Luxury Travel Advisor hosted a virtual roundtable on January 19 with top suppliers and advisors to get the pulse on 2021. Joining us were: Ellen Bettridge, president & CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises; Jack Ezon, founder/managing partner, Embark Beyond; Ruurd Hooijer, senior director of sales & marketing, The Set Hotels; Michael Johnson, president, Travel Edge; Laurie Palumbo, COO, ID Travel Group and Olga Placeres, president/CFO, Preferred Travel of Naples.
Following is a condensed version of the conversation.
Ruthanne Terrero: What is your company’s outlook for 2021, noting current conditions with the pandemic and the vaccine?
Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld: We’ve actually added in another ship for the Christmas markets, because it’s selling so quickly. So, we’ve had a really good start to “wave season.” I will say the majority of the bookings, though, have been coming in for 2022, and also, a lot of charter and group requests to the point that we are going to be opening up 2023 on May 1; we’ve never opened it up that early before.
I think river cruising has an amazing opportunity over the next couple of years, based on the size of our ships, with the average being about 120 passengers on Uniworld. They’re very small and very boutique and very intimate and very luxurious.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: Our vision is that by May and June, things should start to come back really strong, with a very strong interest in the Mediterranean this summer. Until then, it’s going to be a really bumpy rollercoaster ride, with bookings and cancellations and erratic emotional decisions and feast or famine moments.
Ruurd Hooijer, The Set Hotels: Very similar to what Jack said. I think up to the summer it will be challenging for us. Our hotels are located in London, Amsterdam and Paris. In Europe, the situation is fairly similar across the various cities with hard lockdowns right now. There are curfews in some cities like Paris, for example. Our hope and expectation is that some of these will be lifted during the course of the first quarter; I would like to say, sometime towards mid- or the end of February, but it might be sometime in March. But the fact is we’ve all started with our vaccination programs. We also have hotels in Israel. As you know, they’re leading the charge in terms of vaccination pace, with over 20 percent of the population being vaccinated already. By March, over 60 percent should be vaccinated there. So we’re actually really quite hopeful for the summer period for Israel; and for Europe, hopefully during the summer we will be able to welcome our U.S. travelers back.
As for The Set Hotels brand, we’ve set up our own booking engine and GDS code. We’ve utilized this time to set up our own standalone brand identity, which is really exciting and we’re strengthening our brand partnerships, globally in the year to come.
Ruthanne Terrero: I don’t need to tell you this, but I hope your team is ready for when things do open up, because there is a lot of pent-up demand over here. Many travelers are probably going to be there the next day.
Ruurd Hooijer, The Set Hotels: Absolutely. We’re totally ready.
Michael Johnson, Travel Edge: We’re very optimistic about 2021, with the news of the goal of 100 million inoculations in 100 days coinciding with a return to warmer weather. We think Q2 is where we’ll really start to see things rebound. There’s a tremendous amount of pent-up demand. But the initial demand is probably going to be from our more intrepid travelers, those who are willing to get out there and aren’t as concerned, perhaps, around changing circumstances on the ground. So, we’re bullish. We see it returning April, May, June and then the back half of the year being very, very strong.
Laurie Palumbo, ID Travel Group: For me, it’s been a rollercoaster but I’m in a unique situation because of the islands’ close proximity. Clients have been sticking closer to home, so I’ve been in a little bit better situation with Mexico not requiring any testing. January was looking very good for the first quarter but then once the new testing results came out it slowed down. Bookings haven’t slowed down, but they’re going further out so that’s a little bit painful right now. We’re seeing the fourth quarter being the best for us because third quarter for the islands is more off-season and people will be going to Europe, if that opens up.
As everyone knows, the pent-up demand is there. We normally don’t see more than a year out for high season, but we’re now seeing through the end of 2022 for festive bookings.
What I’ve been saying to encourage advisors who have been a bit standoffish to market to their clients, thinking it’s inappropriate, now is the time to start booking for future high seasons because those top suites are going to be gone.
You can hold a booking with a little deposit, for a very low amount, and we’re certainly seeing that. I think the fourth quarter will be very strong, and that could certainly make our year because festive is typically our biggest quarter anyway. We’re still seeing some last-minute business, but for the most part, it’s booking from three to 12 months and beyond. We’re hoping that people will continue with the forward bookings, which will be good for everyone.
