by Peter J. Bates

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Moving Forward in 2012 - Listen to Clients, Engage Them For Life

As travel professionals, we are constantly on the quest to understand what our luxury clients want from their travel experiences, the latest ‘in’ destinations, and how economics, political unrest and other global events impact the consumer mindset and the future course of worldwide exploration. We have to keep pace like never before! This makes the development and implementation of an effective – and modern – strategy extremely crucial. For me, devising a smart strategy starts with research. To that end, I surveyed approximately 50 advisors at the owner or manager level who graciously shared some enlightening feedback so I’m pleased to recount with you some of their thoughts on “what’s hot” and trends in the luxury marketplace as we move ahead in 2012.

Don’t Just Speak – Listen
“When to book?” is a question constantly on the minds of both travel advisors and their clients. Leads times of 12 – 18 months are not typical anymore, whether consumers are seeking a deal or determining the ‘right’ time to travel. Said the advisors I contacted: “Consumers buy when the price, economic environment, workplace atmosphere, etc. are all aligned” and “Planning ahead doesn’t ‘pay off’ anymore due to unpredictable volatility on all fronts” – currency fluctuations, political instability, natural disasters, and pricing.

Therefore, it is vital for advisors to ensure they don’t just ‘speak’ to their clients but ‘listen’ to them. Genuine engagement can result in loyal clients – and profitability – for life. When travel advisors are indeed speaking with their clients, they should tap into their power to paint an intriguing vacation picture and inspire travelers with a global narrative of adventure, reward and enrichment. The portraits of memories created during a vacation will last a lifetime.

The Questionable Impact On Bookings
Has the economic/political situation (at home and globally) affected the steady post-recession increase in luxury leisure bookings that the market has experienced since early last year? The majority of the group I surveyed said yes, there has been an impact, citing “a hesitation to commit,” “a slowing in leisure sales,” “delayed decisions” and “a prolonged booking process” as reasons.

But, there were a handful of advisors who stated the opposite – while the upscale market might be more cautious with spending, they are indeed still traveling. The importance of these investments in personal time – whether with families or for an unrivaled, unique experience – is unwaveringly. Some clients are tired of the ‘bad news’ that you simply can’t escape due to the Internet and mobile devices – “They are not putting their travel plans and spending time with friends and family on hold.”

One advisor even stated “The economic impact is affecting our second-tier luxury clientele more than our top-tier.”

‘Quality Over Quantity’ Remains Vital
Has the challenging economic and political landscape we are coming to terms with made luxury travelers ‘trade down’? Not necessarily, according to the group.

Luxury consumer might be embarking on “one or two trips a year instead of three or more” but they aren’t trading down when they do travel. And, “High-net-worth older clients seem to be traveling instead of worrying about the stock market,” a nod to an ease in leisure spending for enriching and rewarding travel journeys.

Quality over quantity continues to emerge as paramount for today’s sophisticated, high-net-worth individuals. While “upscale clients do not want to be nickel and dimed” (a sentiment shared by the majority of the advisors), overall cost is not as important to the very high-end luxury traveler. These days, value for money and the level of amenities are what is resonating so powerfully with this audience. Said one trusted advisor, “Value, value, value – it’s the ‘new normal.’”

Winners in 2011
According to my survey of top travel advisors, they sold bespoke travel journeys around the world in 2011 with the most popular destinations being the Caribbean, East and Southern Africa (particularly for safaris), France, Italy, South Africa and South America. Cruising vacations (such as river cruises) and family holidays (particularly multi-generational) also sold quite well.

Not surprisingly in 2011 (due to unfortunate circumstances), Egypt, Greece, Japan, Mexico, the Middle East and Thailand dropped off in popularity.

On The Horizon in 2012
While every corner of the globe is a possibility, the following are the destinations our advisors are citing as where clients are booking, thus far, in 2012: Argentina, Bali, Bhutan, Botswana, Cambodia, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, the Galapagos, India (off the Golden Triangle Path), the Maldives, Peru, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

In Closing
Of particular appeal, now and for the future, is travel that generates a social, culture and/or personal connection. One advisor summed it up brilliantly: “The beauty about ‘experience-driven travel’ is that you can find it anywhere…close to home or far away.”

Travel advisors remain exceedingly influential with their clients but they must continue to demonstrate their relevance and value by showcasing their “insider access” and an authentic commitment to delivering on the dream of having clients engage in the world’s most amazing experiences. This is something worthwhile to keep in mind as advisors curate customized travel adventures for their clients.

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