High-end consumers still have ‘bucket-list mentality’, say experts

A “bucket-list mentality” is continuing to be felt among high-net-worth individuals despite political uncertainty and ongoing geopolitical conflicts, according to luxury travel experts.

Senior executives from luxury travel businesses painted a positive picture of the sector at Aspire’s annual Leaders of Luxury conference, which was held at Bafta in London on June 6.

Daniel Robb, chief marketing officer at Audley Travel, said the operator was so far “really pleased” with how 2024 was performing, with forward bookings looking “very good” and an increase in average trip duration.

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He said: “We’re seeing a really good distribution for the 87 countries that we carry on the website. They’re very variable in terms of volume, but we’re seeing a really big spread and we’re seeing average spend is up in lots of cases.”

He added: “We’re definitely seeing a kind of bucket-list mentality. We have a client base that is on the older end so we’re seeing people come with quite a commitment to multiple bookings going forward. It’s very positive in general.”

Francesca Mendola, vice-president of Global Travel Collection (GTC) UK, which has a network of independent travel advisors as well as luxury agency brands such as Colletts Travel, agreed: “We’re seeing a really big demand for experiential travel; people aren’t waiting for these bucket-list trips, they’re just going for it.”

She added: “[Typically] there’d be at least a year’s lead time, but we’re seeing this within days. I was speaking to an agent last week who said their client had wanted to book a South Africa safari for three days’ time. So the pressure for an agent is on.”

Virtuoso’s UK and Ireland general manager Karen Joyce said the overarching word among the network’s agent members for the year was “optimistic”.

“For 2024 we are seeing summer bookings are up on 2023 overall for Virtuoso preferred partners,” she said, adding that eight of the network’s top-10 destinations were in Europe, with a marked post-pandemic rise in UK agents booking domestic trips.

GTC reported demand for France, Spain and Greece but also claimed an increase in interest for long-haul destinations such as Thailand and South America as steep prices in Europe prompted clients to look further afield for value for money.

Mendola said GTC agents had also seen a new trend towards unique “experiential” bookings, such as ‘fire and ice’ trips, whereby clients combine destinations such as Rwanda and Antarctica, and so-called ‘luxury sabbaticals’.

Sonia Davies, chief executive of Scott Dunn – which recently started working with the trade in all three of its source markets in the UK, the US and Asia Pacific – cited strong bookings for Europe and Asia.

But she said forward departures for summer were looking “soft”, with hotel prices in North America proving particularly challenging from a value proposition point of view.

Conversely, Robb earmarked the US and Canada as Audley’s “biggest growth area” and said core destinations such as India, Japan and South Africa also continued to sell well.

Asked if he thought the post-Covid travel ‘bubble’ had burst, he said: “The ‘bubble’, as it was talked about, was just recovery and pent-up demand, and so I think it would be very unfair to think that anything has depleted since then – in fact, in our opinion, things have continued to grow and I’m sure it’s the same for many people in the luxury sector.

“We’re very lucky that we work in an area of travel which is to a degree resilient to all sorts of things, including general elections, the Euros and the Olympics. So, for me, I don’t think it was a bubble and I certainly don’t think anything’s burst.”

But leaders were frank about the challenges still facing the industry, with recruitment issues, geopolitical conflicts and political uncertainty key drivers for concern.

Joyce said 90% of Virtuoso’s members still needed to recruit to manage demand, while 80% of them had highlighted political uncertainty and geopolitical conflicts as key challenges for 2024.

Asked whether the upcoming general election on July 4 had the potential to influence travel spend, Davies said: “The challenges that the UK market face are not necessarily political; interest rates are high, inflation is high. Irrespective of what happens on July 4, that’s not going to magically change overnight.

“We work in a sector that has got really good underlying fundamentals in terms of profitability and growth. It will ride through this.”

Joyce was equally optimistic, adding: “Only 3% of our members expect to be down on 2023 for the year; the majority expect to be about 20% up for the year – some even higher.

“You’ve got to remember officially we were in a recession earlier this year and we’ve only really come out of it in the last six weeks or so. So I think luxury travel is riding that better than mainstream travel and for 2024 itself, I think most members will feel that they will be seeing growth year on year.”

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