Olga Placeres, Preferred Travel of Naples: We first thought 2021 had started a bit like 2020. It’s typically our busiest time of the year. A lot of our clients are in town and that’s when the booking process really takes hold. I’m happy to report that our vaccines have been rolling out incredibly well. We’ve actually had our advisors on the phones, booking appointments for our clients who are in town to get their vaccines.
This week, we’ve had the flood gates open, with clients asking for travel ideas for fall and winter for larger trips and that’s into ’22 and even ’23. It was a dismal first two weeks of January, and then this week, it’s like it’s a whole new ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
Ruthanne Terrero: What are your clients and customers asking for lately and what are their concerns?
Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld: Just longer trips. I am amazed at how many people who missed out last year are looking at what they can do this year, but for longer. There are a lot more of the big bucket list trips, so Egypt and Vietnam are selling incredibly well. We have these new train journeys, so we’ve added cruise and rail. We have our new train journeys going through the Alps and down into our new ship in Venice, and that’s nearly sold out.
Our partnership with Aqua Expeditions down in Peru is selling incredibly well. So, guests are booking for that experience, and they’re willing to spend the money right now. We opened up our cruise and rail for 2022 as a waitlist-only because it’s just not built in the system and I’m amazed at how many people are putting down money on a waitlist for these cruise and rail experiences. We’ve added four new ones; people want something new and they want something different.
Olga Placeres, Preferred Travel of Naples: I think people, especially in our demographic — which is a little bit older — feel that if they have come through this pandemic, that now is the time to travel with their families and do the big things while they are healthy. So, we’ve seen a huge demand as Ellen was mentioning.
Michael Johnson, Travel Edge: We’re seeing the same thing. We’re seeing longer trips. We’re seeing people really stretch the elastic into these bucket list trips that they may have put off. They’re not putting them off. We’re also seeing larger groups. So, there’s this conversation around these travel bubbles or these travel pods where families are getting together and either looking at private jets or villas or experiences where they can share the best with their loved ones, but still maintain some level of isolation from other groups.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: We’re seeing that people are either literally traveling within the next 24 hours when they call us, or it’s for the summer. There’s a sea of void in between next week and May. Literally, we have people saying, “I’m ready to pack and leave tonight. I took my PCR yesterday just in case,” or “I don’t want to wait for my test. I’m going to go to Mexico.”
People are so desperate to take their pilgrimage to Europe that we’re seeing European bookings happening now for the Gen X crowd that we normally wouldn’t see until April or May. As far as general trends, wellness has come back with a vengeance. People need to recuperate and figure out what they went through. That’s leading the way in what’s driving business.
People are staying longer. We have an “Embark Longer” program. So, people are staying three or four months, but also 10 days instead of a four-day trip to the Caribbean, because it’s a hassle to get back and forth. If they’re going to go through it, they want to amortize that hassle. We’re not seeing that many far-flung bucket list trips. What we’re seeing are bookings to the familiar. People want to get back to the Amalfi Coast, the Cote d’Azur, Greece, Ibiza. They want to reconnect to that because they feel deprived that they can’t go there. It’s almost non-existent to go to Asia or Australia right now, or South America for us.
Reunion trips and family trips are huge. And reunions are not just multi-gen families, they may be friends. One of the biggest trends we’ve seen come up is people finding a place to meet in the middle, for example, “My partner is in the U.K. and I’m here in the U.S.” And the last is celebrations. Before the vaccine came out, we had almost voided our whole events business. But that celebrations business, we can’t keep up with it now. We’re talking about 200- to 400-person events, multiple buyouts, chartering yachts, chartering cruise ships, mostly starting in Q3 of this year.
We’re seeing that people want to save their life. They want that joy. They want to take advantage of focusing on those milestones, sucking every piece of joy out of that life that they were deprived of doing, and doing it big. If they can do it, they want to do it big. It’s almost like when kids go to a candy store and they are not allowed to have candy at home. You just want to take it all.
