May 7, 2021

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Luxury Travel Roundtable: Domestic Pursuits

17 min read

We recently gathered travel advisors across the country from Frosch to get a glimpse on the luxury market, where the focus is on domestic travel for this summer and beyond.

Joining us were Deborah Deming, MT Herring, Mireille McQuade, Karen Schragle and Christina Turrini, as well as Lara Leibman, executive vice president of Frosch.   

Following is an edited version of our lively discussion.

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Mireille McQuade: I’m happy to be here and to meet you all because I think we probably could share a million different stories. I’m born and raised in New York, but I moved to Charleston, South Carolina five years ago. It was a big move, but it’s nice. It’s different. I miss New York a lot, but it’s interesting to see the comparisons between travel from New York and travel from Charleston and departures from New York and departures from Charleston. 

Deborah Deming: I’ve been affiliated with Frosch for 15 years; I am located in Southern California in our Woodland Hills office. But right now I’m talking to you from the beautiful Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara where I am with my family. It’s exciting because we’re seeing all these families because it’s spring break. People are being very conscientious about wearing masks but also really enjoying themselves. That has brought me a lot of joy.

Deborah Deming

Christina Turrini: I’m based in Marin County, just North of San Francisco. It’s the sweet spot because it’s right before wine country and right after the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been with Frosch since we were acquired 15 years ago. I’ve been in the business for more than 25 years. I specialize in Tahiti.

MT Herring: I’m in the [Frosch] Houston office. I’ve been here 24 years. Things are a little different in Texas. People are out and about more, we don’t have the same mask thing going on. However, people are being very conscious about social distancing. If I were to say that I specialized in something, it would be last-minute exotic travel.

Karen Schragle: I’m sitting in my office in Wayland, Massachusetts, which has been open since June. I live in Lexington, Massachusetts, which is 20 minutes from here, which is where I grew up. I sold Wayland Travel to the Leibman family two-and-a-half years ago and I’m committed to getting this ball rolling for everybody to be profitable again. It’s going to be a new normal, but I know we’re going to get there.

Ruthanne Terrero: Let’s start with what your client’s mindset is these days when it comes to traveling.

Karen Schragle: They’re beyond ready to travel. We’re seeing people go through with their booking plans now. In fact, we encourage some people to do double bookings because they want to go to Europe this summer, but realistically they might not be able to, so we’re advising to make your plan for Beverly Hills or Aspen or somewhere alternatively, because [domestic travel is going] to sell out. The sold-out situation is almost like a national crisis for us in travel in the United States. 

I would say that the booking and the canceling has subsided somewhat. But it’s more important now more than ever that advisors find the right formula to be compensated for their time and anticipate that they’re going to book and they’re going to have to undo and they’re going to have to redo bookings.

Things have changed and the rules are very strict and we have to advise clients of so much new information, such as, in the event that they have to cancel, what their formula’s going to be for cancellation. So, we’re under pressure, trying to work through a fair and equitable situation that is good for clients and to make sure that our advisors and all the ICs are well advised of a plan that they’re comfortable with. A lot of advisors aren’t used to charging fees and we’re going to work on that very carefully in the near future.

Karen Schragle

Ruthanne Terrero: It takes just as much time to cancel a reservation as it does to create an itinerary, right? Maybe more. 

MT Herring: People are traveling and they’re traveling next week. That’s always the way it’s been at my desk, and that’s the way it was throughout 2020. And I think probably everyone was dealing with that in all the agents. So, now for Europe, we’ve pulled the trigger and have issued tickets for Greece in the summer. We call them hopeful bookings. So whereas last year we refunded a bunch of tickets, I’m being pretty clear about it this time, there are going to be fees to book. It’s just every booking is different. Every country is different. But as for what the mindset is, they are ready to travel, but they’re waiting for countries to open up. 

Christina Turrini: I would say the mindset is incredibly hopeful and enthusiastic. There are levels of the spectrum. People have some anxiety and a lot of excitement. So I try to meet them where they’re at. I really like what Karen was saying in terms of, “We’ll get the booking, everything will be ready, we’ll close it, we’ll get the activities, everything’s ready.” Then all of a sudden the wife or the husband says, “Wait, wait.” So it’s a constant conversation.

People area booking close in and far out. Space is not available for the room categories you want. You have to book it now. I talk a lot about this. I have an Instagram Live that I do every Tuesday on “Travel Tuesdays.” If you’re waiting for the deal, I tell people, you’re too late. 

