I like to say that I've had two good ideas since I left my law practice 31 years ago to found what is now Ovation Travel Group. The first one stemmed from the realization that lawyers needed differentiated, high-touch service while traveling, an insight that eventually became Lawyers Travel. The second is that, despite the profusion of websites for researching and planning a vacation, today's luxury traveler isn't really well served by any of them. Luxury travelers, like all consumers, value the speed, convenience and instant response that technology offers. But they also desire a human element in the process-the comfort of knowing that a real person is guiding their choices, sharing knowledge, and providing backup if something should go wrong. That concept has led to my latest venture, Skylark.com, which combines the best elements of online travel booking-robust search functionality, instant pricing information, a library of images, and other helpful content-with a team of experienced, luxury travel advisors who are available to support the needs of our affluent and demanding clients. Building our new model, we've learned a lot in terms of what the next generation of high-touch luxury travelers are looking for. Here are four glimpses into the future of the luxury travel experience:
Making it Work. Studies have shown that people are happier and more productive when they return to the workplace from a vacation. At the same time, we've seen research showing that many Americans are allowing their vacation days to go unused. As luxury travel advisors, we work with clients to help identify and overcome some of the obstacles preventing them from taking the vacation they've worked so hard to deserve. The biggest obstacle, of course, is time, and one of the big trends now is to combine business with pleasure, adding a few leisure days on to a business trip and having one's spouse and family join at a certain point. We helped one client attending meetings in Los Angeles tack on a few days at a resort in Orange County, booking tee times for him and his wife, and arranging surfing lessons for his teenage kids. Another client frequently visits London for work; we arranged to fly his family over to meet him there for a few days, then sent them all to Paris for a couple of nights. Even the busiest business travelers have options for turning a work-centric trip into a fun vacation. The only thing holding them back is, really, deciding to go.
Departing From the Norm. Of course, everyone loves London and Paris, but today's luxury consumers are both very well-traveled and very well informed. They want something different-and they often have a few offbeat ideas that they saw on a friend's Instagram feed or read on a blog somewhere. We've helped some Skylark clients make the most of their time off by coming up with unusual pairings. For instance, instead of starting out in Spain and then visiting Portugal, we've done trips that combine Spain and Morocco. Another client wanted to visit Venice; we suggested following that with a few days in Montenegro, which is across the Adriatic Sea from Venice but offers a very different cultural experience (it also has some fantastic hotels, like the Aman Sveti Stefan, a 15th-century village converted into a luxury resort). A third idea: combining a trip to Paris with a few days in Iceland, which takes advantage of Icelandair's affordable stopover fares. All of these trips turned a single vacation into two, and gave our clients the opportunity to go off the beaten path and expand their comfort zone a little bit.
Being in a Place. Wherever you go on vacation, whether it's a sandy beach, a dense jungle, or a crowded city, it's a chance to escape the everyday. And yet, many travel packages seem cookie-cutter. The hotel you're staying in could be anywhere in the world, the streets are lined with the same luxury shops, and the restaurants are named for the same celebrity chefs you see on TV back home. That's why a growing number of savvy travelers are rejecting globalization and looking for a more authentic experience. They want the food to be local, the merchandise in the shops sourced from close by, and the hotel acting as an entre into the destination. At Skylark, our clients have told us that they appreciate our advisors' expert assistance in booking activities, tour guides, and meals that ensured the experience felt genuine, not preprogrammed. We've organized tours of the old medina of Marrakesh by a local architecture scholar. For a client interested in Middle Eastern politics, we arranged a breakfast in Tel Aviv with a retired colonel from the Israeli Army. We sent one client to a fancy five-star in Paris, then to a stone country inn in Provence, where he raved about the daily-changing menu and spent low-key afternoons cycling around the countryside. We live in an age of information overload, but you can't plan an extraordinary trip using Yelp. It takes an expert to provide an authentic experience.
Making It Personal. Nowadays, you can pretty much get whatever you want-whenever and however you want it-using a device that fits in your pocket. You can order something on Amazon to your exact specifications and have it sent anywhere you like. You can design your own radio station on Spotify and use Netflix to watch your favorite TV shows on your own schedule. You can even put your name on a can of Coke. But this sort of personalization is trickier to do for a trip: there are too many moving parts, too many variables, and the investment tends to be much larger. But consumers have been trained to expect perfectly-tailored experiences. This was the principal reason that, at Skylark, we added a human face to our technological underpinnings. At any point in the planning or booking process, a client can start an online chat with one of our advisors (or pick up the phone and call). Then we can make sure that we're not only choosing the right hotel for them, but also booking the right room, and sending the right free perk to that room. We can do this because we know what type of traveler they are and what they're looking for from this trip in particular. An algorithm can't do that.