Travel Agent recently sat in on a roundtable in the Chloe Suite of the Grand Hyatt New York comprised of consumer brand leaders, luxury travel advisors and travel industry executives. It was indeed a dynamic discussion where we garnered perspective from experts from an array of backgrounds on Millennials, social networking, one-to-one marketing and staying true to your brand.

In attendance were Josh Alexander, senior account executive, Protravel International; Sheri Winter Clarry, licensed associate real estate broker, Corcoran Group Real Estate; Alan Josephs, CMO, Allianz Global Assistance; Mark Pardue, general manager, Grand Hyatt New York; Emma Medina, VP of marketing, Rémy Cointreau USA; Jean Marc Rejaud, marketing professor, Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and Franca di Spigna, travel consultant, Valerie Wilson Travel. Katie Barr Cornish of ElevenSix Public Relations, moderated the panel.

Following is a condensed version of the discussion.

Katie Barr Cornish: Our topic is how to speak to and connect and engage with today’s luxury consumer. All of us around the table have different jobs but we’ve all got everyday goals to get heads in beds or to get people to buy our products. For the high-end consumer, price is really not the deciding factor. The high-end consumer still really wants value and they want perks. How important are those values and those perks?

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: We’ve noticed that consumers are looking for unique experiences; it’s not enough to be different. You have to be better than different. You have to have a certain sense of style, and your brand style needs to be intriguing to them and their personal style. We talk about a brand DNA match when we’re looking for the right target consumer to appeal to the brand. Unlike the rest of the spirits category, we are very much about making sure that we deliver a unique experience to consumers and that is what is really helping drive our business.

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine; Alan Josephs, Allianz; Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel; Josh Alexander, Protravel; Sheri Winter Clarry, Corcoran Group Real Estate; Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau; Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT and Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt New York.

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine; Alan Josephs, Allianz; Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel; Josh Alexander, Protravel; Sheri Winter Clarry, Corcoran Group Real Estate; Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau; Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT and Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt New York.

Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt: What is increasingly important to our customer is genuine care, a personalized experience, and an effortless experience; an experience that is friction-free where all the basics are taken care of and provided. If you book a high-floor, double-double room on the north side of the building, that’s the room you actually get checked into so there’s no friction. That’s partly about the expectations of a New York customer and the fast pace of our business environment, but we’re finding that personalized, thoughtful service is increasingly important. We introduced a program late last year called the “Women’s Experience at Hyatt,” where we provide additional things in the guest room that a female might need and that’s been very popular.

It’s all about the experience and how thoughtful we are in providing the things that our customers expect, brand by brand, from the Park Hyatt experience to an Andaz experience to a Grand Hyatt experience.

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: The notion of convenience is not always the same for each segment. For some it’s: “I want to go to this room on this particular floor with this particular orientation.” For another group, the convenience might be that there is a welcome process when they arrive. It all depends which image you want to aim at.

Alan Josephs, Allianz: Sometimes our customers value very simple things. We recently launched a self-service site where you can ask questions. You can submit claims. You can find information online. Something like 25 percent of our customers found it without our even promoting it and immediately started doing it and our customer satisfaction scores shot through the roof for those customers. They were so happy to not have to go through the hassle of mailing things in and such.

Franca di Spigna of Valerie Wilson Travel stresses the importance of using colleagues and connections to enhance one’s knowledge of the luxury travel marketplace as Mark Pardue, general manager of the Grand Hyatt New York looks on.
Franca di Spigna of Valerie Wilson Travel stresses the importance of using colleagues and connections to enhance one’s knowledge of the luxury travel marketplace as Mark Pardue, general manager of the Grand Hyatt New York looks on.

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: A lot of companies are looking to deliver sales and they often forget that price can also deliver image. If you price your product at the right level, then it signals that you are a luxury product.

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: Many surveys are indicating that after 2008, the key drivers were not the lowest prices but the best value, so people are really looking to make their dollars work as hard as they can.

Katie Barr Cornish: Josh and Franca, in your world, how important is it that your clients feel that their experiences are really personal?