Christina Turrini

Ruthanne Terrero: The consumer news keeps touting that everyone is ready to travel; they’ve moved away from the gloom and doom stories, which are so popular sometimes for the travel industry.

Lara Leibman: If I can give you an example, The Ritz-Carlton, Turks and Caicos is opening in June. It’s already practically sold out for festive season, I think. When have you ever come across a hotel that hasn’t yet opened, that’s sold out for festive?

Christina Turrini: Or how about the 180-day round the world cruise on Oceania that sold out in one day? I had to get up at 6 in the morning to make sure I grabbed that cabin for my client.

Lara Leibman: So, that shows you the mindset.

Deborah Deming: There are clients who are at retirement-age thinking about all the things they couldn’t do in the last year and about how many things they want to do while they’re still able to travel well and still ambulatory. That sector is suddenly coming out of the woodwork, saying, “I’ve been sitting back, I didn’t spend a penny of my travel budget in 2020, I’m going to move forward.”

We’re really getting busy and we’re getting inquiries from people we haven’t heard from in a while. All of us at Frosch have done such a good job of staying connected to our clients, even during the worst of times. I’m a bit more cruise-centric, so I’ve been affected a bit more, so I’ve had to reinvent myself and look at things like staycations and trips within the U.S. I’ve gotten pretty proficient at coming up with suggestions that are a little bit out of the box for clients.

One thing that’s interesting for me is I’ve got clients who are not yet keen on vaccinating and they’re asking, “Where can we go if we’re not vaccinated?” There are even those not wanting to be tested. So I’ve started to keep track of places to go for people who don’t want to be vaccinated.

I’m going to make one more comment. I was working on a booking for a wellness retreat for a client of mine. I booked it, deposited it, locked it in, and had three or four conversations with this particular property, and only after I deposited did I get an email saying, “By the way, your client has to either be vaccinated or if he’s not, tested.” I went back to the vendor and I’m like, “You make our lives so difficult. In all my conversations with you, you did not tell me this before.” It’s not problematic because the client happens to be vaccinated, but our jobs have added an additional tier, which all goes back to charging fees. 

How are we going to continue as a team to make the public aware of our value? We as travel professionals have done a really bad job of that for so many years. No one thinks twice of paying an attorney to do your law work or a CPA to do tax work, but no one thinks of our profession in that same light. 

A virtual gathering: We gathered Frosch advisors from across the country, who are finding their clients’ booking patterns are all over the place, with domestic travel leading the charge.

Ruthanne Terrero: I know so many people in this industry really love what they do, and, so, might simply want to help a person out and don’t always charge for it. However, so many advisors I know worked for nothing for last year. Hours and hours and days and days, for a big zero. It suddenly became all too apparent that this is just not smart, no matter how much you love your job or your career.

Deborah Deming: I get that, but we’re all consumers, too. My son and I are partners and he’s been in the business for about five years now. We talk about this because we have consumers out there who are very specific as to what they want and are going to book it, whether we book it for them or not. So, we also have to look at what it is that we’re charging the fees for. I’m not going to turn away a $5,000 booking on a cruise because somebody doesn’t want to pay a $50 booking fee, not in a million years.

Karen Schragle: Which is why we have to go into it with a comfort zone. And then once the clients learn our value over time, you step into it. It’s a process.

Deborah Deming: And that’s why I charge a cancellation fee as opposed to a booking fee. So at least you cover yourself on the back end.

Mireille McQuade: I agree with everything that you’ve all said, it’s actually great that we need to show our value in some way. A lot of what I’m getting are clients who have open tickets that they’ve booked online with Expedia or American Express. And they’ll ask, “What should I do?” I’ll say, “I’ll help you, I’ll do the best I can.” So we we’re always there for them. 

But other than that, I’m getting a lot of families that want to be together. Some of these executives realize, “I didn’t spend enough time with my family. So now I want to go plan a trip. I want to go get a villa in Greece next year. Can you help me with that?” 

I’m getting a lot of last-minute travel. I actually describe it as, you’re peeking around the curtain but you’re not sure if you want to come out yet. Everyone’s going to come out from behind the curtain eventually, and they’re going to want to travel and they’re going to need somebody to do it with. They’re going to need a really good consultant to help them. What’s the hotel like? Are the restaurants open? These are the things we’re researching now. So it’s an even higher level from what we did before. 

Mireille McQuade

Christina Turrini: I got really excited about what you were saying. It’s a more expansive approach to our role. It’s the destination, the hotel, the activities, we’re all used to that. 

