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There’s really no way to sugarcoat it: 2020 was a struggle for the travel advisor community, and even as a new year begins, the industry isn’t out of the woods yet. But as many agents look for creative ways to pivot their businesses, a few niche markets have emerged that offer advisors and clients alike some hope for getting travel on the books.One of those markets? Private travel.
As challenging as it was for many people to plan any type of trip after the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, those who did want to travel often looked to secluded options as a way to do so safely — a practice that’s likely to continue this year and beyond.
Two 2020 Amex Trendex reports from American Express support this theory. This past September, 44% of those surveyed were willing to pay more for a hotel where they could easily socially distance, and 66% had decided to (or were considering) traveling in a “pod” with a select group of friends and family members. By October, 80% of respondents indicated that they were more likely to book a vacation to an uncrowded area or one offering private accommodations, with 67% saving more money for their next trip as a result of the pandemic.
Peggy Honore, a travel advisor and franchise owner of Ridgefield Travel & Cruise Planners in Ridgefield, Conn., says that clients are more likely to splurge on private travel now than ever before.
“I think people are willing to pay for private options with the money that maybe they didn’t use for vacation [in 2020],” she said. “I hear a lot of people who would have been a little more conservative in the past [saying they] are now open to spending more to get the private villa or the private boat.”
Expanding OpportunityAs demand for private travel increases, suppliers have already begun reworking existing offerings and introducing new products at a variety of price points, thereby expanding the potential client base for these types of trips.
We understand that travelers might be wary of traveling with strangers … so booking trips with their friends, family or ‘quarantine crew’ provides an added level of comfort, safety and security.
The Moorings, a yacht charter company based out of Clearwater, Fla., responded to international travel restrictions and shutdowns by focusing on closer-to-home business strategies — such as establishing a Florida-based charter partnership and “maximizing opportunity in the Bahamas” — according to Ian Pedersen, senior marketing manager for the company.
Pedersen says The Moorings has seen an influx of travelers from the cruise market, along with high-end clients who might normally rent a villa, which contributed to the success of the company’s new local operations and “extremely high” demand for 2021. He notes that the increased interest has also prompted earlier-than-normal conversations about bookings for 2022.
“There seems to be an acknowledgment across the travel industry that yacht charters are among the safest and most flexible forms of accommodation available,” he said. “This has resulted in strong bookings and limited availability into 2021, where I think many people were expecting the opposite.”
In the tour operator space, multiple brands within The Travel Corporation began marketing private coach tour buyouts in 2020, while the Globus Family of Brands expanded its options for private groups of two to 24 in Europe. G Adventures, meanwhile, introduced “Book Your Bubble,” a collection of 80 tours designed to offer private travel options at an affordable cost, according to Kara Lucchesi, a regional sales manager for G Adventures.
“We understand that travelers might be wary of traveling with strangers … so booking trips with their friends, family or ‘quarantine crew’ provides an added level of comfort, safety and security,” she said.
Private accommodations have also seen an uptick in demand, be it villas or even hotel buyout plans, and suppliers have responded with fresh offerings. Hospitality company Accor, for example, recently launched its Apartments & Villas booking platform, which debuted with an inventory of more than 50,000 apartments, villas and chalets.
Belmond, meanwhile, introduced “Exclusive Places,” a collection of private escapes across the company’s portfolio of hotels, trains and barges. According to Andrea Filippi, vice president of global sales for Belmond, Exclusive Places accommodations “are located in either private sections or standalone buildings” and “offer the utmost privacy for every traveler” — as well as full commission on bookings.
“We saw an uptick in demand for our secluded retreats and a rise in buyouts for an extended period of time,” Filippi said. “People might be traveling less often, but it will be for greater periods of time as these private accommodations offer a place to safely reconnect with their loved ones.”
Chartered Air Takes OffBelmond also introduced a 14-night private jet offer for small groups at Belmond Cap Juluca in Anguilla — and other brands are tapping into increased demand for private air charters, as well. Atlas Ocean Voyages has announced private jet charter service for its winter 2021-22 Antarctica expeditions; AndBeyond has launched private jet journeys from Florida to the Galapagos Islands and South Africa; and in September, travel management company and host agency Ovation Travel Group unveiled its Ovation Aviation Private Jet Charter Program, offering access to more than 1,000 partner aircraft.