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: It’s everything. Crafting a customized itinerary is what separates us from online consolidators because we’re still that personal one-to-one touchpoint that the client always wants to have when they’re feeling valued and special. When someone goes online to make a booking, they’re going through a sophisticated algorithm that doesn’t know them personally and doesn’t know where to place them in terms of their own style of traveling. So making a customized itinerary for a client is everything to us.

Josh Alexander, Protravel: Travelers these days are so much more educated by their friends and what’s online, but they still expect a high level of service and customization. It’s our job to convey the extra value that comes with being a luxury traveler. It’s like what Mark touched on, personalizing the experience, the welcome note or amenity. Clients are as savvy as they’ve ever been these days.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: What’s challenging now are all of these online companies that say they can tailor-make a trip for you. When someone comes to me I tell them that what I’m going to give them is un-Google-able.  You can’t find my information online. I rely on my own strong networks of industry contacts and my trusted colleagues for their feedback. I may not have traveled everywhere, but I have the sources and the contacts to get them what they need when they want it, specifically tailor-made for them.

What we need to do as travel agents is to educate our clients that sometimes value may take a little bit more time. I will get them the value that they’re seeking if they’ll just be patient with me. I tell them, “Who’s going to be in your corner when something goes wrong? Are you going to be on hold for 30 minutes with Expedia, trying to get through to them because you didn’t get the hotel room you wanted or are you going to contact me and get it done right because I know the GM and the GM will take care of it?”

Josh Alexander, Protravel: Another thing about price points is that sometimes properties that I know are luxury hotels either haven’t invested in their websites or aren’t priced properly and a client will just have not heard of them.  They’ll trust my advice, but they’ll say, “I looked at the website; it doesn’t look great,” or “Why is it so inexpensive?”  Sometimes it’s hard to get past that. I think the whole package is really important these days.

Alan Josephs, Allianz: Trust is the key, so if you can deliver that one on one, you can demonstrate that you have that experience. The only thing that sounds like the truth is the truth. Consumers are getting more educated. They can see the difference and when they talk to someone who knows what they’re doing, they can understand that. That’s to me where the personalization becomes so important.

Emma Medina of Rémy Cointreau says that if you price your product at the right level, it signals that yours is a luxury product. Alan Josephs, Allianz Global Assistance is to her right.

Emma Medina of Rémy Cointreau says that if you price your product at the right level, it signals that yours is a luxury product. Alan Josephs, Allianz Global Assistance is to her right.

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: Which is very challenging, especially if you try to project that in the digital world. How do you maintain or even deepen that trust or that type of a relationship online? It’s pretty challenging. Some companies like Burberry do that extremely well.

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: People need to understand that digital is just an extension of your brand. It’s a channel. The digital experience for the consumer has to match the experience that they have with your product. With some of my more accessible brands, it’s more about the nightlife. Other brands are more about craftsmanship and heritage. Other brands are uber-luxury, like Louis XIII de Rémy Martin or Black Pearl. You’ve got to understand your audience. You have to tailor your digital platforms and message to that audience. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all.

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: With all the advances that you have now in the digital world, you can go pretty deep in terms of the experience you want to provide, whether it’s interactive video, interactive banners or virtual reality. Digital is no longer just a copy-and-paste of a brochure.

Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt: The customer’s expectation is definitely so much more heightened in this highly evolving technological, wireless and mobile world we live in. A story that really resonated with me recently was about a traveler sitting in an airport waiting for a flight that was delayed. One of our hotels noticed him talking about it on Twitter and picked up on a need that this customer had and satisfied that need. It was a white dress shirt he needed prior to arrival and it was waiting in his room when he got there.

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: Offline and online are merging, they are no longer two separate worlds.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: No one is calling anymore or e-mailing. People are tweeting or posting on Instagram as a form of communication. Now you have to be on top of your social medial channels to know what’s going on with your client.

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: I wonder if there isn’t a double-edged sword in some of that, meaning can someone be turned off by the big brother aspect of it? A lot of it will depend on the delivery. It’s important for all of us to understand our customers, but it’s also how much you let them know that you know about them.

