feel good when they have cleaned a place themselves. He said the concept of wellness will change “as travelers think about how we collectively affect each other in terms of health.” He said the pandemic “has shown people how connected we are and how we need to work together as a planet.
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