“Ovation recognized that during the pandemic, safety was going to be the leading factor in one’s decision to travel,” said Aanchal Gandhi, vice president of leisure and independent advisors for the U.S. West Coast at Ovation Travel Group. “The pent-up demand [meant we] needed a program that truly focused on clients’ direct needs and comfort. We believe this trend is likely to carry well into 2021 and 2022.”
Gandhi adds that aspects of the program make it more accessible to a wider range of clients, including “semi-exclusive” charters that “allow clients to book alongside others interested in the same routing.”
The client may have the impression that flying private is out of their reach, which is why it is so important for the travel advisor to educate them.
One agent who has recently adjusted her business to focus on private air is Debbi Lee, president of Los Angeles-based Paper & Diamond, an affiliate of Ovation. She says that many clients who normally fly business or first class have shifted to private aviation options due to decreased commercial flight options and interest in higher levels of flexibility, control and social distancing.
“The client may have the impression that flying private is out of their reach, which is why it is so important for the travel advisor to educate them,” she said. “With the current market, there is really something for everyone, [even] taking into careful consideration each traveler’s needs and budget.”
Linear Air is one company that’s working to make air charters more accessible to advisors (purchases can be made through a GDS) and consumers alike. Through Linear’s online marketplace, visitors to the website can see all the potential options for their trip — including aircraft types, prices, speed, capacity and more — instead of having to go through a broker, as is typical for private air.
According to Bill Herp, CEO of Linear Air, the company has recently seen a dramatic “doubling in requests for longer-range aircraft” — and anticipates its jet segment will grow by approximately 150% in 2021 — thanks in part to new clients who have not previously been air charter customers and families wanting to avoid crowds. He points out that if clients are “using the full capacity of the airplane and traveling in a group that’s appropriately sized for the aircraft, the average is somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 per person.”
The direct booking access and detailed information that Linear Air offers is especially useful in light of the advice Mike Arnold, founder and managing director of The Tynan Travel Company, a Departure Lounge Affiliate in Dallas, offers to advisors about selling private air to their clients.
“Get as close to the asset as possible,” he said. “There are a lot of private aviation providers, [and] you’re seeing hotels and destination management companies offer private aviation services, but you need to be very careful about the types of aircraft they’re using, the safety ratings, the crews and the price. The most beneficial thing you could do for your clients is to establish direct relationships.”
Strategies for Selling Private Travel NowAdvisors looking to tap into the growing private travel market should keep a few things in mind.
First and foremost, remember that inventory in this niche is always limited, but is expected to become even more exclusive in the near future.
Make sure clients know that inventory of private options will be limited as more demand comes back, and [they] must plan ahead.
“Make sure clients know that inventory of private options will be limited as more demand comes back, and [they] must plan ahead, especially for peak periods,” said Ken Neibaur, manager and travel advisor at Travel Edge in La Jolla, Calif., who notes that he’s getting more inquiries for private homes in domestic destinations, a trend he expects to continue even after the pandemic.
Advisors also need to educate their clients about private travel, demonstrating its value and ways to make it more affordable or accessible.
To raise awareness among her clients of the opportunities available within the private travel market, Ridgefield Travel’s Honore is hosting a series of webinars with her partners, including villa supplier Rental Escapes and a private guide who took her own family through Yellowstone National Park in 2020, and subsequently a few of her clients. The webinars allow her to share her own experiences, describe the benefits of private travel and break down and put into context the per-person cost.
Of course, one of the barriers to private travel has always been budgetary restrictions. And although more travelers may be willing to splurge on their next trip than they would be under normal circumstances, there will still be plenty of clients who want to spend their money more wisely.
As part of her strategy for selling private travel to a wider range of clients, Honore encourages what she calls “price pacing,” which involves spending more on the parts of the trip that will be the most meaningful — and cutting back in other areas.
“I recommend to my clients every time that they have to price pace; if you have to decide where to put your money, do it with the excursions and the tours and the transportation, because that’s where your memories are going to be made,” she said. “If you have to say in lodging that’s less fancy so you can go spend the day with a private guide … that is what makes the trip amazing and special.”