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Wednesday,  April 17, 2024 6:36 PM 

Skyrocketing cruise sales & France’s 452% increase: Virtuoso shares latest trends at T.O. Forum

Skyrocketing cruise sales & France’s 452% increase: Virtuoso shares latest trends at T.O. Forum
From left: Úna O’Leary, GM, Virtuoso Canada; Misty Belles, VP, global public relations, Virtuoso, at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel on Tuesday (Feb. 27).
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Luxury travel sales at Virtuoso Canada continue to grow, with last year showing a 22 per cent increase – a record high – over the previous year.   

Sure, 2022 may have a recovery period, but the numbers, which were shared with media at a Virtuoso-hosted lunch and press conference at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel on Tuesday (Feb. 27), are worth taking a closer look at.    

Luxury travellers in Canada, for one, appear to have a growing appreciation for vacations at sea. Virtuoso Canada’s cruise sales last year saw a significant spike, growing by 48 per cent.

Future cruise bookings, meanwhile, are up 32 per cent, which outpaces the luxury consortium’s global average of 30 per cent.

READ MORE: On Location: “Huge opportunities”: Growing Virtuoso Canada brings talent, strategy to Vegas

Virtuoso Canada has it broken down by segment: ocean is up 48 per cent, river cruising is up 87 per cent (uh, wow), yacht is up 38 per cent while expedition is up 42 per cent.  

“We are a country of cruisers,” said Úna O’Leary, general manager of Virtuoso Canada, addressing a conference room full of travel journalists.

Sharing other insights, O’Leary noted how Canadian luxury travellers have returned to longer booking windows.  

The pandemic, for a period, may have generated a share of last-minute bookings. But people are now less spontaneous, opting to put time and research into their trips.

It’s a form of “thoughtful travel,” as O’Leary put it. 

The proof is in Canada’s advanced bookings – they’re up 16 per cent, just shy of the global average, which is at 19 per cent.  

READ MORE: Virtuoso exploring AI tools with startups; “Age of distrust” will amplify human connections, says CEO

Behaviours and tastes are changing, too. Canadians sure love all-inclusive resorts, but year-over-year, Virtuoso has seen a downward shift in this vacation style, dropping to 26 per cent last year from 35 per cent in 2022.

“Canadians are looking for something more meaningful,” O’Leary explained.

Visiting multiple places in a single trip is also waning in popularity, Virtuoso reports, which suggests the market’s desire to take their time in one destination.

But Canadians still love a good deal. Virtuoso says that 50 per cent of Canadians are influenced by special offers.

Talk of the town

If there’s a place to talk travel trends this week, it’s at Toronto’s Four Seasons, where Virtuoso’s Canada Forum, an event series that debuted in Vancouver last year, is taking place. It wraps up on Thursday (Feb. 29).

From left: Anna Judek, director of marketing, Virtuoso Canada; Misty Belles, VP, global public relations, Virtuoso; Úna O’Leary, general manager, Virtuoso Canada. (Pax Global Media)

One of several trademark events in Virtuoso’s calendar, the forum gives agency owners, managers and preferred partners an opportunity to gather in a collaborative setting and strategize. 

This week's conference has welcomed 105 attendees, with 24 out of 25 member agencies represented. In Canada, there are roughly 1,800 active travel advisors certified by Virtuoso.

All about strategy

Strategy is the name of the game for O’Leary, whose been growing Virtuoso’s presence in Canada ever since she joined the company in September 2021 when the consortium, previously a U.S.-centric entity, hired regional managers around the world, giving Canada more autonomy.

Over the past three years, O’Leary has been injecting some much-needed Canadiana into the Virtuoso universe. Her first order of business was translating Virtuoso’s training into French for Quebec-based agents (previously, it was only available in English).

She’s also built a coast-to-coast workforce of experienced travel pros to help establish new partnerships and support Canada’s Virtuoso network.

In a few short years, Virtuoso Canada has gone from a team of one to eight. It has two staff in Vancouver, three in Toronto, two in Montreal and one in Halifax. 

This not only supports Virtuoso members and partners, but "we can also address the regionalities for our travellers," O’Leary told PAX yesterday. 

As PAX learned from Canadian luxury travel advisors at last year’s Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, it’s been a welcome change.

"What we’ve grown is the awareness that Canada is its own country and region," O’Leary said yesterday. "Our partners see the value of working with Virtuoso advisors here in Canada."

Where luxury travel is going

Swirling in the background at Virtuoso’s Forum this week is new research that paints a picture of today’s travel industry and how trends are expected to shape the market.  

In less than ten years, by 2033, travel and tourism will contribute to 11.6 per cent of the world’s GDP, growing almost twice as fast as the global average, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

Tourism Economics also reports double-digit growth in outbound leisure spend.

Meanwhile, Virtuoso’s 2024 “Luxe Report,” an annual survey that predicts booking trends based on the input of its global network of 20,000 travel advisors, highlights the activities and destinations that affluent travellers are pursuing this year.

READ MORE: Virtuoso’s top nine luxury experiences for 2024

From “Dark Sky Tourism” in Norway, Iceland or Canada, under the Northern lights, to slow safaris in Africa to springtime in Japan to expeditions in Antarctica and Galapagos to a Belmond train ride from Paris to Istanbul aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the experiences range from relaxing to adventurous. (Click here to see the entire list).

A Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a Belmond train. (Belmond)

This year, the top five emerging destinations for Canadian luxury travellers are Costa Rica (a top destination in Virtuoso’s adventure and family travel sectors), Japan, Portugal, Iceland and Thailand (thanks to Air Canada’s Vancouver-Bangkok route), O’Leary said.

As for travel to Europe, big-time sporting events are in the spotlight.

In Germany, the 2024 UEFA European Football Championship will take place from June 14 to July 14, and already, Virtuoso’s bookings for that region are up 36 per cent over last year.

READ MORE: Ahead of Summer Olympics, France urges trade to “think differently,” consider new itineraries

But that pales in comparison to France, which will host the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games from July 26 to Sept. 8 in venues not only in Paris, but also in 16 French cities, including one overseas region (Tahiti).

Paris, France. (Michael Pihach)

Virtuoso’s France bookings, this year, are 452 per cent (!) higher than the same time last year, O’Leary revealed.

Paris' tourism office is expecting 15.9 million to visit the City of Light, and its surrounding region, during the July-September period.

Other events that are making France a go-to destination this year, including the 150th anniversary of Impressionism (in Paris and Normandy), the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy (in Normandy), as well as the reopening of Notre-Dame Cathedral (which was damaged by a fire in 2019) in Paris on Dec. 8.

What are Virtuoso Canada members saying? Click here for the trends that are shaping luxury travel in 2024.

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