Ruurd Hooijer, The Set Hotels: We see very similar trends to what Jack has described. It’s very short-notice, and it has been that way since July when we opened here in Europe. And also group inquires. [Take] Hotel Lutetia, for example, over the past 10 days, we received about 30-plus group inquiries and event inquiries for the summer period and after, which is actually encouraging. It’s a huge spike compared to the weeks prior to that. So, that’s really encouraging. We’ve launched an urban resorts program across The Set Hotels. Wellness is a huge part of our DNA across our hotels in Europe and Israel, as well. Really incorporating that adds extra value to the experience with a culinary offering at each hotel. That has been received very well by the local market because, of course, that’s really our clientele at the moment. They’ve enjoyed staying local and coming with us. I think the occupancy has been probably twice as busy as our other hotels in the city, which is quite encouraging to see. And I do think, especially as we move forward, that from now on we will see demand to continue picking up.
Ruthanne Terrero: I have a question for the advisors about domestic travel. It’s been great to see people discovering the U.S.A., and there’s so much here. Do you see that continuing into 2021 and 2022? Have your clients decided that the U.S. is also a good luxury destination?
Olga Placeres, Preferred Travel of Naples: I think so. So again, I go back to our older demographic. A lot of their family members are still concerned about them traveling overseas immediately. So, I would say for the next year, there is a certain segment of our market that will travel domestically, test the waters here, make sure that everything is safe, and then they’ll go international. That’s why some of them are planning into late ’22 and ’23, but a good portion of them are staying domestically for the foreseeable future.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: The irony of it all is it’s the worst place in the world to be if you don’t want to get COVID.
I literally had a family that was supposed to go to South Africa and they were afraid and so they asked us to rebook them to go to Miami. I said, “Why would you want to go to Miami? It’s like ground zero.” [But they said,] “Nope. We feel more comfortable going there.” And guess what? I can’t make this up. They got COVID in Miami.
Laurie Palumbo, ID Travel Group: The big fear is being stuck. What happens if I get COVID and I can’t get home?
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: We just launched this whole program in response to the new CDC ruling; it’s been game-changing, and I think you should all look into it. It’s called COVAC insurance. And what it is? For $43 a person a day, you’re guaranteed to be flown home in a private medical transport if you have COVID. That’s the only reason why they’ll fly you home. Not if you have a heart attack, nothing else, [only] if you have COVID. And it’s a direct response to the situation that people are afraid to get stuck. No problem. You get COVID, you fly home private.
So it’s been an amazing stop-gap measure for us in the past two days.
Laurie Palumbo, ID Travel Group: We offer a complimentary post-departure insurance with all our sales, where they’ll medivac you out, but it’s hospital to hospital; this is very different, that they’ll take you home, regardless. So, that makes a big difference for that client that’s afraid of getting stuck there.
Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld: The Travel Corporation (TTC) family of brands has introduced a policy that requires all travelers to have insurance. You’re not required to purchase travel insurance from TTC. Travel advisors can help clients purchase from any provider that meets our minimum coverage requirements. If customers choose to travel with Uniworld or any of the other TTC brands without the required travel insurance, they will need to sign a waiver acknowledging the decision. This is really good news for travel advisors since we all want our customers to have coverage
In recent meetings with the CLIA River Cruise committee and the WTTC subcommittee meeting for vaccines it was shared that the E.U. is actively working towards unified protocols. The initial proposal would allow travelers to enter the EU with a negative PCR test plus you would not need an additional test to travel around the E.U. In addition, the initial proposal states that they are looking to abolish their quarantine restrictions and restore freedom of movement for European citizens. This is a big step forward and good news to get us traveling around Europe soon! It’s too soon to know when all of this will be decided and if the US will support however, it was indicated that they are trying to have the next proposal by the end of February — let’s see. All I do know is we will need to continue to be resilient and pivot quickly.
