Luxury hotels will be “coming back with a vengeance,” according to Jack Ezon, managing partner of Embark Beyond, speaking on a “Reigniting the Luxury Hospitality Industry” virtual panel conducted by The Luxury Institute, a research, training and consulting firm. Ezon, a luxury travel advisor, agreed with hotelier panelists that there will be tremendous pent-up demand for luxury travel coming out of the pandemic, although it will look different as travelers seek wellness, reuniting with family and friends and authentic experiences. There will also be new ways of combining work with leisure, said panelists, in the form of extended stay holidays that include working.

Hoteliers on the panel reported a strong pace of bookings in recent weeks. Ben Trodd, senior vice president of sales and hotel marketing for Four Seasons, said that the last six weeks have seen a stronger booking pace than in the same quarter of 2020 before the pandemic fully kicked in and in some cases stronger bookings than even in 2019. He said the key to fall business will be Europe’s opening.

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Shannon Knapp, CEO of Leading Hotels of the World, sees a big bump when restrictions are loosened, noting almost 80 percent of customers in a survey saying they are optimistic about traveling safely and half already booking travel. She said the company is actually seeing higher average daily rates (ADR) because of more bookings of villas and suites.

Ezon said his company’s ADR has jumped 38 percent with lengths of stay up almost 100 percent. Also, Embark Beyond used to see eight percent business domestically – and that is now over 90 percent. Also, he said, people are booking two to three trips at a time in order to catch up.

A Different Look To Luxury

Knapp said that the trend toward finding luxury in a nearby destination will continue. Calling that trend Luxury 2.0, she said people will travel distances, of course, but referred to an American Express study showing that luxury travelers want to support communities and boost tourism revenues in local economies. “They want to feel they are enriching as well as being enriched,” she said.

Ezon said he sees five overarching trends: travel coming back with such a vengeance that bookings may be tight in 2022; wellness and reuniting with people as top drivers; continuing emergence of global nomads who travel for months at a time; micro-networking but macro-messaging as smaller numbers of people meet in multiple locations rather than having large meetings; and urban hotels becoming “landing pads” for long-haul commuters. He explained that in addition to being used by traditional business travelers, hotels will be a place for employees to meet as they work remotely.

Trodd sees a move to more remote locations, increased lengths of stay and the merging of the business and leisure traveler as well as heavy demand for villa and private retreat products. He said lead times are coming down with some exceptions and that trust will be key going forward as customers expect an immaculately clean hotel that adheres to health and safety standards.

The panelists agreed that, as Knapp said, “safety and health will be table stakes.” She said that flexibility will also be important as customers “want us to stay with them on last-minute bookings and help remove any friction as far as changes.”

Reviving Meetings and Business Travel

Knapp said she believes business travel will rebound, though it may not reach 2019 levels for some time. “There is a need for people to get together, to brainstorm and connect on a human level,” she said, adding business travel will change and she herself may not take some trips she might have in the past.

The pandemic has allowed the industry to realize how much more reach is possible as far as meetings. She said that while Leading’s annual convention might have had 200-250 hoteliers in attendance, a virtual event last year saw almost five times as many attendees.

Trodd agreed that meetings will look different, at least for a while. He said that instead of 200 people in a ballroom, there might be 20 people in 10 different locations. He noted that 25 years ago it was thought that video conferencing would kill meetings and that never happened. He also said that while corporate rates have been a priority in the past, now health and safety programs are more important. Four Seasons, said Trodd, has already operated more than 100 hybrid events, and hotels have added event capabilities like recording studios.

Businesswoman speaking at a conference. (photo via FG Trade / E+)

Ezon saw a place for technology in meetings as well but said that smaller, more nimble companies will be traveling for business, and larger companies will feel they have to get on the road in order to compete. He added that whatever is lost with meetings will be gained with social events like weddings.

A digital transformation is also underway, according to the panelists. Ezon said his company is putting all of its money into artificial intelligence (AI) which helps advisors know clients better, sell more efficiently and deliver emotional impact by understanding what customers want.

Trodd said that the company’s mobile app now provides a response within two minutes and “has been a godsend” as guests communicate with staff using the tool.

The panelists also saw big changes in their own workforces. Ezon said his team has had to become much more entrepreneurial as compensation has been aligned with success. He also said there is a higher priority for personal goals.

Trodd explained that with a surge in demand, it will be crucial to have satisfied employees as competitors within and outside the industry will seek out skilled workers. The question is, he said: “How will we as an industry attract great talent?”

When asked about vaccination passports, panelists lamented the lack of universal documentation and agreed that it would be difficult to achieve. Said Trodd, “there is a lot of uncertainty.”

The panelists agreed that even with less traditional “contact,” luxury still needs to have some kind of high-touch service proposition. Said Knapp, “We have found ways to exceed guest expectations safely.”

And Ezon added, “Customers will remember for years to come who conducted themselves properly during these times.”

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