Twenty years ago, travel agents had a distinct perception of who the luxury traveler was, and what they were looking for. Six nights for that financially established older couple at the Savoy in London. First-class Chunnel train tickets to Paris to stay at the Hotel Ritz.
Discriminating taste and butler service were minimum requirements. Today, however, that itinerary might be of no interest to a large majority of consumers interested in luxury travel.
“We have luxury clients from all walks of life,” said Rick Baron, managing director at Tauck World Discovery. “We have school teachers, postal workers, movie stars. For some of them, a luxury vacation is a drop in the bucket. Others save for the entire year to take a luxury vacation. If you are an agent out there looking for luxury clients, you should look at their desire to travel in style and with means.”
“There are definitely different types of customers. The definition is so different by demographic, by income,” said Gail Grimmett, president of the Travel Leaders Luxury Brands.
Not only are luxury travelers coming in different shapes and forms, they access luxury at different stages of their lives, and different stages of their travels.
“You need to think of luxury travel in a wide range of possibilities,” said Ignacio Maza, executive vice president, Signature Travel Network. “A couple’s son’s graduation from high school might be a celebration trip for one family. Someone who has traveled to India ten times may not know about that new experience you heard about. We have to be able to understand that customer and serve up these memorable experiences to them.”
Even when you are booking a client for a more conventional itinerary, they still might be open to elements of luxury during their itinerary, Maza said. “They might be open to a couple of nights at the Taj Palace at the end of their vacation.”
Distinguish yourself with distinguished service
Agents trying to tap into the luxury market also must be prepared to go above and beyond what a typical travel agent is willing to do, Grimmett said.
“The whole travel rhythm starts with the beginning of the trip. When Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Dorchester, and they repainted their bedrooms pink, one of our agents called the hotel and had them repaint it blue for her,” Grimmett recalled. “Another client calls one of our agents to order room service. That is luxury for them.”
“We think we have all the answers, but if you spend a few more minutes interviewing your customers, you will find there is a lot there to enrich the sales process. The more pain and friction we can relieve, the more value we can be to our clients,” Maza said.
There is an urgent need to understand the luxury customer, “have a deep knowledge of their likes and dislikes, and the courage to look them in the eye and say, ‘You’ll hear Beyoncé, not Beethoven, in that hotel lobby.’ When all those pieces fall into place, you’ll have loyal luxury clients forever.”
That questioning process should occur at the end of a client’s trip as well, Baron at Tauck said.
“Did your customer come back from their last trip so enthusiastic that they cannot stop talking about it? That they can’t wait to go again. That is a product you want to look at more. Look at the companies behind those products. What is it about those products that create that response?”
Grimmett advises agents to get certified in areas that will expose them to more luxury travel clients, like wellness. “There are so many partners and vendors out there who want to show you what is new.”
Maza recommends agents affiliating with networks that will help surround them with similar-minded entrepreneurs, to share expertise, contacts and marketing ideas. “You cannot afford to be the Lone Ranger anymore. You need to be plugged into the luxury market, because the luxury traveler is buying you. Put your heart, soul and passion into what you do,” he said.
Traditional luxury clientele still travel
If you have experience booking traditional older couples, with established careers and bank accounts, they likely still have a desire to travel in luxury.
At American Queen Steamboat Company, “the baby boomer is still far and away our target customer,” said President and COO Ted Sykes. “They are more fit today than ever. They are lifelong learners and want to be engaged in the land excursions.”
To serve them, agents should familiarize themselves with the issues they are concerned about, like access to healthcare while traveling. “They are looking for a hassle-free travel experience. They are tired of TSA pat-downs and having to deal with foreign exchange.”
Navin Sawhney, CEO Americas, at Ponant Luxury Expedition Cruises, sees more luxury travelers looking for nostalgic experiences. “There is a segment of the market that wants that long ocean liner experience, enjoying the solitude and a nice book for five days crossing the Atlantic,” he said.