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: It goes back to what you say, the trust. It’s how transparent you are about the process. A company that is gathering information like crazy is Warby Parker, an eyeglass company. They even gather information from your mobile phone on your location in the store, but they are extremely transparent about it. So maybe also the aim matters, so it’s not one-size-fits-all. You aim at your target that is moderately receptive for the information to be used to improve the experience. 

Alan Josephs, Allianz Global Assistance; Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau;  Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT; Josh Alexander, Protravel; Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine and Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt New York.

Alan Josephs, Allianz Global Assistance; Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau;  Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT; Josh Alexander, Protravel; Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine and Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt New York.

Alan Josephs, Allianz: The reality is, people are different and so the ability to give someone the control over the [privacy] settings is important.

Katie Barr Cornish: There is a group of consumers in their 30s and 40s who are considered to be omnivores; they’re competitive, wanting all, buying all. They are not very impacted by advertising, they’re much more impacted by social media. What role does social media play in your business?

Alan Josephs, Allianz: One of our biggest customer segments is travel agents, and we started to experiment with social media for our salespeople who can’t get out and necessarily talk to every single travel agent as frequently as they would like. They use Facebook as a way to share information and to get information. So far it’s been very, very successful because it’s convenient and easy. It’s a great way to share that information and communicate.

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: I agree. Social media also allows you to do more segmentation and have a personalized message for consumers and to deliver a specific message on your product, depending on the communication that’s relevant at that time. It’s great for driving a particular theme or story angle about the products that need to get out there. Oftentimes with our products, it’s also about education, particularly with American consumers who might not know a lot about cognac [or] have never tried cognac because the average American consumer is very much either a vodka drinker or rum drinker or whiskey drinker. Cognac is a very small portion here in the United States so we do a lot of education through social media, through digital, our websites and through CRM to drive some of that educational piece, but it has to come across as conversational.

Jean Marc Rejaud of FIT says: “Offline and online are merging, they are no longer two separate worlds.”

Jean Marc Rejaud of FIT says: “Offline and online are merging, they are no longer two separate worlds.”

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: You sell a lifestyle, too.

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: Exactly. We sell a lifestyle so it can’t come across as heavy-handed education. It’s giving the consumer sound bytes of information that they need to sound like they’re in the know.

For us, Pinterest is exploding. It’s interesting because the functionality of Pinterest is getting much better because now you’re not only able to communicate an image but you can really tell a story. Your Pinterest content can be much richer than it was when it first started out. There’re blogger-like social media channels like Tumblr. It really depends on your brand and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Josh Alexander, Protravel: For us, social media plays a huge role in highlighting the benefits and value access of using me as a travel advisor. Whenever I travel I’m always Instagramming and putting up 15-second videos of my rooms and the views. As much as people think they know what’s out there, it’s a way to keep promoting and self-marketing myself. It’s also a way of getting more and more clients, access to people to reconnect with. Friends from the past see what I’m doing now who aren’t using a travel advisor, message me.

Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt: We definitely find value in it from a marketing and merchandising point of view to talk about our beautiful suites and our weekend promotions, for example. In such a customer-facing business, there is so much feedback about the experience and so our primary use of Facebook and Twitter is that we’re in touch with what’s being said about us so we can respond.

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: I think it’s less about how many fans you have and more about how many you actually talk to and engage. Your true fans stay engaged with your page, and those are the ones that you have to make sure that you’re reaching with the relevant content and the right conversation. 

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: Instagram is the best platform for engagement. Facebook is if you want to have reach. With Facebook, of course, you have to pay for everything now. They monetize from A to Z and backwards. Pinterest is okay, but we still don’t know where we want to go with it.

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: Businesses have taken off and they’ve arrived because of Instagram.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: Social media has inspired people who’ve never traveled before to want to travel because it establishes our credibility. At Valerie Wilson Travel, we have someone who just does our social media marketing and intercepts Twitter and puts our name out there on Instagram and Facebook. Whenever we come back from a fam trip, our photos are going up and we’re talking about the property we’re staying in. We actually have such a following because of that, and I’d like to think it’s also because people never realized they should go to Chile because they love the outdoors and that they now want to go the Atacama Desert. It rings true and it also makes people realize we’re really passionate about what we do as well.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel and Sheri Winter Clarry, Corcoran Group Real Estate.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel and Sheri Winter Clarry, Corcoran Group Real Estate.

