Courtesy of Traveller Made
Photo by Fabrice Rambert
The penthouse at Airelles Courchevel, Les Airelles
An Interview with CEO Quentin Desurmont
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Traveller Made, a luxury travel consortium headquartered in Paris, is rapidly expanding. Today, there are about 2,000 travel advisors across 400 agencies: 200 in Europe, 100 in the Americas, and 100 in Asia, India, and Russia.
Founder and CEO Quentin Desurmont is focused on defining what real luxury means today and pushing the travel industry to think of itself the way other luxury industries do.
Desurmont spent the majority of his career in France, England, and Spain. He worked in fashion for eight years, earned an MBA degree, and was the sales and marketing director at Disneyland Paris before he started his own luxury travel agency in 2008. His years as a “travel designer” (what Traveller Made calls their advisors) led him to start the consortium in 2013.
I talked to him about why Traveller Made is growing so quickly, the biggest challenges, and his big-picture look at sustainability.
I quickly got a lot of great clients when I started my own agency. I rarely worked with celebrities. I wanted to work with people who are educated, thorough, who know what they want and will pay for it. And I saw a need for a way to bring together the agencies that are different from all the others, ones like mine. I called Virtuoso and said, why don’t you come to Europe? At that time, they weren’t ready and said the language barriers and global regulations were difficult. So that is when I decided to start Traveller Made. It was definitely inspired by the networks in the U.S., like Virtuoso and Signature. But nobody would come to Europe at that time.
I based the foundation of Traveller Made on the obsessions I had as a travel designer. How can I be more visible with high-net-worth travelers? How can I have better relationships with all of the suppliers?
My mentor was Yves Carcelle at LVMH [the former chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton], who passed away a few years ago. He taught me that in the travel industry, we’re very good at creating value but not good enough at capturing value. He presented at one of our meetings and said Louis Vuitton was making 45 percent in profit. Everyone was like, oh my god. How do we do that?
We don’t try to be big. We try to be small giants. On average, our agencies have 14 staff and 7.5 million euro in annual sales, but we really make sure they are like-minded and sell true luxury. We have the highest ADR [average daily rate] in hotel bookings because our travel designers book so many suites. We also decided not to have big cruise lines as partners. We do small, beautiful boats and river cruises, but we don’t do big cruise lines.
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We reject 50 percent of our agency applications. We’re very picky, and we’re auditing them constantly. Agencies don’t pay when they join Traveller Made, but we expect them to pay in kind. Paying in kind means they have to sell business to our suppliers, attend our events, participate, and be committed.
At our first conference [in 2013], we didn’t invite anyone from travel to present. We didn’t want to get together and say, ‘We are the best, I’m so beautiful, I’m great, you’re great’ and so on. No, we wanted to hear from companies who are making 30–50 percent profit selling luxury goods. We brought people from Hermès, Cartier, and Christie’s. Last year, we had a trends bureau that works with big luxury brands come.
Next year’s conference will be in Marbella. We also will host our Presidents’ Club [with agency owners] before ILTM Cannes in Marseilles.
We started the Edge of Luxury Travel, where we invite 25 agencies who sell travel valued at more than 100,000 euros per week [they must provide evidence of bookings], and we invite suppliers who have product worth more than 100,000 euros per week. It’s bringing the crème de la crème together. The purpose of Edge is this: It is better to get the 10 percent commission for a week at the amazing penthouse at Airelles Courchevel, Les Airelles, than for a room valued at $600 per night.
We are also starting a road show in Europe this November bringing suppliers to meet agencies. When you’re a small hotel, it’s difficult to organize sales calls. We think about how to give the most return on investment in everything we do.
The challenge is to keep following the little star in the sky that is guiding us. We don’t care about the competition. I don’t even look at it. We don’t poach our competitors. We are being poached by them—they try to steal agencies from us. But it’s a big market, and the world is big enough. I believe you can be competitors but not cowboys. But it’s OK, I really don’t care. It’s not a problem because we built something in which we believe.
The first big issue is talent. Traveller Made agencies grew by 26 percent in sales last year and 18 percent the year before. How do we keep recruiting the best talent and help them recruit the best talent? You can’t just have cheap labor. You see the industry [facing] the issue of how to classify freelancers and independent contractors. Some numbers say that ICs have grown to 70 percent. It’s a practical solution but not a long-term one. You want people that support the DNA of your company and stay with that.
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The second is technology. Small companies are not very well equipped with back-of-house solutions, like accounting and CRM, and we must help both our members and partners reach what they need. I believe we are doing this.
And the third is what Yves Carcelle taught me. We create a lot of value but don’t capture that value financially. One solution is that we created a think tank called the Luxury Travel Lab with smart people from luxury goods brands. We gathered in Paris a few weeks ago. We talked about value capture and how it is currently a cost-based model in travel. You have the cost and then the markup. You need to have a value-based model. That is true luxury, a strong emotional brand connection. A year ago, we worked with a researcher to define the new luxury travel. We arrived at the Haute Villegiature concept.Villeggiatura means travel in Italian—it’s not really used anymore, but it’s a beautiful word. We came up with 12 keywords to define exactly what it is, and we’re now putting specifications behind it.
When you’re buying luxury shoes, you’re buying a fantasy and a dream. Do people buy a dream when they go to one of the most luxurious hotels in the world? I think so.
Sustainability is embedded in luxury travel now. But you can view it through a little hole or in a global picture. The little hole is: If I travel with a private jet, I am not sustainable. Or you can say that these very rich clients have big impact on the places they go. For example, with luxury travel in Africa, many more people are staying in smaller villages and creating livelihoods from farming, cooking, attending the lodge, everything. To bring these people there, they will fly business or by private jet. But the positive effect on places like Africa is extraordinary. It’s a better way to look at sustainability.
It is good that there is a massive pressure on airlines to change, find alternative fuels, and more, because it is a big problem. I am talking to my children [ages 16, 14, and 10] about it—what kind of world will we leave you?
I am looking for a company that would be able to certify hotels in sustainability. I am not looking for a magazine doing a selection based on a committee, but people visiting and grading hotels on specific things, saying this lodge is 95 percent sustainable based on these X things.
I could name 200 right now, I love so many. The common thread is that they are small, beautiful, and cozy with great food and super service. I love the Split Apple Retreat in New Zealand, Singita Lebombo Lodge in South Africa, the Reserva do Ibitipoca pousada in Brazil, Storfjord Hotel in Norway, and Brach Paris. Seventy percent of the Traveller Made collection is independent hotels.
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