If you’re attending this year’s Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas, you might want to rub elbows with Maurice Bonham-Carter. The CEO and president of Island Destinations is an expert when it comes to luxury and isn’t shy about sharing advice.
Maurice Bonham-Carter relaxes with his daughter, Charlotte, after skiing over the Alps from Italy to Zermatt, Switzerland
We spoke to Bonham-Carter, the winner of our Leaders in Luxury Awards for the Tours category, and picked the brain of one of the industry’s most successful suppliers in the luxury market.
“We are very excited about the award, and see it as vindication that our dedication to luxury travel and travel professionals is on the right path,” he told us.
So, how did that path begin?
Island Destinations started about 25 years ago when Bonham-Carter, a former banker at JPMorgan, decided to purchase, together with a business partner, a small hotel in the British Virgin Islands. The hotel wasn’t selling, he says, because the marketing wasn’t sufficient. So, he opened a New York office and began taking calls from there. He soon found out, however, that it was easier to sell an array of properties than just one, even if it meant pitching properties he didn’t own.
“When I took reservations from the New York office, we saw a 30 percent increase in business, but what I found was that out of the 100 calls I would get, maybe 50 of them wanted to go to the Caribbean, 20 wanted to go to the British Virgin Islands and maybe about one or two wanted to go to my hotel,” he says. “So, I just thought, why don’t I broaden this to include a few more hotels and I can still make money even if it wasn’t my hotel?”
Soon after he came up with the idea, he approached the Four Seasons Resort, Nevis, West Indies, which was opening around that time. That was the first hotel that he partnered with, and he decided to call the business Island Destinations.
Today, Island Destinations sells more than 120 resorts, employs about 25 staff members, up from only about six when it first began, and is hoping to move to close to 10,000 clients this year, about 70 percent of whom will go to the Caribbean, Bonham-Carter says.
So, what advice would Bonham-Carter give an operator looking to achieve similar success?
“The main thing would be to remain extremely focused,” he told us. “We know what we are talking about and we aim to provide excellent personal service. We are consistent in our approach and, lastly, we always purchase refunds and quickly pay commissions. That reputation goes a long way. If you can do those things, you will be relied upon.”
We asked Bonham-Carter what islands were building or maintaining momentum on the luxury scene. Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic is becoming a viable competitor in the luxury Caribbean market, he told us. Although this may not surprise those in the industry, he does admit that the destination can be a tough sell for luxury, since most consumers tend to identify Punta Cana as an all-inclusive, affordable family destination and not one that boasts five-star resorts. He also mentioned St. Barth’s and Turks and Caicos as other notable luxury destinations in the region. But while the Caribbean is gaining steam as a luxury getaway, competition is not far away.
“The Caribbean has certain fundamental factors that won’t change, like its proximity to major eastern seaboards,” he says, “but there is competition. The Riviera Maya [in Mexico] and Central America have been producing some great luxury products.”
Island Destinations does sell other products besides the Caribbean and Mexico. It recently unveiled its Travelers Collection 2009, the 25th anniversary edition, a four-color, glossy portfolio of some of the best destinations throughout the world—123 exclusive hotels and resorts. But whether it’s the Caribbean or Dubai, all the destinations this operator offers have one common thread.
“In our case, luxury is the only thing we do,” he says. “We live and breathe it.”