Luxury travel will be the first sector of the industry to bounce back in a post-Covid world, because it is defined by exclusivity, space and attention to detail
Last year, it was reported that the wealthy were upgrading to private jets and charter flights for quick getaways – getting ahead of sudden travel-corridor changes. Data from aviation specialists WINGX showed that, while the number of commercial flights had dropped by three-quarters since the start of the pandemic, private flights were down only 42 per cent compared with 2019. In fact, in August 2020, demand for private jets was back to 93 per cent of normal levels, while scheduled flights remained down 65 per cent. Richard Koe, the managing director of WINGX, said private aviation offered “an on-call and convenient means of connectivity, essential as gaps appear in the scheduled networks”. Of course, even among luxury travellers and first-class fliers, most can’t afford the step up from commercial airlines to private jets – but the data provides an insight into how well placed the luxury market is to make a recovery.
Many of the elements that define luxury travel – exclusivity, space and attention to detail – put it in good stead in the post-Covid world. In fact, not only are well-heeled travellers seemingly more likely to embrace travel once they’re able to, but there also appears to be truth in the suggestion that holidaymakers will splash the cash – treating themselves to a little luxury after their 2020 plans were curtailed. Prior to Covid, luxury travel was outstripping the rest of the industry: in 2016, travel technology company Amadeus wrote that, over the next 10 years, the growth rate in outbound luxury trips in the US was projected at 6.2 per cent, almost a third greater than overall travel (4.8 per cent).
“The majority of bookings are for 2022, with main trend being saving and upgrading,” a spokesperson for Kuoni says. “Average spend for 2022 is up compared to 2019 and people are pushing the boat out as many will have missed out on a holiday for two years by the time they go.”
Among Kuoni’s most popular destinations are several countries that have low infection numbers and high vaccination rates, making them likely to make it onto the green list. It lists the Maldives, Mauritius, St Lucia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Antigua, Thailand, Kenya, Barbados and Tanzania as its top 10 destinations currently being booked. Certainly, we are likely to see select Indian Ocean and Caribbean destinations being at the forefront of both long-haul and luxury travel – destinations blessed with isolated, luxurious resorts.
Swift Travel, a luxury specialist, says it is seeing customers embracing longer trips. Edward Riddle of the company says: “We’re seeing a definite trend in slower and more considered travel, large itineraries spread across multiple destinations to make the most of a trip.” He adds: “After a period with unprecedentedly strong restrictions and uncertainty we predict these extended ‘epic’ trips will continue to grow in popularity, as well as meaningful itineraries to remote locations.” Riddle says he fully expects the latter to “continue and grow with small ship cruising – river and ocean – along with trains being particularly appealing”.
Prior to the pandemic, the luxury and premium sectors of the cruise industry were growing rapidly, from amenity-rich larger ships to all-inclusive river boats and the trend towards yacht-style cruising, mostly in the ultra-luxury sector. With cruise lines adopting stringent safety protocols and, in some cases, mandatory vaccination certificates for guests, the industry is well-placed to return strongly. In particular, the luxury expedition sector will allow guests to travel in vaccinated bubbles to remote regions such as the Galápagos or Antarctica.
Kuoni also confirmed that villas are in strong demand, with average group sizes increasing as extended families travel. “Honeymoons are very much back on – weddings have been on hold and some couples opting for smaller ceremonies and spending more on the honeymoon instead,” a spokesperson said.
It’s no surprise that, in this new world, villas are proving popular. CV Villas reported a spike in interest following the announcement of the roadmap out of lockdown earlier in the year. It has since seen Greece and the Balearics in particularly prove popular, suggesting holidaymakers may embrace island travel. “The feeling of seclusion is what people are after,” says managing director Tristan Symondson, who also reported several familiar trends: longer holidays, working-from-anywhere stays (often called digital nomadism) and larger groups through multi-generational holidays, with the average booking value up by 26 per cent on 2020 and 48 per cent on 2019.
While much has been written about longer lead-in times Symondson says that, while there are those planning further in advance, there are many who will hop on plane in search of sun and a little luxury once they are able to.
“When things did sort of open up from early July , we had our busiest July and August on record; July and August, for taking bookings, was like a normal January and February,” he says. “[Villas] are the sort of holiday that people will do at the drop of a hat. They may not go on a complex tour of India next week, but they will go on a blitz, you know, on a holiday in Greece next week. It’s the kind of thing that you can do without too much planning. So we saw a huge last-minute surge when stuff did open up last year and we were confident that we’ll get the same [this year] if we get the news we are after.”
Riddle at Swift Travel adds that, as well as private villa bookings, ‘residence on resort’ holidays are popular among luxury travellers, which he says offer “privacy and safety with top spec but benefit from outstanding resort amenities if required”. There is, he says, an abundance of options in all regions, which also “cater for longer stays far better, which is definitely on the up due to sudden changes in restrictions and huge growth in remote working”.
In Amadeus’ Shaping the Future of Luxury Travel report, Julia Sattel, executive committee member, wrote that luxury is filtering down throughout the travel industry. “In short, what is considered luxury today will continually shift to become mainstream tomorrow,” she said. “For example, spas used to be associated with high-end luxury; now they are virtually mandatory in every four-star hotel and included in many business and first class airport lounges, thus ‘raising the bar’ and threshold service levels over a relatively short period of time.” It feels as if post-Covid travel may exacerbate this effect.
On the subject of villas, Symondson adds that, because of the seclusion, very little about the holiday type – apart from the housekeeper wearing a mask – is different to pre-pandemic times. It’s a little slice of life before all of this started – and that’s something travellers will want from all holiday types. In the age of Covid-19, maybe that’s what true luxury really is: normality.