All About Celebration Travel

Some people might argue that travel itself is cause for celebration, but for many of your clients it is a means to celebrate a special occasion and make that milestone all the more memorable. According to MMGY Global’s 2013 Portrait of American Travelers, nearly two-thirds of leisure travelers took a vacation to celebrate a life event or another celebration vacation during the past 12 months. Birthdays and anniversaries were the most popular celebration vacations, followed, not surprisingly, by weddings and honeymoons. Family reunions and high school/college graduations also registered a strong showing. The relatively low numbers for bachelor/bachelorette and engagement parties, as well as celebratory trips for a new job, promotion or retirement (and yes, even for a divorce), only go to show that there is significant untapped potential there.

Travel Agent reached out to a number of agents with expertise in this area to get their take on how celebration travel is trending and how to sell it.

RELATED: Column: Top Tips for Celebration Travel


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Get to Know the Group

Trips that mark any milestone or other special occasion tend to be group affairs. As such, Ryan Mielke of Regency Travel in Fort Lauderdale, FL, says agents booking celebratory travel should do their due diligence when it comes to familiarizing themselves with the entire group.

“Most times large group vacations come from a single client you’ve helped in the past,” says Mielke. “But now all of a sudden you have a lot of new faces. I always come up with an Excel sheet for them to fill out. I get information such as full name, date of birth, any special requests, etc. It makes the booking process a lot easier when you are organized from the beginning.”

Carlos Melia of First in Service Travel in New York City, and founder of the LGTNework, agrees. “It depends on where they are located,” he says. “If they are based in the New York City area, then I try to do a pre-trip dinner or get-together so everyone meets. Otherwise I just go and do it. I have experience being a host and I have learned how to manage the dynamics and personalities to make it work.”

RELATED: Carlos Melia Talks Luxury Gay Travel Network (VIDEO)

Carlos Melia: “I try to do a pre-trip [group] dinner or get-together.”

Carlos Melia: “I try to do a pre-trip [group] dinner or get-together.”

Jean Newman Glock of JNG Worldwide in Washington, DC, says, “Isn’t all group travel, except FIT groups, celebration travel? Corporate board meetings and incentive trips as well as the more conventionally defined weddings, babymoons, anniversaries and reunions are all some type of celebration. Every pre-formed group is looking to acknowledge, celebrate and provide their members with an extraordinary, celebratory experience. And the planning for all is the same—the ultimate high touch.”

Know the Place You’re Sending Them to

Newman Glock also suggests shying away from recommending a venue, ship or hotel that you have not personally visited, which is just good advice when planning any type of trip.

“The best case scenario for larger groups is to take one or two of the planners with you on a recon trip if possible,” she says. “This is essential for destination weddings and larger groups.”

Ryan Mielke: “It makes the booking process a lot easier when you are organized from the beginning.”

Ryan Mielke: “It makes the booking process a lot easier when you are organized from the beginning.”

When choosing the destination, a bit of detective work is required. Often a client has something in mind that he or she thinks they want, but may not be the best choice in reality. “Don’t just accept ‘We want to go to xyz,’” she says. “Give them details and specifics about the destination/hotel/ship/riverboat they think they want, and present other options and explain why you think they may be better.”

David Rubin suggests exotic options such as a Galapagos cruise or Icehotel stay.
David Rubin suggests exotic options such as a Galapagos cruise or Icehotel stay.

Consider a Cruise

Whether it’s for an anniversary, reunion, or business getaway, cruises can be an easy sell to groups. After all, they have a lot of structure. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included; entertainment is scheduled every night, shore excursions can easily be booked for a group, and most of all, it’s easy to book as an agent.

“Some Caribbean cruises are also a really good idea for large groups because you can travel with a government-issued ID and your original birth certificate,” says Mielke. “This eliminates the need for everyone to apply and pay for a passport, although it is highly advisable that everyone travels with a passport.”

David Rubin, president and CEO of DavidTravel in Corona del Mar, CA, highly suggests the new Silver Galapagos by Silversea Cruises, which he says “brings true luxury” to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. It was launched in 2014. Rubin says the even newer Silver Explorer by Silversea is also really popular with celebration travel.

Birthdays and Beyond

Of course, there are as many different kinds of celebration trips as there are celebrations. Maya Northen, owner at Philadelphia’s Chimera Travel, said that she has seen an increase in vacations to celebrate graduations (which she describes as “big family trips”) and important birthdays, which are often set up to be a surprise. “Someone will ask me to price out what it would cost to take their father to Europe for his 70th birthday, then they tell him about it on his birthday and we plan from there,” she said.