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: It used to be that 80 percent of real estate searches started online. That was back in 2000; now it’s closer to 92 percent of all real estate searches that start online, whether it’s a rental, whether it’s a commercial property or residential. So just having that online presence is huge. In terms of social media, keywords are so important in hashtagging. You can create your own hashtag based on whatever topic you want or whatever specific sniper approach you want to take to your audience and then that hashtag will live forever. It’s web and social.

Katie Barr Cornish: The luxury market has grown so much; there are Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers. Has it made your jobs more challenging?

Mark Pardue, Grand Hyatt: Lately we’ve been really focused on Millennials. We’ve identified that mid-20-something to early 30s traveler and the feedback we were getting from them relative to their ability to interact with on social media. We’ve taken a look at the guest room itself and what services and amenities are available to them. We found that they have a definite preference for our 24-hour grab-and-go concept as opposed to traditional room service. We’ve even looked at expanding the hours of the grab-and-go operation to 24 hours a day. In the room itself, we tested a showerhead that you can sync your iPhone to and it plays music while you shower in the morning. We had renovated this property two-and-a-half years ago and invested $130 million in it so we thought it was perfect but evidently not. It was really eye-opening for us to get in touch with the Millennials and gain empathy by listening to them.

Alan Josephs, Allianz: One of the trends that we’re seeing is multigenerational travel. We are seeing so many more grandparents taking the grandkids without the parents going. We’ve recently launched a product where kids can travel free, not only with their parents, but even with their grandparents.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: Not just multigenerational travelers, but also younger couples are looking to use a travel agent because their grandparents or their parents are using them and they’re seeing the perks and the special accessibility. We attend travel trade shows every single year. We know a lot of the sales reps and the GMs on a one-to-one basis, whereas someone who booked online wouldn’t have had that personal touch. You can book online and go to social media as much as you want but you cannot replace that one-to-one service. I have a really good steady following of young travelers.

Josh Alexander, Protravel: My clients are diverse in many ways, especially in their age ranges, so I have to change my approach depending on whom I’m dealing with. The Millennials have a short attention span; they want to do everything via e-mail; for a three-week detailed trip they want to just text me about it, whereas a grandparent who’s used to working with somebody wants to have hard-copy documents and a long phone call. At the end of the day, they’re both luxury customers so I have to be careful with my approach, to keep their attention and still deliver what they want.

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: The purchasing power of the Millennial generation means they have a very strong weight economically. If you don’t have your brand relevant to them, then you will die. I teach to Millennials; it’s peer acceptance they are looking for. Peer feedback is a unique angle for this generation. It is, “Look what I’m wearing. Do you approve? Tell me what I should be buying.” It’s a unique character of this market and it should be leveraged to your benefit. At least provide them with a platform where they can share or provide them with assets that they can share with as opposed to telling them what to share.

Alan Josephs, Allianz: Do you think that’s because they’re looking for approval or do you think that’s because they feel like these are the people they can trust?

Jean Marc Rejaud, FIT: Both.

Katie Barr Cornish: Alan, I wanted to circle back to you. You talked about buying patterns of your consumers and you mentioned multigenerational travel, but what are you seeing in terms of what types of insurance your clients are buying?

Alan Josephs, Allianz: In terms of bookings, while Millennials may be up and coming, the Boomers are here. They own it. We do a survey every year called the Confidence Index, and it shows very clearly that the older you are, the more you’re planning on spending. As you go down, there’s just not as much income. We do try to look to all channels, but the people who are actually booking are the Boomers.

Katie Barr Cornish: How important is “gifting” for you in terms of potential clients?

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: It’s huge. You can call it “gifting,” but it’s “entertaining” for me. I do things like I’ll have a fridge completely stocked with everything from liquor and food and the bathroom stocked with high-end luxury products. I’ll make a reservation for them at one of the local restaurants and I’ll pay for the dinner. I’ll take them out on a boat and have it stocked and have a chef on board. It’s about that experience at the end of the day. They’re taking something away and they also feel like they’re in good hands.

