How are your travelers defining “luxury” today? Upscale traveler expectations are evolving—and understanding what your clients mean by luxury can be the difference between crafting a wow experience that leads to a lifetime client or a trip that doesn’t quite hit the mark.
“Before, luxury was more about decadence and five-star experiences,” says Jeffery DalPoggetto, CTC, luxury travel advisor at Andavo Travel. “What’s really shifted is the expectations. What they’re trying to find now is a local, authentic experience.”
“People don’t necessarily ask me anymore for the white-glove type of experience,” confirms Whitney Shindelar, owner of Undiscovered Sunsets. “And it’s not a budget thing. It’s that people don’t necessarily feel that’s the best way to connect.”
Enter experiential travel. Authentic, local immersion is a trend sweeping the travel industry, including the luxury market. In fact, for the past two years, the number-two travel motivation on Virtuoso’s Luxe Report has been “seeking authentic experiences,” with related motivations like “exploring new destinations” and “personal enrichment” also highlighted.
What’s more, while experiential opportunities are available on just about any type of trip and at every price point, luxury advisors and clients are finding ways to take the trend to new heights, channeling upscale budgets and expectations into truly exclusive, one-of-a-kind experiences.
“Experiential travel is open to everybody,” says Jodi Murphy, managing member of Cruise and Travel Partners, LLC. “But money can make a difference—because let’s face it: Exclusivity is expensive. There are things you need money to do. For example, it gives you the ability to get to places on a private jet; it lets you tap into a local resource that others can’t; it gets you private visits.”
Exclusivity and access are just a few of the luxurious perks agents can arrange for upscale clients seeking an experiential travel opportunity. Read on for a look at how to craft truly immersive, experience-based travel for the most discerning of clients.
Defining the Experience
Before agents can craft a trip that is both luxurious and experiential, they need to understand what both those terms mean to the client they are working with.
“Luxury means different things to different people—it’s highly personal,” says Murphy. “It could be having a private surfing lesson with a well-known instructor. It could be staying in a hut, being able to unplug. It’s more about uniqueness and the fact that they are able to do something that others just aren’t able to do. Travelers are willing to pay for that experience.”
The same concept can be applied to experiential travel: Not every experience will appeal to every client, so a key component of crafting immersive, upscale travel is to tease out the types of experiences that the client is seeking.
“I like to start at the end and work backwards,” Murphy explains. “I want the client to tell me the experience they’re looking for. What’s their goal? Then I work backwards to try and make that happen.”
This is especially important because experiential travel today covers an enormous range of possibilities. Experiential travel can mean in-depth, self-guided exploration; it can be a small group tour led by a special guide for unparalleled insight. It can involve spa treatments using local traditions and ingredients, visiting indigenous people to see their way of life, taking a class taught by an expert, food-focused touring to taste local specialties—and so much more.
With so many diverse opportunities available, advisors can’t just look for something broadly labelled experiential, or unique, or exclusive—they must find the right blend of immersive and personal to satisfy their particular upscale clients. “It’s not just about what this experience offers that makes it special,” says Shindelar. “It’s also the question of what about this experience is special for this unique client. It’s finding that perfect combination that gets me most excited about these really cool opportunities.”
Crafting Experiential Luxury
With so much of the industry pushing for—and promoting itself as—experiential, it’s important that agents are able to tell the difference between authentic immersion and something that’s merely marketed that way, especially when it comes time to please discerning, luxury-seeking clients. A few key factors agents can consider:
Personal experience: Of course, the easiest way to know if something is authentic is to have experienced it yourself, or know someone who has. Test the waters, discover the advantages and disadvantages of different options, and learn to recognize what you’re looking for.
“I think there’s that ‘aha’ moment, when a travel advisor becomes an experience-maker,” says Murphy. “And once you’ve had your own unique and authentic experiences, it becomes easy to tell the difference.”
The company’s roots and specialization: Insider’s knowledge can be the key differentiator with experiential travel. “It’s a good sign to me if a company is only operating tours or designing itineraries for a specific region,” reveals Shindelar. “My favorites are the companies that say ‘We do this one country, we are from this country and here’s what we can offer you.’ And those do tend to be a higher cost, because they are so specialized.”
Larger companies, travel agent consortia and others also often partner with locals on the ground in order to provide the insights and experience that come from local connections.
A tour or activity’s leader: Whether it’s a cooking class with a renowned chef or a photo safari led by a world-class photographer, the presence of a highly regarded leader is a good sign that this is a special opportunity with the possibility for true immersion and insight.
“I did Kilimanjaro in 2009 with someone who had done all seven summits of the world,” says DalPoggetto. “Having access to someone and being able to ask ‘What was it like when you were climbing Everest?’ over a glass of wine—you really feel immersed in the experience.”
The lasting impression: Is this an experience that will stay with the traveler long after the trip? Will it become a treasured memory and a highlight of their life?
“Experiential travel leaves an impression on the traveler,” explains Murphy. “It can be life-changing. If done well, it becomes part of your life story.”
In addition to these considerations, agents must be sure to take into account what factors make an experiential opportunity worthy of a luxury traveler in particular. A few guidelines:
- Exclusivity: An exclusive opportunity to do something unique, or private access to a popular attraction/experience really ups the wow factor. Access like this often comes with a price tag, making it especially well-suited to the luxury market.
- Private touring vs. small group: Consider when an experience can be privatized and specially tailored to the individual client. On the flip side, a small group tour or activity might be right when it offers an element that can’t be privately booked.
