Are people traveling right now? The numbers say they are—even though we all face whiplash as countries continue to open and close their borders, and states change their quarantine rules weekly. New travel trends emerged at Virtuoso Travel Week in early August, when more than 4,000 luxury travel experts gathered virtually to dissect the state of the industry.
“This was a screeching halt of the world economy. For the first time in history, all countries in the world had some sort of travel restriction,” says Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch. But on the bright side, “crisis accelerates trends, like digital transformation.” (Just look at Celebrity Cruises changing its muster—that is, safety briefings—from in-person group gatherings to mobile, via Muster 2.0.)
What else did we learn? Virtuoso, a global network of 22,000 travel advisors, analyzed and presented data from surveys to its advisors—and much of it isn’t based on speculation, but on real travelers making real bookings through their travel advisors.
Unsurprisingly, luxury travelers were the first to tiptoe back outside: They started booking immediately when restrictions began to lift, and they haven’t stopped. (Though they are interested in traveling responsibly.)
Also to be expected: Suites and private villas (with all their extra space) are selling first; the majority (87 percent) of travelers want to take road trips; safety is a top priority; and 100 percent of 18–25 year olds are ready to travel—that percentage goes down the older the traveler gets. It also isn’t unusual for a luxury traveler to request a 28-night booking at a hotel or villa (!).
But what unlikely trends came out of this study? What are luxury travelers booking and where are they dreaming of? Here are five key takeaways.
2021 cruise bookings are (really) strong
Despite a seemingly endless newsfeed of cruise crisis stories, loyal cruisers are eager to get back on the water. Virtuoso’s data shows that traditional cruise clients will continue sailing. Ocean cruises are only down single digit percentage points, and bookings for river cruises are up 14 percent in 2021.
Travel agency owner Judy Perl, who is based in New York City and specializes in cruises worldwide, sees even higher demand for river cruises, with demand up 37 percent.
“Thankfully, our loyal luxury line cruisers are anxious to get back on their favorite ships as soon as possible,” she says. “They’re confident that cruise ships will be safe and clean, and are willing to ‘mask up’ if that’s what it will take to be able to sail again.” For her agency, 2021 bookings are outpacing 2020, and 60 percent of bookings are new, not coming from cancellations and future cruise credits.
Remote adventure cruises are also gaining in popularity. Ponant’s new Le Commandant Charcot, launching in May 2021, is garnering big bookings. The ship, operating off a mix of battery and energy-efficient liquid natural gas, will reach the true geographic North Pole and remote parts of Antarctica where few humans have been, like uninhabited Peter I Island. Across the Ponant fleet, travelers are also booking future Antarctica and French Polynesia itineraries.
People are willing to pay for space on airplanes
Delta has been an industry leader in proactively blocking middle seats to allow for distancing on a flight—through September 30, 2020, for now—while Southwest Airlines has blocked middle seats through October. But as travel picks up, and more airlines look to fill flights, 73 percent of Virtuoso’s luxury travelers would pay more to ensure an empty middle seat.
Airlines have been nickel and diming travelers for years with frustrating fees: baggage, food, drinks, seat assignments, entertainment. But people will pay to feel safer in a crowded space. “Give people real value and they’ll pay for it,” says Misty Belles, Virtuoso’s head of global PR.
The number one dream destination isn’t Italy
Data on travel dreams can be as insightful as actual bookings. And for Virtuoso travelers, the number one dream destination is South Africa, a top spot typically held by Italy.
“Limited, monotonous experiences at home lead us to fantasize about the most vivid, exciting sights, sounds, and discoveries,” says Bobby Zur, founder of Travel Artistry Africa. “That is what South Africa offers in the most authentic, raw way through its land, history, culture, food and wine, people, and wildlife.”
Could there be a larger, more meaningful reason why so many of us are dreaming of Africa right now? As Zur says, tourism dollars are crucial to conservation efforts because so many African lodge owners rely on the revenue to protect endangered animals and local communities. The pandemic has touched everyone across all borders, and being a global citizen has never been more important. The notion that “travel is a force for good” may drive booking decisions more than ever.
“While many people may feel their next trip—beyond a road trip or quick getaway—is still in the distance, they feel strongly that when they travel internationally again, they want it to count, to mean something,” says Zur. “And no destination stirs the heart and soul or imbues meaning more than Africa.”
Luxury travelers want their dollars to mean more
According to many Virtuoso advisors, luxury travelers are asking more often about company values: how they’re helping local communities and ensuring sustainable business practices. Luxury tour operator andBeyond, which owns 29 lodges in Africa, has always operated on a social impact model—that is, helping the communities it operates in—and is determined to show other luxury brands that it can also be a smart financial decision.
“There’s a question of whether profit and purpose can coexist on the same piece of paper,” said andBeyond CEO Joss Kent during Virtuoso’s Under One Sky sustainability summit. “But I want to use andBeyond as a case study—we are proving that you can have high profit margins while investing in conservation and maintaining high guest feedback scores.”
Kent says they’ve tripled their investments on the impact side, including projects such as providing water to 56,000 people, building 185 classrooms, going 99 percent plastic-free as a company (so far), moving endangered animals to Rwanda and Botswana, and setting up marine conversation platforms.
“If you think you have to trade profit for purpose, think again. They can coexist,” he said. “The more you focus on doing good, the better you will do financially.”
Travelers won’t find cheap luxury, but value-added luxury
Based on constant uncertainty, travel recovery will be slow, so that means you can get great deals, right? Well, yes and no. According to Virtuoso, it will hurt luxury travel significantly if prices on luxury products drop. An owner of a small Italian hotel said it takes five years to recover even just a 10 percent rate cut.
“We have encouraged our partners [such as hotels] not to lower pricing,” says Becky Bullen Powell, president of Protravel International. “If they want to do something, we recommend a value-add. We want to make sure pricing stays the same, but that clients have the best experience possible.” Your value-add could mean an extra night free or room upgrades, a free cultural experience, or perks such as spa treatments, cocktails, and meals.