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Pandemic an ‘opportunity for luxury agents to capitalise on’

Luxury travel agents have been urged not to “step back” from opportunities created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Craig Jeffs, UK account director for Kerzner International, said the crisis had “strengthened” the role of the travel agent and created an opportunity for the trade to highlight its service offering.

Speaking on a webcast with Travel Weekly’s sister luxury title Aspire, he said: “Every time there’s been a natural disaster, high street agents bounce back quickly because clients want someone [expert].

“Travel agents have not just been travel agents, they’ve been agony aunts, counsellors, hospitals, doctors – they’ve done every single part. What [the pandemic] has done is it’s strengthened the reliability of a travel agent.

“Anybody that is face to face, or has the ability to communicate with their clients directly, this is an opportunity now that I don’t think you should step back from – you should really push that service element.”

Elegant Resorts’ managing director Lisa Fitzell agreed, saying she had “definitely” seen more agency and homeworker business, as well as an uptick in old customers returning to the tour operator for peace of mind.

“We’re definitely seeing a trend towards people that maybe booked with us years ago that are returning to us after booking direct,” she said.

“They want the security of booking with a tour operator. The luxury traveller wants somebody to look after everything for them, they want it seamlessly done.”

The tour operator has introduced its VIP airport concierge to smaller airports in response to client’s concerns around airport experience, and is working on expanding its concierge service in resort as customers look for greater support on the ground.

“It’s an opportunity because we’re fully bonded and we’ve got the financial protection as well as the expertise and the service,” she said.

“It’s about how you’ve handled things through the pandemic; if you’ve really shone with your customers, then you’re closer to them than you’ve ever been. And that will only be a great thing in the future.”

However, Fitzell said a key challenge facing the travel sector was staff leaving the industry. “It breaks my heart because we lost a lot of very good people last year because we had to like everybody, but now we’re losing really good people because they just want to get out of the industry. And you think, ‘Gosh, we’re nearly there, hang on, we’re nearly through it’,” she said.

“[They’re] really tired, really worn out from it. [They’re being enticed by] more money and it’s just time for a change. The reality is for a lot of people in travel, they wouldn’t have had loads of time on furlough because we’re so busy and when they were working, they were working probably three times harder, because there’s still so much to do and our cancellation rate and amendment rate is still very high.”

Fitzell said Elegant Resorts is looking to introduce apprenticeships and is talking to colleges to bring new talent into the industry.

“We really need to be looking at young people and how we can inspire them to come into such a brilliant industry that we all love and have spent our lives in,” she said.

“And so that excites me. We had a new recruit yesterday, straight from university, and it was just lovely seeing him. It’s like, ‘Yes, this is what we’re going to focus on.’”

Bernard Carter, senior vice president and managing director for EMEA at Oceania Cruises, said challenges for the line lay within red list destinations.

“The challenges for us are more around countries opening up because our ships travel around the world and we obviously rely on the goodwill of our guests to take on itinerary changes and still travel with us,” he said.

“That’s a real issue for us to look at. Because of course, if you change an itinerary, or if you have to change an itinerary to the degree where it no longer resembles the original itinerary, then you are going to get a lot of cancellations.

“So we want to provide as close to the signature experience that we give. And that’s everything from the service levels on board to the land experiences when they get off the ship. And I think marrying those two together is going to be the biggest challenge.”

Meanwhile, Jeffs said the biggest hurdle for One&Only Resorts was availability.

He said: “Because business has shifted, we’ve had business from 2020 shifting into 2021 and 2021 moving into 2022. All I would say is if you’ve got clients that travel for Easter, or have specific multi-generational family events that they want to go to, get them in now because the availability is moving constantly.”

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