Who could have predicted a last-minute boom on big-ticket travel this holiday season? Sure, the landscape looks different compared with this time last year, when, according to Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of the members-only travel Web site and consultancy service Indagare, “even if a big CEO could afford to go on vacation, he didn’t feel that he could be firing part of his workforce and then flying off on a $100,000 vacation.” But who could have foretold this last-minute run on luxury travel? Just as savage discounting of fashion goods irrevocably changed the retail landscape, the sudden cancellations and price discounting of last holiday season changed the way travelers view the top end of the market. No matter how deep their pockets, or how big their year-end bonuses, these consumers expect a quick turnaround and great value. Increasingly, travel clubs and elite travel agents are being called upon to speedily put together bespoke trips with rates and upgrades that 18 months ago would have been unthinkable.
The industry says it is resisting overt price cutting—“Rates are holding for high demand periods,” says Scott Berman, travel analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers. But it’s hard to ignore the sudden influx of perks that amount to discounts, such as waived minimum weeks, resort points, spa treatments, upgrades and bonus nights. “Affluent travelers have become more aggressive shoppers,” says Peter Yesawich, a travel-industry analyst and CEO of Ypartnership. “Not necessarily shopping to buy it down, but shopping to get more.” Sandi Ferreira, director of travel planning for the Andrew Harper luxury travel club, agrees that even top-of-the-line travelers have become more savvy: “They definitely want to see the value in what they’re spending. Not so much the cost of the room, but what they’re getting for their dollar.” As a British private equity executive and member, at $25,000 a year, of London-based bespoke travel club Nota Bene says, “I’m always demanding. It’s just now you can get the same thing you got before at a better price. My mantra is 20 percent off is the new 10 percent off .”
So what’s causing the frenzy? Last-minute spending is a natural reaction to uncertainty, says Itamar Simonson, professor of marketing at Stanford Business School. “Consumers want to postpone decisions until they know the earth is going to keep turning,” he says, pointing to a 1992 study in which students were shown to be equally likely to reward themselves with a trip to Hawaii after a good or bad grade on an exam. It was waiting on the grade that caused them to put off a decision. Whatever the rationale, “people are starting to open up their purses,” Peter Carideo, president of CRC Travel, says. “It’s very definitive. It’s not wishy-washy. It’s, ‘We want to go away, where can we get in?’” And these last-minute travelers are not just looking to slip off for the weekend. “The most amazing part has been the size and scope of the trips people have been booking—literally two weeks out,” says Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, a by-invitation network of travel agents.
Periods of austerity can actually inspire indulgence, adds behavioral economist Ran Kivetz of Columbia’s Graduate School of Business. “Consumers feel they’ve earned the right to reward themselves. They’re compensating for not having enjoyed themselves for a long time.” And in today’s economy, it makes sense to spend that year-end bonus on travel—“a lifelong memory as opposed to an object that can be devalued,” Kivetz says.
Conspicuous consumption may feel very 2017 these days, but high-end travel is still ennobling, something you can brag about at a dinner party. “It’s not so much about the car you drive or the diamond on the woman’s finger—that’s the stuff of the past. It’s far more about, ‘Oh my god, you’ve been to Indochina.’ Or, ‘you went on this great food expedition,’” says Anthony Lassman, founder of Nota Bene. Travelers need help translating their desires into tangible itineraries, and the solutions often mean longer flights. In November there was still availability for the holidays at the elegant Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt, Buenos Aires’s best hotel; or for an archaeological tour of Sri Lanka’s ancient temples with a stay at a restored 17th-century Dutch colonial fort, Amangalla; or flying even farther, for a cliff-side golf adventure at New Zealand’s Cape Kidnappers resort.
Ironically, the people hunting for bargains on “the big experience” are also those most likely to use high-end travel agencies. “It’s our wealthiest members who are demanding better rates,” Bradley says. But there will be much more competition this year, especially for the coveted holiday weeks. You won’t be able to ring up a bluechip resort like Barbados’s Sandy Lane on December 15 and talk your way into a nominimum-stay bargain for Christmas week. “The sort of witch-hunt mentality has disappeared,” Bradley says, “and a lot of places are getting booked up.”
Bespoke travel clubs—the kind you have to pay “entry” to—have been experiencing somewhat of a growth spurt in spite of, or maybe because of, the tricky economic climate. Indagare’s advisory service is less than two years old, and while it won’t release exact membership numbers, it says it has seen business rise by 71 percent over last year. Nota Bene, which has been operating its travel-planning service for the past two years (Michael Kors and David Lauren are members), says it signed three new Bespoke-level members in one week this November.
