The Evolution of Luxury Travel

The definition of luxury travel keeps growing and changing; what’s innovative one year becomes de rigueur the next.  Travel Agent touched base with several luxury specialists (many of whom have appeared in our sister publication Luxury Travel Advisor) to see what trends they’ve noticed and what agents need to know to sell a top-tier trip.

What is Luxury Travel?

Of course, before you can sell something, you have to be able to define it. So what is a luxury vacation? It depends on whom you ask.

Jim Strong, who runs Strong Travel Services with his mother Nancy, says the answer is simple: “Time. Time is a luxury today,” he says. “I can’t make time for people, but what I can do is make their time worthwhile. I can make sure that they have an experience that is going to be something they’ll treasure forever. Once they dedicate their time to me, we take the opportunity to make sure they have options, that they have everything in the style they’re accustomed to.”

Nancy Strong, on the other hand, feels that luxury is a combination of privacy and uniqueness. “It’s not the mass market, so they want special attention,” she argues. “When you pay $2,000 or $3,000 per night for accommodations, you want to feel special and unique.”

Paul Largay of Largay Travel feels that luxury is in the experience. “People don’t look for glitz and glamour as they did in days gone by, when celebrities and Rolls-Royces defined luxury,” he says. “It’s experiential: It’s a unique awareness and access to behind-the-rope activities that people didn’t even know existed. It’s participatory rather than spectator-based. It’s a visceral experience.”


Nancy and Jim Strong
Nancy and Jim Strong believe that privacy and time are crucial elements to a luxury vacation.

Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal of Fischer Travel Enterprises holds the view that an authentic luxury vacation is completely customized and caters precisely to a client’s needs and aspirations. “We get to know our clients well, so if they like wine or art, we incorporate that into their itinerary,” she says. “It’s expertise, knowledge, understanding the needs and exceeding the expectations of savvy travelers.”

Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of boutique luxury line Azamara Club Cruises, looks to professional polls and studies to determine what luxury clients want. These studies, he says, suggest that today’s affluent client has a new perspective of the world.

“They are demanding value within the context of their purchase,” he says, noting that the classic image of free-spending millionaires like Thurston Howell, III on Gilligans Island no longer fits today’s traveler.

“Today’s consumer has broader middle-class sensibility,” he says. “That is a massive psychographic change. Everybody likes to find the hidden value, wherever it may be.

“A cheap vacation can be an expensive mistake if it doesn’t work. If you charge more, you have to say why it’s better.”

Space, Experience, Service

With so many definitions of what a luxury vacation is, it’s no surprise that there is an equal number of answers to the question of what luxury clients expect when they go abroad.

Some people, Nancy Strong says, consider having their own private arrangements to be paramount in a luxury vacation, whether it’s an exclusive villa, yacht or apartment. “They want the privacy of not having to walk in or out of a hotel," she says. "They don’t want to be noticed; they want to be left alone. That’s luxury.”

Going along with his concept of value-for-time, Jim Strong says that clients want a “unique, authentic experience that maximizes the use of their time that they could not discover or find online.”


Larry Pimentel of Azamara Cruises
Larry Pimentel of Azamara Cruises studies surveys and polls for trend info.


For Kristi Jones, president of Virtuoso, high-end travelers want to connect—whether it’s with their family, their partners or with the destination itself. Much as Jim Strong touted authenticity, Jones feels that the two concepts go hand in hand. “It’s about engaging with the destination, the people and the culture. They participate.”

Pimentel agrees that authentic experiences are important. “I can get a great room in Miami, San Francisco, London or Paris, and I can also get it on a ship,” he says. “But if I go to a destination, how can I live that destination? How do I understand the culture? I’m looking for an experience that enriches me. I like to be served and pampered, but I want to learn.”


Kristi Jones
Kristi Jones of Virtuoso feels that relationships are key between clients and agents.

Pimentel and Fischer-Rosenthal both boil everything down to service, from the agent to the staff at the hotel or on board the cruise ship. “You can be in a gorgeous property, but without good service, it takes away from the overall experience,” Fischer-Rosenthal says. “These people come from incredible homes and lifestyles. We find them something on the same level.” There can be no compromise, she adds—if a client’s bedroom at home has his-and-hers bathrooms, then that means they’ll need a hotel suite with two bathrooms as well, even if it means booking two bedrooms instead of one.

“The unsung hero at the end of the day, regardless of the ship, is the service level of the staff,” Pimentel says. “It’s an ingredient throughout time that is always appreciated when it is good. We see that in a great waiter or salesperson who can articulate why this product is the right fit.”

“People are working hard, so when they have a holiday, they look forward to not having to think,” Fischer-Rosenthal says. “They want things planned for them. They want quality time with the family.” A family vacation, she adds, is about spending time together, and for more than just one evening’s dinner. A recent trip involved 82 family members spending four days and four nights in Italy to celebrate a 60th birthday. “These types of trips are very special,” Fischer-Rosenthal says.

Giving Them What They Want

The only way an agent can be sure that they’re giving clients the right kind of trip is by asking questions—lots of questions.

“The first question is, ‘What’s your budget?’” Jim Strong says. “The second is, ‘What are your personal interests?’” The answers might be traditional—wine, art or history—but might be as unique as stencils, stamps or tattoos. The important thing, he says, is to know what gets a client motivated in life. “We keep that in mind when looking at excursions,” he says. “We ask questions, and it’s best if we can meet face-to-face.”


Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal says that good service is vital in every aspect of a trip.

That one-on-one meeting can be terribly important, he adds. “I ask them to tell me about the last few trips they’ve been on—the highlights and the downfalls.” It also helps to learn about the client’s professional and personal life—even to research them on Facebook, MySpace and other social networks. When you really know who your client is, he explains, you can be certain that you are creating their ideal vacation.

Fischer-Rosenthal has a somewhat different strategy, but then again, Fischer Travel has a different way of doing business: Clients pay $100,000 just to sign up with Fischer and $25,000 per year to remain on the client roster. The expense guarantees exclusivity and plenty of attention to personal detail. “We have relationships with our clients,” Fischer-Rosenthal emphasizes. “We know where they’ve been. We know what’s important to them.” As with Strong, Fischer-Rosenthal believes in the importance of an active dialogue with clients. “We’re not order-takers, so it’s a matter of getting the particulars and working within those guidelines and coming up with options—even multiple options.”

Virtuoso's Jones points out that even in a bad economy, a guaranteed return on investment is time spent with family. To that end, they are developing a sales process called Return on Life Travel Planning. “You sit with a client in person or virtually, and map out what they want to accomplish in five, 10 or 20 years…A key question to ask is, ‘When you get back from this trip and we get coffee and talk, what would have to happen during trip for you to say that this was the best trip you ever had?’ You’re telling me what’s important to you. My job is to listen, clarify and collaborate on putting that trip together.”

By learning what their objectives are, she adds, an agent can know how to give them the experience they want. “Any communication you have with your client is important, because you have their goals in mind and because you’ve collaborated on this plan,” she says. “Everything is relevant.”

In addition to the expected “where” and “what” questions, Largay likes to add another. “Talk about why. Why are you going?” he says. “Use that as the nucleus for the experience. Everybody’s definition for what matters is very personal. There’s always that one unique brush stroke that, if you don’t identify it, you’ve lost it.”

The conversation becomes a distillation process, he adds. “We talk about past experiences. What is on their bucket list? What’s the one thing they want to do? What are their regrets? Take time to discover in order to deliver.” Largay’s company has a six-step process to understand what each client wants and how to deliver it, though he can’t reveal insider secrets to divulge what that process is. “We constantly try to refine and define the essence on what our position is in terms of leveraging their wishes with our contacts and knowledge,” he says.

Educated Agents

The best way to sell a luxury vacation, all of the advisors agreed, is to be educated and experienced, and to have a strong team of qualified experts at your back, whether they’re coworkers in the office or partners in each destination. 

If travelers are going to pay the big bucks, Jim Strong says, they want to be certain that the trip has been “vetted and validated” as the type of experience that would suit them. “An agent needs to be savvy, and to understand the client’s ability to ask questions,” he adds. “You can’t BS the client anymore. You have to be on top of your game. Travel consultants today need to be very aware of choices in the marketplace and do their homework to make sure they’re giving their client the best trip possible.” 


Paul Largay
Paul Largay believes that agents should be experts in a particular niche.

Largay agrees. “No one can be an expert on the world, but people can find areas to focus on—the Caribbean, adventure travel, whatever. Find a niche and focus on that. Become the authority.” He adds that clients today have much more access to information on destinations, hotels and prices—but what they need is someone to distill that information for them. “They want someone to give them the true skinny. They want to know, ‘Why should I go there?’ That’s why we are experiencing the great year we’re having: People appreciate communication.”

A top agent, Jones says, should know that their job is not about selling. “You’re solving a problem,” she says. “You’re an advisor. You’re a collaborator.” Some agents can do very well for themselves by selling as much as they can as quickly as they can—but they aren’t true advisors, she declares. “An advisor focuses on the relationship first. The more I know about you, the more I can help, and the more you’ll trust me,” she says. That relationship can be between an agent and a client, or between several coworkers and even on-location suppliers, she adds. Ultimately, the goal is to help. “I see a brilliant future for true advisors, and we’ll help people get there,” she says. “There will always be a premium place for luxury travel advisors, based on understanding the client and matching that understanding with options.”

Pimentel feels that an agent’s knowledge is as much a product to sell as the destination. “Our clients are looking for value, and they want to ensure that they get a good experience,” he says. “When they find a quality agent who knows what he or she is talking about, that agent becomes a product. That knowledge and experience become very valuable. Otherwise, it all degenerates into price.”

While luxury travel agents may be able to sell a higher-priced product, they need to be able to tell their clients why the trip is worth the money. “They want a guarantee of return for money spent: I get a suite and a butler with it and preferential space in dining rooms, and I see better value,” Pimentel says. “The travel seller has to be able to articulate those value points very clearly to the consumer so they ensure that even if they spend more money, they’ll get value for the money they’ve spent. In some cases, the affluent traveler has seen every deal you can imagine in the marketplace.”

The luxury market has changed, Pimentel acknowledges, but he is certain that luxury will never go away as long as people appreciate the finer things in life. “They just want to be sure that if they pay more, they’ll get better things.” Today, he says, luxury is as diverse as it can be, and one size fits just one. “When you understand that, you understand luxury.”


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