- Upgrade options: Are there add-ons or different levels of service that can be booked? Present clients with a range of options so they can customize their level of luxury for each individual experience.
- Strike a balance: Remember that the value of the experience isn’t all about the price tag. On the other hand, don’t forget about upscale expectations: Just because a client wants something authentic and local, it doesn’t mean they don’t expect outstanding service and amenities, whatever the price point.
More Tips and Tricks
No travel advisor can experience every hotel, tour and activity that bills itself as luxurious or experiential. So one of the most important tools they can rely on is their network, including any association or consortium membership, other agents they know and trust, and on-the-ground industry contacts like hotel managers, concierges or tour guides.
“Being part of Virtuoso gives me the confidence to book with hotels and companies that I might not have personal experience with, because they’ve all been vetted by Virtuoso, which has very high standards,” says Shindelar. “In addition, our community of travel advisors talks all the time—on a daily basis, I’m emailing or calling or jumping in our Facebook group to ask ‘What do you know about this country? Has anyone worked with this company before? Do you have any feedback?’ ”
When it comes to experiential travel, Murphy emphasizes that it’s helpful to become known for specializing in that kind of travel. “The buyers and the seller seek each other out,” she says. “The more you actually sell experiential travel and become known for being an expert in that area, the more opportunities will come your way.”
Another of DalPoggetto’s tips for luxury experiential travel planning is to know the splurge-worthy elements of a trip, and when to nudge clients toward them. “You’re trying to pick the right ‘wow’ for the customer,” he explains. “And if you know you’ve found the right experience for them, you might have to explain that even if it’s a little over their budget, how many times will they get to do this?”
Shindelar also recommends encouraging clients to start planning early and to remain flexible in order to find the best possible experiences. “When clients say ‘Our flights are booked, now let’s start planning,’ it’s like tying my hands behind my back,” she says. “I don’t get to do research and say, ‘I know we were thinking about June, but I found this amazing concert or festival that’s going to be awesome for you, and it’s happening in July.’ My clients and I are always so much more excited about the final itinerary when we start early with no restrictions.”
The ability to think outside the box is also crucial to planning experiential travel. And when agents are able to channel their ingenuity through a luxury budget, that creativity can rise to an even more incredible level.
“If you’ve got somebody…trying to go from [interior] mountains to a coast, luxury is saying ‘There’s no scheduled flight, but you can charter a plane,’ ” says DalPoggetto. “It’s weighing the cost and benefit of avoiding a long drive and giving them an extra day on their trip. That’s where the luxury comes in—ease of access and making great use of the time.”
And finally, Shindelar emphasizes the luxury of taking time to really explore, which is when she says true experiential opportunities arise: “To really get these experiential itineraries, [I tell clients to] take it slow. Rent a villa for 10 days in Italy and just explore one region to really feel like you’re a bit of a local. When you’re stumbling across villages you didn’t intend to visit, or you see a long line at a pizza shop and wait with the locals—that’s experiential.”
Luxury Experiential Travel in Mexico
Mexico’s incredible diversity makes it an ideal destination for a huge range of immersive, upscale experiences. With breathtaking natural attractions, rich culture, fascinating history and delectable gastronomy—all of which can be experienced with top-tier service and amenities—the possibilities for authentic, local experiences at a luxury level are nearly endless.
With more Five Diamond resorts than Canada, Hawaii, the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America combined, Mexico’s ever-expanding list of luxury properties fits the most refined tastes. And with an abundance of upscale boutique hotels and historic haciendas, travelers can experience a true sense of place, whether in cosmopolitan Mexico City, along the country’s stunning coastlines, or in magical towns and colonial cities.
Just a small sampling of the many opportunities for unique and immersive experiences in Mexico includes culturally based spa and wellness experiences, such as the ancient healing practice of a temazcal steam bath; visiting distilleries to learn about and taste different tequilas; meeting local artists and artisans at their workshops; private tours of ancient archeological treasures; discovery of the country’s 68 indigenous groups; sampling local Mexican cuisines, which has been named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage; and much more.
Travelers seeking luxury experiential travel can also discover Mexico through one of its incredible locally operated travel providers, such as Catherwood Travels, which specializes in unique Yucatan experiences.
“It’s rare for a traveler to think about the Mayans as a living culture,” says Angelica Espinosa, director of travel for Catherwood Travels. “On our journeys, we immerse explorers in the multiple dimensions of the Maya world. From ultra-chic art installations in the jungle to visiting the milpas (traditional corn fields), Catherwood is an invitation to participate in our efforts to conserve, create and re-energize the treasures of the Yucatan Peninsula.”
Catherwood’s expeditions run the gamut from visits to Mayan communities and workshops to archeologist-led trips to Mayan sites, exploring undisturbed habitats accessible only by boat or trekking, visiting unexplored cenotes, culinary trips and more.
“All our trips have a VIP feel,” adds Espinosa. “Guests grow as they travel, acquiring a wealth of knowledge on Yucatecan history, art, food, architecture, and its fragile ecosystems and indigenous cultures. And with all the extraordinary adventures come delightful amenities and indulgences. After a day in the field, travelers find shelter in magnificent old haciendas, now repurposed as luxury hotels as well as living laboratories of sustainable Yucatecan tourism.”
To learn more about Catherwood Travels, visit CatherwoodTravels.com. And more information on Mexico’s diverse opportunities for luxury experiential travel can be found at VisitMexico.com.