Michael Johnson, Travel Edge: What we’re projecting is domestic travel will remain strong for Q1 and the first half of Q2. And then we really expect a return to international travel. To Jack’s point, there’s absolutely a calling around the familiar, and they’re also stretching the bucket list. Because what we’re seeing with clients is we’ve got our typical luxury clients who are ready to get out there, but there’s a whole new group of people who almost are rebelling against the sense that they were confined against their will. They weren’t allowed to travel for whatever reason. In Canada, there’s a 14-day quarantine and a negative PCR test. It’s highly disincentivizing to go anywhere. There’s really the sense that once things open up, as much as people have enjoyed domestic travel, they’re going to hop over the pond and get to places that they were forbidden from traveling previously.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: Michael, it’s funny you say that, because we agree, even though we’re not seeing that now. We’re going to be launching “Vaccine Vacations: Travel with a Vengeance.” These are amazing out-of-the-box bucket list trips that take things to the max with really cool experiences all over the world. We’re really trying to reignite the interest and give people the permission to think about tomorrow.
Laurie Palumbo, ID Travel Group: It’s funny Jack that you’re saying, “Vaccine Vacation;” “We’ve got you COVID-covered.”
Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld: Our campaign is, “Go big, you had to stay home.”
During this pause, we’ve really used our time to think about what could we do next with our business. I have appreciated the time just to think about my business and what else we could be doing, and how do we grow it with different partners in different ways. What experiences can we bring so that we stand apart from the competition? And these cruise and rails, once again, I’m just super psyched about it. You’ve got to do something different. I think if people are going to come out of this, they want new, they want different, they want to brag about where they went again.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: I do think it’s going to be less frivolous and more about meaningful travel. People want to travel in a more meaningful way with a lot more mindfulness, and the way they’re doing it, they’re willing to spend the money as long as it means something to them and it resonates with their values. That’s really changed, I think, over COVID. People were home more, more grounded, thinking about their families. I think we have a different mindset now than we did in 2019. It’s almost like ’80s to the ’90s or 2008 versus the 2010s.
Laurie Palumbo, ID Travel Group: Basic freedom was taken away. People are hooked up and they can’t take it anymore. You just want to get out. When you see people eating at restaurants outside … I live in Greenwich, Connecticut, and all the restaurants have tables outside, and it’s freezing out, and they have filled the tables during lunch. And it’s incredible that every seat is taken. They can’t take being in anymore. And I think also being on the East Coast where it’s so cold, it’s really tougher to be locked up as much as we are.
So we see these last-minute bookings, which has been interesting. That has slowed down a bit because of the new policies, and I think it’ll settle down. It’s one more blip that we have to deal with. We’ll get used to it, and I think people will start to accept it. And we have these insurances and different things that we could instill the confidence. But what happens is, you see these last-minute bookings, just grabbing a couple of days, and then they’re extending a week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, which we’ve never seen before.
So, I think our advisors have to do a better job of promoting the pricing for 14, 21 days and how easy it is to stay once you’re there and work. Once the clients get there, they’re feeling super comfortable because you can dine outside. And I think once they get there, they’re saying, “Oh my God, why am I going home?” And that’s a huge opportunity.
I really nod to our partners out there, because I haven’t had one single complaint of a client arriving at a hotel and not being satisfied or not being happy or feeling protocols were too much or too little. It’s just been incredible that we’ve had such amazing partners.
Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld: Are people asking about protocols? I am actually surprised at how much protocols were a big thing and now, no one’s even asking a question about them. I think they just assume that we’re going to do the right thing.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: No. They just want to know that it’s going to be fine.
Laurie Palumbo, ID Travel Group: They’re not asking details. The main thing they want to know is, can they cancel within 24 hours? They need to just worry about that last-minute lockdown and losing their money. That’s really the number-one thing. [And also they are asking], “God forbid I get it, how do I get back?”
Olga Placeres, Preferred Travel of Naples: Like you mentioned Laurie, I think it’s about the ease of cancellation and re-booking and the worry about not losing those funds. Because remember, since March, a lot of these bookings have been rolling over and over. And, so, maybe now people are like, “I want to make sure that if I go or if I can’t go, not because of me, but because of other reasons, then my money is secure and I don’t have to worry about that.”