Josh Alexander, Protravel: On a personal level, as much as clients love working with you and you got them an upgrade here or sent them a nice little gift after they get back from traveling, to a lot of the people it’s more that you’re thinking about them that’s important.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: On a different level, at Valerie Wilson Travel, we’re a big supporter of Make-A-Wish Foundation and we also put together trip packages that are auctioned off so it makes us a human company. We have that social conscience and I think people like that so when they’re going on a trip that they bought at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, they’re also realizing I did this with Valerie Wilson Travel. We follow up with those clients and that does establish a relationship and a rapport with them. People spread the word about that.

Katie Barr Cornish: How important is technology, from the experience in the guest room to the fact that people can buy your products on their phones?

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: It could be something as simple as being out in the Hamptons and we’re not sure where we are, we can use the GPS on our phone. Or, it could be getting a phone number right away and being able to put a deal together or tie something up because you have access to your clients and customers. If you’re savvy that way, they have the comfort of knowing that they’re in really good hands. Again, it’s about that experience but it’s also trust.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: I absolutely think that technology is huge. We used to send out papers and documents full of itineraries and people would be so burdened if they forgot their itinerary. Now, that’s okay because we have TripCase, which is an online booking engine through Sabre and many of the global booking systems so they can just pull it up on their iPhone and look at the itinerary right in front of them. They don’t have to worry about actually having their itinerary physically in hand.

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: To that point, I can be out with someone and they can say what about that house or whatever it is, and I can just pull it up and have all of the information on it.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: It’s got to be really accessible through an app or through an iPhone. That is huge, because people don’t want to feel that since they didn’t print their ticket, they can’t board their river cruise. They want to be able to experience things without having to be burdened so much; the travel process sometimes can be a burden when you have to move from planes, trains and automobiles.

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: It’s also spoiled consumers in general. They want the answer right away and they’re not used to not being able to get it. If they can’t get it themselves they want to know if you can get it for them right away.

Josh Alexander, Protravel: For me personally, when my clients are traveling, they’re more active. They’re always using their iPads or iPhones. I’m doing the same.

Emma Medina, Rémy Cointreau: There are so many new opportunities to tell your brand story. I think a lot of people in the luxury space get intimidated by technology because they see it as this modern world that only the kids understand. No. There’s a way that you can still tell your story and tell it in a very quality way and not come across as just a modern gadget. We did a partnership not too long ago with the Robb Report with the Louis XIII brand where we placed an ad in the Robb Report magazine, but we developed an app with them so that when a consumer was accessing the Robb Report on their tablet and they clicked on the image of the Louis XIII bottle, it took them to the [virtual] store in a very animated and beautiful way. It was story telling at its best. It was almost like a film. We brought luxury to an iPad. Monetarily it wasn’t a huge investment. It was the creative thinking and power that we had to put into it.  You have to stop and think and develop the creative story that you’re going to tell. It cost the same as doing an ad in but it’s about crafting your story.

Katie Barr Cornish: I think everyone probably struggles at times with the question of whether you want to be all things to all people or do you want to just focus on one smaller niche group.

Franca di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel: I think both actually. We have a very dynamic group of agents who have their niche markets, the areas they specialize in, but you have to also be able to rely on others to tap into markets that you might not have ever tapped into before. It’s great to have your niche market, your loyal clients who will always be spending $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 on trips but you need to be able to be something for everyone as well because you never know what that’s going to lead to. Maybe I booked a hotel for someone that was just $400 a night but perhaps they’ll come back to me for their honeymoon later on because they really liked the personal touch that I had. So it doesn’t hurt to be both.

Sheri Clarry, Corcoran: I definitely find both, as well. While I might initially be contacted because of my niche market, my consumer is very happy with the fact that I have a broader perspective and a broader market so both are really, really important, especially in real estate.

Josh Alexander, Protravel: Both, but only to a certain extent. I’m not generally for every potential client and they’re certainly not always for me. It’s important to manage expectations and what I can provide to a client. It doesn’t always have to be five star, but if someone comes to me and says they were referred to me by friends I planned a great honeymoon for and they want to go backpacking around Australia for a month, I’m not the right person for them. I’m not going to just take on anything like that because I also want to be true to my own personal brand.