Laura Allen Epstein of Atlanta-based Century Travel has organized trips for major birthdays, and has noticed distinct differences for those celebrating their 30th, 40th and 50th. “The 30s are more adventurous and willing to spend as they don’t have kids,” she said, “the 40s have to be more moderate since they have kids and more responsibilities. And then the 50s go all-out.” A trip that she is currently planning for a 50th birthday celebration will involve four couples going to Italy. “I know we’ll be organizing a private dinner on the [birthday],” she said, “likely in a wine cellar, private dining room or in a vineyard.”

Anniversaries are also a good excuse for a getaway, even for a shorter domestic trip. “I have some clients going to New York City for five days to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary [and] a couple going to Chicago for a long weekend to celebrate a 40th,” Epstein noted. Similarly, due to proximity, the Caribbean is popular for anniversaries as well as honeymoons and “babymoons.” “St. Lucia is always a favorite,” she said, “and for a young couple I did a three-night long weekend to Mukul.”

Jean Newman Glock: “Take one or two of the [group’s] planners with you on a recon trip if possible.”
Jean Newman Glock: “Take one or two of the [group’s] planners with you on a recon trip if possible.”

Family Celebrations

Families will frequently want to celebrate milestones together, and Northen has noticed changes in requests and destinations—especially as children begin traveling younger. “The kids have studied abroad or done a high school trip overseas,” she said, “and the parents need to get their passport for the first time.” England is a popular destination for families, she added, especially for graduations or big birthdays for the kids.

“I think the trip itself is the gift,” she said, “and also having the family together.” She has noticed an increase in single parents traveling with their children, but also an increase in divorced parents traveling together to both be there for the special event. “I try to deal with just one of the parents to plan as a ‘point person,’” she said, adding that many divorced parents will still do things together when the kids are involved. “I guess that’s the modern family concept,” she added. “It’s nice to see them put the kids first.” Still, she added, booking separate hotel rooms for mom and dad—and possibly the kids as well—is a must on these kinds of trips.

Planning the Trip

Setting specific budget expectations early in the decision-making process is crucial. Be sure to include every imaginable cost. “Ball park estimates always lead to confusion and difficult discussions. Clarify air costs, options, deadlines and who will be coordinating group payments,” says JNG Worldwide’s Newman Glock.

When it comes down to planning the itinerary, leaving free time is always a good idea, as you are planning a trip for a group of individuals, all with his or her own preference and taste. “My rule is usually one joint meal only per day and one-half day of planned events per day. Personalize, personalize, personalize—every aspect possible. Small touches go a long way.”

During the trip, if you are not joining the group to manage, make sure that you or designated staff are available to all members 24/7. Little problems are solved quickly at the time, but become great big problems when not and when magnified by the entire group sensing an unresolved problem. Ask for a contact staff person at the destination and request they brief you at least daily on how it is going. Touch base with the group by e-mail if appropriate.

Carole Anne Hughs stresses the importance of the right atmosphere and environment.
Carole Anne Hughs stresses the importance of the right atmosphere and environment.

For Carole-Anne Hughs with Valerie Wilson Travel in New York City, planning celebration travel comes down to three main items: the availability to provide tailored and special experiences; considering the optimal hotel/resort environment; and keeping in mind requirements for the destination.

“We want to have the ability to set our clients up somewhere in the hotel or destination that is great for a private dinner, couples massage or a really unique experience pertaining to the destination,” she says. This is optimal for honeymoon travel. “Sometimes it is even a surprise from one to the other that is suggested and arranged by the agent.” For example, Hughs has designed “ship wrecked” brunches or dinners, where couples, or even families, are taken by boat from an island resort to a neighboring small island or islet and left with a picnic basket, champagne and a hand-held radio for when they are ready to return.

“You also have to consider the environment, which sounds simple at first,” she says. “But nothing can ruin a great adult getaway faster than finding out you are in the biggest family-friendly resort around.” Along those lines, families do not want to bring energetic kids to a destination or resort that offers nothing for them to do. “Always keep in mind the atmosphere and environment that will be optimal for the overall experience,” she adds.