Suppliers are also making it easier for us, as advisors, to let clients know that it’s easier to either get your money back or to roll it into something else, but that the things that happened last year are not happening now this year. So, insurance is a great factor, because that was not available to us last year. All of these things are coming together so that we can move forward. But it still takes great effort to get that client whose mindset is not quite there and who’s been locked in. They haven’t been out of their home, and we’re asking them to trust us to go out. That’s huge.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: With that, there’s been some travel shaming, especially from people within the travel industry, which I think is appalling. We need to talk loud and clear as a community with a singular voice. Number one, if you don’t want to do something, that’s up to you. But there is something called, travel responsibly. I don’t think our country or the CDC would let us go if it wasn’t going to be safe. There’s a safe way, and then there’s a not safe way to do it.
Yes, we want to make sure that there are safety protocols in place, and we’re helping people do that. We’re also, if you think about it, helping people with their sanity. It’s really hard, it’s depressing. There are a lot of other repercussions that can damage you physically and emotionally by not taking a break and changing your environment. So, really, as a community, we need to all step up and stand together and promote this, one way or another.
Olga Placeres, Preferred Travel of Naples: It’s also important even traveling domestically. Just be able to go into another city and see what the protocols are and what’s going on there. There’s a sense of relief that you are not the only one in this situation. We’re all so cooped up in our own little bubbles that we need to get out and experience and see that everyone in this entire world is experiencing the same things that we are.
And that’s a huge learning curve for all of us. Everyone is trying to be safe, just like we are. And they embrace that when we go and we spend money in their cities and help other people who really need it at this time. So, I agree. Travel shaming is a bad, bad thing. This is bad for our industry, and it’s just not good as a whole.
Michael Johnson, Travel Edge: I am encouraged that the conversation is shifting away from protocols and more to experience. When this thing first hit, it was, how many times is that handrail going to be wiped down? And what’s the strength of the solution? There was so much conversation about HVAC. That’s not really our skillset and our advisors are uncomfortable going there. They went there because they had to, but now protocols are really the price of admission.
There’s an expectation out there that the major chains have done the responsible thing to reduce the risk. And it’s more now a conversation around, “Okay, what’s my experience going to be like? What’s open? What can I access? What’s restricted?” That suggests to me, people are less afraid about getting sick and more concerned with, “What’s it going to be like when I’m there?” That’s where our strength is, quite frankly, as opposed to trying to articulate what the odds are of something happening.
Ruurd Hooijer, The Set Hotels: Our guests are much more understanding towards these changes. For example, here in Amsterdam, we had some wonderful business on the books for the month of December but a lockdown was announced mid-December lasting until the end of January. We actually spoke to every single travel advisor and also some guests directly and they were all totally understanding. They didn’t want to cancel. They said, “Let’s just move it to the weekend straight after that lockdown.” Guests understand the situation that we as travel suppliers are in and are willing to actually cooperate with us. That is really encouraging. And they are not nervous about the restrictions. They just take it as a given that we’re actually well prepared to comfortably and safely welcome them. They’re just curious about what they’re able to actually do in the city. Our team holds weekly brainstorm meetings about what we can do to be creative and differentiate ourselves from other hotels locally.
Ruthanne Terrero: The customer’s mindset has changed so much. People in the past might’ve been so indignant over minor indiscretions, but we’ve had a year to put things in perspective.
Last question, what has changed within your company in the past year to adjust to the pandemic market conditions?
Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld: We put our sales teams across Uniworld, Insight, Luxury Gold, African Travel and Red Carnation Hotels under The Velvet Collection. I’m responsible for them as well on top of Uniworld. We found that the same salesperson was going into a travel agency [on separate days to speak separately about Uniworld, Luxury Gold and African Travel.] They are certainly capable of talking about all of them at once. We did that early on. It was about cost savings, but it was also about efficiency. We also implemented across our brands a wellness director who will be present on every Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold guided vacation (excluding Australia and New Zealand). They will go ahead of time to make sure the hotel is all set up for them with keycards so they don’t have to wait in line and that the hand sanitation stations are there and the tables are set up for them when they go to dinner, etc.
We’re working on a mystery trip for 2022. I’m just going to tell you that you’re going to Europe. You’re going to be gone nine days and you either pay for coach or you pay for business class, and this is the price. That’s going on sale very shortly, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and I think it’ll sell like crazy.