Andrew Harper, known for his respected 30-year-old Hideaway Report, began offering Premier Class members advice from his own travel planners in 1995 (currently the cost is $400 a year, with a $500 initiation fee). Membership has held firm in 2017—at around 20,000—but the travel offi ce has hired two more agents to handle the recent surge of last-minute requests. The international concierge service called Quintessentially, which has its own internal travel department, has been expanding, opening new offices in Belize and Brazil in November. Four-year-old London-based Black Tomato, a specialist in extreme, exotic travel has just hit a peak of 6,000 members, and reports increasing interest in the U.S. The value of the made-to-measure travel club is its ability to pull together an itinerary full of insider, little-known resorts on the double, plus special treatment once you arrive. “Our clients tend to get upgraded and treated really well,” Indagare’s Bradley says. “You get the aura of the club. You’re not just one guy checking in at Claridge’s.” An Indagare membership ($1,200 for five hours of personal travel advice a year) recently helped Leslie Stevens, a New York–based publicist, book a trip to Morocco, with stays at Sir Richard Branson’s desert camp, Kasbah Tamadot, at the base of the Atlas Mountains, and at Riad dar L’Oussia, a little-known boutique hotel in the coastal city of Essaouira.
Nota Bene’s top-tier members get a dedicated planner, who promises to steer you to the best suites within the best hotels, or to secure and staff a yacht or villa at a moment’s notice. They have, they say, arranged dinner with a maharajah in his Rajasthan palace and a private run on a skeleton toboggan down the Cresta in St. Moritz. For another rarified experience, there’s the Centurion card, about which American Express is as secretive as the U.S. Army is about its special-forces divisions. It’s granted by invitation only, has a $2,500-a-year fee and gives you your very own travel planner (Platinum cardholders are stuck talking to a different person every time they call).
And it’s not just about discounts and access to the inaccessible, it’s time saved. As the analyst Yesawich says, “Affluent travelers have gotten to the point where their lives are so frenetic that they would rather delegate. They don’t have time to kick through all the Web sites. They would rather pay someone to fit the pieces together.” The Nota Bene client agrees: “I can’t be bothered to take the time to figure out what are the great places right now and then to try to get a booking. It’s just bang bang bang, here’s your weekend.”
The Right Direction
Our Top Picks if you’ve started planning a ‘go all out’ vacation this holiday season:
Though it’s summer in New Zealand, the best lodges still have space. Try Cape Kidnappers, Kauri Cliffs, or Otahuna Lodge. Or take a nine-day Butterfield & Robinson South Island bicycle tour all the way from Christchurch to Queenstown.
Embrace the Off-season
If you’re not dead set on a sunny beach, consider European cities. “Is there a more Christmasy city than Vienna?” asks Ellison Poe of Poe Travel. See France sans crowds on Abercrombie & Kent’s Tailor Made Paris & Normandy itinerary.
Kenya’s safari operators are the first to get booked up. See the same zebra and wildebeest on Tanzania’s portion of the Serengeti (where the “tented” lodge Grumeti River Camp is recommended), then relax at the beach on nearby Mnemba Island.
Instead of the sold-out Copacabana Palace in Rio, go for the new Fasano Rio. At Machu Picchu, the Sanctuary Lodge will be booked up; try the nearby Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel. The historic, newly renovated La Mamounia in Marrakech is also worth a look.
St. Barth’s Eden Rock and Barbados’s Sandy Lane will be jammed this year. Get more privacy and quiet at the smaller Petit St. Vincent, a secluded island in the Grenadines recommended by Andrew Harper for its more relaxed luxury.
Mexico is easy. Take over Cuixmala, formerly billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith’s compound on the Pacific coast, or book a room at its sister property, Hacienda de San Antonio in Colima (a sometime Bill Gates destination) in the mountains.
Sources: Travel planners: Virtuoso.com Blacktomato.co.uk Notabenetravel.com Indagare.com Andrewharper.com Poetravel.com Quintessentially.com. Hotels, lodges and tour operators: Grumeti.com, from $625 per night Mamounia.com, from $640 per night Capekidnappers.com, from $450 per night Kauricliffs.com, from $620 per night Otahuna.com, from $410 per night Butterfield.com, bicycle tour from $8,795 Abercrombiekent.com, Normandy & France itinerary, price upon request Fasano.com.br, from $590 per night Inkaterra.com, from $459 per night Psvresort.com, from $525 per night Cuixmala.com, from $400 per night Haciendadesanantonio.com, from $720 per night