Finally, consider all requirements to reach the destination. This could be any visa requirements, layovers, needed transfers, currency exchanges, etc. “Sometimes planning a trip for celebratory reasons can bring a level of stress if the destination is particularly challenging, no matter how ultimately beautiful,” she says. “Keep in mind the ease of certain destinations that could offer a similar vibe and setting conducive for the perfect celebration. Less stress equals more room for enjoyment and celebration!”

Going That Extra Mile

All clients like that special treatment they get from their agent, whether it be a surprise bottle of champagne from the resort or even a free upgrade, but going the extra mile is truly essential for a group booking, says Caroline Brooke Fridley of Easy Escapes Travel in Atlanta, GA.

“Extras are even more important for these types of trips than regular vacations,” she says. “The honeymooners, for example, will remember that they had a great trip either way, but set up some really fabulous/special experience for them [private picnic in the water on a motu off Bora Bora, charter sail on a flower-and-champagne-bedecked small crewed sailboat off St. Lucia, etc.] and they will also really remember the extra service from the agent.”

Lynda Lettre recommends all-inclusive resorts for college graduate celebrations.
Lynda Lettre recommends all-inclusive resorts for college graduate celebrations.

When she knows the trip is for a celebration, Chimera Travel’s Maya Northen tries to add little bonuses and perks for the client: “I try to work in upgraded rooms somehow, or suggest something that I know the birthday celebrator would like, and I try to get it discounted,” she said. “I always let the hotels know that it’s an important celebration and that they’re VIP clients.” For one client’s 30th anniversary, she arranged a special dinner at the restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower. “It was fun to organize,” she said. “I use that example often for something that travel planners can do that the general public would never think we can. It’s usually a winner.”

And how successful an agent is in going that extra mile depends on the wants and needs of the client. Says First in Service’s Carlos Melia: “The success of celebration travel is subject to how communicative and direct the client is with their expectations and likes.”

Where to Send Them

Here are a few suggestions from our experts on what type of celebrants to send where.

College Grads: If your celebration booking involves a birthday bash for a recently graduated client or any other vacation involving a large group of recent college graduates, consider booking them into an all-inclusive resort. Lynda N. Lettre of Party Time Travel in Nanuet, NY, says these types of clients gravitate toward all-inclusives, especially those in Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) and the Bahamas.

“College grads love all-inclusives because the entire vacation is packaged together—their flights, transfers to/from resort, meals, drinks, tips, etc.,” says Lettre. “Once they pay in full, they can start saving for excursions, or simply enjoy what the resorts have to offer and not spend any more money.”

High Schoolers: Lettre says for younger clients such as high school students or recent graduates, a Disney vacation is the safe bet. “Disney is great for high school graduates,” she says. “Especially if they are new to traveling. This is a great way for them to gain their travel wings and learn how to be independent from their parents, yet safe.”

Pre-Wedding Bashes: For pre-nuptial getaways for the wedding party, suggest a quick three-to-five-night jaunt to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, or the Bahamas. Domestically, great bachelorette parties can be found on wine trips to California while old reliable Las Vegas is a match for bachelor parties.

Family Reunions: First in Services’ Carlos Melia highly recommends the British Virgin Islands, specifically Villa Aquamare in Virgin Gorda. Domestically, Melia suggests The Inn at Perry Cabin by Belmond in St. Michaels, MD. It is perfect for a family reunion, wedding or friends’ getaway, Melia says.

Also for family reunions or just a large group celebration, particularly for upscale clients, DavidTravel’s David Rubin suggests the Icehotel in the north of Sweden. Rubin once booked a group to enjoy New Year’s Eve in Stockholm before sending them to this unique property.

LGBT Travelers: For celebrations involving LGBT clients, fun, gay-friendly destinations include San Francisco; Provincetown, MA; Key West and Fort Lauderdale, FL; Providence, RI; Fire Island in Long Island, NY; and New York City.

TIP: Book Air as Far in Advance as Possible

Agents know that all kinds of things can go wrong when booking flights for just a few people, so imagine what a train wreck it can be when more than 10 people are involved? The best way to avoid any pitfalls when it comes to booking flights is to book as far in advance as possible, says Regency Travel’s Ryan Mielke.

“It’s a nightmare logistically to book a large group and not have enough space for everyone on the same flight,” he says. “Many airlines still offer good group rates, space, and even the option to change a name if need be. Air schedules are usually released 330 days in advance; if you get a contract and deposit in as soon as possible it will save on time and money down the road.”