Michael Johnson, Travel Edge: As it became clear that the pandemic was going to have a longer-term impact, we pivoted from spending resources on operations to investing in tools and services to improve the experience of the advisor. We invested in ADX, our booking platform, to empower agents with the ability to package products and services together to sell bundles at higher margins. We think there is an opportunity for the industry to revisit paradigms around pricing and to create opportunities for agents and agencies to earn more. We dialed up our focus on community and invested energy into engaging with the advisors and driving connection. And finally, we shared our story with the industry and grew the agency by almost 50 percent. We come into 2021 as a much larger agency with better tools, a stronger sense of community and a defined idea of where the future of the advisor lies.
Ruurd Hooijer, The Set Hotels: We set up our own Internet booking engine in a partnership with Sabre, and we are on our own GDS code right now. A permanent GDS code TS will go live early March. We’re also relaunching our travel advisor recognition program for The Set Hotels, which is called “Set by Invitation.” That should be going live, hopefully Q2.
Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond: Our mission from the start was to leverage relationships, to build connections beyond travel, to be able to talk to our clients on a holistic level, with travel being just one word in the sentence of their leisure life. So, when travel wasn’t a good possibility, we really were able to engage with our customers in many different ways that were profitable. We started a brokerage agency with co-broker relationships around the country, so we can find and profit from second homes for people, or summer homes, or six- or eight-month stays in homes or apartments. We just launched a dual citizenship program where we’re helping people for $2,000 a pop, become citizens of the E.U. by descent.
We did “Camp Embark” this summer where we did summer camps, both in resorts and in people’s backyards. With “Embark Academy,” we partnered with Harvard University to put teachers in homes, or with families all over the world, and in June, we launched a virtual travel conference. All of these helped bring new clients to our independent contractors and helped them realize revenue when their core skillset was not brining in business.
Now, we’re working on a really cool initiative to create what I call “augmented artificial intelligence.” It’s a hybrid form of artificial intelligence and intuitive intelligence, helping our advisors really go to the next level. We’ve also been able to build our dream platform and agent online booking tool that’s standing ready for when the world opens up again.
Laurie Palumbo, ID Travel Group: We expanded our villas program immediately. But then we did an unusual thing for us as Island Destinations, we took on the U.S.A. with a little nudge from Jack and a few others. [The summer camp program] really was quite successful pretty quickly. So, we were able to save some of that summer business. We’re now looking at different resorts around the world that might fit into the ID portfolio, that’s part of the reason for changing the name to the ID Travel Group, [beyond] the islands.
Another thing we’re working on at ID: Without the ability to make traditional sales calls, we are always thinking about creative ways to stay engaged with advisors.
Olga Placeres, Preferred Travel of Naples: In March, we decided that our office, which was a large open space, was not really conducive to the new COVID world where people needed to have a little bit more privacy. So, we decided to move into two different locations. In May, when Florida opened up, we decided to bring our teams back. We did it in a safe manner. We only started seeing clients by appointment in November. And now we’ve opened it up, so clients can walk in if they feel comfortable. There were certain protocols, again, just like with everything else to make it safe for everyone.
We do a lot of virtual client events. That has really kept our clients engaged and kept them dreaming. And we’re very blessed to have retained 90 percent of our team. Some decided to retire because this was a little too stressful for them, but that happens in life. Our agency has also acquired other affiliates, agencies that did not feel they had the support that they needed to be able to service their clients. So, we offer the support and they come in as an affiliate of Preferred Travel. We have some in Nantucket, we have some in different places in Florida.
It has been a busy time for all of us, we’ve been building a foundation. That’s what we’re all doing during this time, so that we have a nice solid base in order to grow for the future. And the future does look really, really bright. It’s just a little extended into the summer and fall months, and into ’22.
But this is a beautiful business. We’re all passionate about travel and everyone who’s engaged in travel really is passionate about their clients and service. So that’s what we have going forward.
Ruthanne Terrero: Fantastic. That’s such a great note to wrap it up on. It sounds as if you’re all coming out of this stronger than ever because of the time that you’ve invested into reshaping things. I’m really looking forward to seeing how things go once you open up again and how the new infrastructure you’ve put in place works out. Thank you, everyone!