Photo by Annie Fitzsimmons
Dreaming of Grand Hotel Tremezzo on Lake Como
A virtual aperitivo with top travel industry leaders
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Earlier this week, I hosted a digital roundtable with travel industry friends. I set up a video conference and sent out an invite. I was expecting 3 or 4 people to show up; 14 did. A group of advisors, hoteliers, business owners, and operators from around the world gathered virtually for a wide-ranging chat full of ideas and positive energy.
“We want to show the Italian spirit,” said Andrea Grisdale, CEO of IC Bellagio. “We do this by passing on good news and having virtual aperitivos with friends.”
A virtual aperitivo—that’s what it was. Until I can rebook my canceled April trip to Florence and have an actual aperitivo at Cafe Gilli or Rivalta Cafe, a video chat will do.
“We all need to know that this too shall pass,” said Brett Tollman, CEO of the Travel Corporation, which has 42 brands under its umbrella. ”It will probably get worse before it gets better. But it’s an incredible industry that always rebounds, brings people together, and we need to remember that.”
The travel industry has survived massive crises before, but we are in uncharted waters. Here, we talk about postponing rather than canceling, keeping the dream of travel alive, and an inevitable rebound.
Though it does feel like the biggest challenge to ever hit the travel industry, “if this feels insurmountable, it isn’t,” said Ashish Sanghrajka, owner of Big Five Tours & Expeditions. “It won’t go away overnight, and it will continue to change rapidly. I live in Hurricane Alley in Florida and know that the cleanest air anybody can breathe is the first three hours after a hurricane passes.”
But it’s also realistic positivity that helps the most. Let’s say we’re looking at 12 weeks of global restrictions, a bigger challenge than anything else we’ve seen before, and we don’t know how people will feel about traveling. Anne Scully, president of McCabe World Travel, is looking at it like one-third of the year’s business is gone, but two-thirds of the year isn’t, and that’s her focus.
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Travel advisors may be in even bigger demand than they were before. “People who didn’t use an advisor were in such a mess last week. They couldn’t get through to online booking sites for 16 hours, or at all,” said Scully. “Travel advisors not only answer the call, but we were working at midnight to make sure our clients got home.”
Sanghrajka was a financial analyst when the dot com bubble burst. “In 2000, it was the rebirth of the financial advisor, not the stockbroker,” he said. “Similarly, if anyone questioned the relevance of a luxury travel advisor before, they no longer will.”
New trends come out of unforeseen crises, like the birth of multigenerational travel after 9/11, said Scully, who has been in the industry for 40 years. And we may be entering a phase of improved personal and public hygiene. The airlines won’t stop disinfecting to the max now, right?
Andrea Grisdale is on lockdown at home in Bellagio, Lake Como. She said—after nights of tears and exhaustion at the beginning of the crisis—that her message right now is positivity and postponements: “We are talking to advisors and travelers to try to postpone their trip, rather than cancel. It will be all systems go when we come out the other side.”
For Embark CEO Jack Ezon, it is about convincing travelers to do the same: Keep money on account for a postponement rather than demand a refund. When things go back to normal, they have something booked. “It is not easy,” he said. ”My uncle once said that iron has to go through fire to become steel—well, this is the fire and we’ve got to seize this moment to get stronger. We’re building a better foundation for the onslaught of business that will come.”
He mentioned being careful about messaging during this sensitive time for people. His approach is to encourage subtle dreaming using Virtuoso’s Wanderlist—where you map out a years-long travel plan and discover where you want to go the most—as a great diversion tool right now.
Nicola Butler, owner of NoteWorthy in the United Kingdom, said the crisis has been a good reminder of the type of travelers and advisors they work with. “In the span of two days, we had 40 bookings for March, then none after the travel ban. But we were able to roll the majority of them over, which tells me people want to travel, traveling is their hobby, and we’re working with the right people.”
Valentina de Santis, owner of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo on Lake Como, said that Italy’s first reaction was “Milano non si ferma”: Milan never stops. “Now I think there is nothing better I can do than to stay at home,” she said. “We want to show how open-hearted Italians are. The whole nation is very united—exchanging ideas, hopes, and feelings.”
She is trying to spread a positive message to her hotel staff (around 300 people), and said Italian hoteliers are “sending thousands of chats” to each other, a united front unlike anything they’ve had before. “We have to talk about the dream of travel, not just Italy. A team spirit is the positive side of this very sad story.”
Aldo Melpignano is spending the country’s forced lockdown at his hotel, Borgo Egnazia, in Puglia. They are trying to guarantee financial support for both full-time (helped by the government) and seasonal (no help from government) employees, but it will depend on how long the crisis lasts. They are also trying to postpone rather than cancel future bookings.
Kristen Pike of KK Travels jokingly said she’s worried about the rebound—“I’m going to have to staff up!” But the joke may turn out to be true. “It’s affecting more industries than luxury travel, but ours will start to bounce back when the travel restrictions have been lifted.”
“Clients have been super understanding and grateful,” said Brooke Lavery, partner at Local Foreigner. “People are talking about their spring break and how it fell apart, but they will also talk about us [travel advisors]. Every Wednesday, we do a teach-in at our office. Whoever returned from some great trip teaches the rest of us about it. We’re going to do this for our clients, probably through Instagram Live. And when it comes back, it will be a huge wave.”
Zach Rabinor joined the call en route to surfing with his sons. “Go to nature. Go and nourish your soul. Watching 24 hours of news a day will only make you feel more rotten. You have to lift the soul,” he said. “Post and communicate the best of humanity and humor. Showing hope and strength are welcome messages for everybody.”
“Take this precious time to do things you don’t have time to do regularly,” said Pike. “Look at marketing strategies, ways to improve your technology, educating yourself. When this is all behind us, we’re going to be slammed beyond belief. I’m trying to make the best of it. And if anyone needs jokes, I have them.”
>> Next: A Love Letter to the Travel Industry
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