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Wednesday,  April 17, 2024 6:14 PM 

Summer spending, expeditions & “the Italy of Asia”: Virtuoso agencies share 2024 trends

Summer spending, expeditions & “the Italy of Asia”: Virtuoso agencies share 2024 trends
From left: Thomas Panos, Omega Travel; Úna O’Leary, Virtuoso Canada; Stephen Smith, Direct Travel; Carly Renshaw, Renshaw Travel; Rob Blowes, BST Vacations & Stewart Travel Group LTD. (Pax Global Media)
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.

There’s some exclusivity attached to being a Virtuoso advisor. After all, the global luxury travel consortium doesn’t just accept anyone into the club.

Travel advisors have to be the right fit, in a “So Virtuoso” kind of way, to borrow a line from the organization’s global campaign, which highlights the value of Virtuoso’s advisors.

The global network of some 20,000 luxury travel advisors connects its members to the world’s most prestigious hotels and suppliers, which will shower clients with perks (such as complimentary breakfast, champagne or late check-out at hotels) when travel is booked through a Virtuoso advisor.

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

On Tuesday (Feb. 27), four members from Virtuoso Canada participated in a panel about the latest travel trends that are shaping the industry.

The discussion was held at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, where Virtuoso’s Canada Forum, a conference for agency owners, managers and preferred partners, is taking place until Feb. 29.

The panel featured Stephen Smith of Direct Travel, Carly Renshaw of Renshaw Travel, Rob Blowes of BST Vacations & Stewart Travel Group LTD and Thomas Panos of Omega Travel, with U.S.-based Misty Belles, vice-president of global public relations at Virtuoso, serving as moderator.

How is 2024 shaping up?

2023 was a big year for travel. So how is 2024 shaping up?

While the world’s geopolitical situation initially presented some uncertainty, 2024 “is trending stronger” than last year, Smith said.

This year, though, Smith’s team is seeing a “few shifts” in terms of how people are booking – especially when it comes to Europe.

Members of Virtuoso Canada share insights on the travel trends that are shaping 2024. (Pax Global Media)

As previously reported, France will host this year’s Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games in July and August, while in Germany, the UEFA European Football Championship will unfold in June and July.

How busy will it be? Virtuoso’s France bookings, for example, are 452 per cent higher than the same time last year, the company shared at an earlier press meeting.

Europe-bound clients who are avoiding those large-scale sporting events are travelling off season, opting for trips in May and September, Smith said.

“Canadians are definitely looking at shoulder seasons for Europe in a big way,” he said. “We have a lot of clients heading there [during those times] – probably to avoid the chaos of the Olympics.”

There are still people travelling to Europe this summer. “But I think they're very purpose driven,” Smith said.

Everything now

Carly Renshaw said this past January “was, by far, the busiest ever.”

“[Clients] are literally booking everything now,” she said, from last-minute getaways for Spring Break to summer vacations.

On Europe summer travel trends, Renshaw said it all depends on the demographic.

From left: Thomas Panos, Omega Travel; Rob Blowes, BST Vacations & Stewart Travel Group LTD. (Pax Global Media)

Families travelling with kids and nannies are still packing their bags in July in August, whereas retired folks and clients with flexibility are going off season, she said.

“With Europe, we’re already booking September and Christmas,” Renshaw said.

Rob Blowes noted that Spain and Portugal are scooping up segments of the market that are avoiding France.

High prices & new itineraries

High prices are also influencing some high-end travel decisions, said Smith.

“The average daily rates at luxury hotels in Europe are the highest they've ever been,” he said. “It depends on the type of client and what their threshold is. That ultra-high net worth client, they don't care. They’ll do what they want.”

It’s the clients who fall one level below who “are holding back a little,” Smith said.

“They might travel in shoulder season because they're saying, “No, we don’t want to spend that much.”

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

Air fares to Europe, depending on the period, are also sky-high in price. In Vancouver, for a family of four, just getting to Europe during the summertime (in economy) can cost upwards of $10,000, Panos said.

“A lot of families are deciding to put that money to different use,” he said. “They might rent an Airbnb on Vancouver Island, for example, or go south through Washington State to Oregon or California.”

He’s also seeing less multigenerational family travel this year “because it’s already been done.”

“The ultra-rich are saying: what are we going to do next? Let's do something new.”

That could be a new ship, hotel, or destination. “Which is fun for us as agents because we're doing stuff that we haven't been doing,” Panos said.

“The Italy of Asia”

Renshaw is seeing families – the kind that have three or four kids – present price caps this year on their travel, which she didn’t see last year.

The ultra-wealthy, however, are still more than happy to pay for private jets and expedited service to avoid hassles while travelling, she said.

Outside of Europe, Asia is seeing a bump now that airlift has returned, Blowes noted. Same goes for the South Pacific and Africa.

Virtuoso’s own research shows that Japan is the number one re-emerging destination, regardless of where travellers are based, said moderator Misty Belles.

“Japan has become the Italy of Asia,” she said.

With transatlantic lift prices running high, customers are also turning to the Caribbean, which, from parts of Canada, costs less to get to, added Smith.

In Vancouver, Panos is seeing strong demand for Mexico City. “It’s a huge destination right now,” he said, noting the abundance of non-stop flights and because “it’s become a huge foodie city.”

Despite price concerns in some markets, Canadian luxury travellers are still thrilled when a good deal comes along.

Renshaw said there can be a “week of bliss” in booking business class tickets to Europe when air fares, for example, drop to $4,000 per person, before skyrocketing back up to seven or eight thousand.

“Expedition is huge”

As reported, Virtuoso Canada’s cruise sales last year saw a significant spike, growing by 48 per cent.

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

Virtuoso Canada says ocean is up 48 per cent, river cruising is up 87 per cent, yacht is up 38 per cent while expedition is up 42 per cent.

“Expedition is huge,” Blowes said. “People are walking in the door and asking for it.”

Because there are so many new ships in the water, expeditions have never been more affordable. “Before it was for the super wealthy,” he said.

More customers are also asking for smaller ships and chartering their own vessels, he said.

Northern Europe, as a cruising destination, is returning in popularity, noted Smith, while the Mediterranean has plateaued a little.

Untapped market

One of PAX’s takeaways from last year’s Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas was the opportunity that lies in Canada’s luxury marketplace.

Based on conversations we had with advisors at that event, it appears there’s a population of affluent Canadians who aren’t fully aware of travel advisors and what they can do.

Tuesday’s panel agreed with that notion.

“I think there’s still an untapped market out there that doesn't know we exist,” Renshaw said.

The silver lining of the pandemic was how it shined a spotlight on what a travel advisor does, which has led to new clients in recent years, Renshaw shared.

One of Virtuoso’s mandates is to promote the value of using a travel advisor (in mainstream media, for example), which has helped create awareness.

During COVID, Virtuoso saw a 50 per cent increase in traffic to its website from consumers looking to source an agent. “It consistently stayed up,” Belles said.

Smith agreed: “There’s so many people who don’t know, nor understand the value of working with a travel advisor,” he said.

“It saves you headaches, but it actually saves you money because we know the tips and tricks on what to do and when to travel.”

“It’s not about being the cheapest. It’s about the value [customers] get, based on their priorities.”

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