Now, in some cases it’s sourcing the COVID tests, researching the requirements and the protocols. But to me, what’s really important also is setting realistic expectations about what’s happening when you’re in the destination. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, “Hey… I stayed at this gorgeous, amazing property and I had to have my breakfast in a brown box.” So it’s long as you set those realistic expectations. 

For example, for Hawaii, I’m making dinner reservations for people, which I’ve never done before. Because guess what? You’re not going to get into a restaurant if you go to Hawaii. I want to be very transparent and candid about what they can and can’t expect. So, that that’s another niche for advisors. It’s being a concierge service.

Ruthanne Terrero: When clients travel in this new luxury landscape, how will they want to travel? Luxury travel is great because it typically provides you with a lot of space, but what are the other changes we’ll see?

Mireille McQuade: Domestic luxury is where they’re starting right now. And then next year, they’re looking at luxury villas. I’m getting a lot of requests for homes and villas and gathering places. We’re getting a lot of hotel requests, too. I’m getting Washington, D.C. requests from people that I never would have thought would go to Washington, D.C. So people are thinking outside of what they normally would have thought about which is exciting. People are thinking outside their own box.

Ruthanne Terrero: Let’s talk about domestic travel a bit more.

Karen Schragle: Hotels are sold out, it’s never been like this. You call Amangiri and they say we’ve got two nights, April 26 to 28, and otherwise we’re sold out until August 2. Same thing with the Ranch at Rock Creek, all of them are sold out. 

The Caribbean and Mexico are still okay, but anything U.S.A., family, large parties, large accommodations, resort villas, resort suites, anything that holds four, six or eight people [is sold out]. 

If you have a honeymoon couple going to Maui in Hawaii, they don’t have a luau available for two months. That’s the kind of thing we’re running into. And because most restaurants are reduced in the number of people that can go in, restaurant reservations are critical, crucial. So, how do you get compensated for that? 

Ruthanne Terrero: This was mentioned before, but since people have been home with their families this past year, do you see that they want to travel with them more than before?

Mireille McQuade: Yes. I’m seeing a lot of that. A lot of these executives are not asking to go on a business trip right now, they’re asking to go away with their family. Some families that I never did vacations for before are now coming to me for trips, which is great. 

I’ve also been focusing on something new that I’ve always wanted to do, which is a special needs travel. I’ve never had the time for it because I’ve just always been grind, grind, grind. So, I started a new business of taking care of luxury travel for people who have special needs, allergies, special services, animals, autism, you name it. Any kind of special needs. Because where can they go? You can’t actually Google that. You actually need someone to do that for you. I looked around and there are not a lot of travel advisors that do that. So, I started a new division in my company, which I wouldn’t have been able to do without COVID.

This is a huge silver lining. I’m really excited about it. Because my son has autism and I get it. Sometimes you need preparation that people aren’t ready to help you with. So, you learn from yourself and you learn from people. It’s like a psychological travel agency community right now. We care about our clients, we want them to be happy and we want to keep doing what we’re doing.

Christina Turrini: Well, I never would have done this Instagram live every Tuesday, “Travel Talk.” It started with a colleague, Andre. We were like, “Okay, we were in the cancellation business, now we’re back in the hospitality and booking business.” Back then, it was the cancellation business. We need to plant seeds for inspiration and we need to remind people that there is a world out there. So it started just with that. Then we launched this YouTube channel and interviewed people in various destinations, and that has kept me going in terms of continuing to learn, continuing to grow, meeting more people and also understanding that now everybody’s at a different point with their comfort level.

You asked earlier what has shifted, I would say people are staying longer in destinations. 

MT Herring: Extending once they’re there.

Christina Turrini: Yes, and so it’s up to us to make sure we book that before they do it on their own. But as long as there’s Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi is good, they can work in the lobby, they can do staycations, workcations, stay longer. 

I also see a trend of having a real focus on spending more money to get that more private experience and to get that larger suite, that larger villa. I think it’s a lot more fun now in some ways because we can be more creative because they’re not counting their pennies so much.

Ruthanne Terrero: They’re upselling themselves, right?

Lara Leibman: Deb, you touched on it earlier, but you completely transformed yourself from booking 98 percent cruise.

Lara Leibman

Deborah Deming: I’ve spent a lot of time learning and researching. I did a couple of road trips with some friends last summer within the United States to places I had never been so that I could become really familiar and provide turnkey itineraries when people were looking for places to go. I’m taking a couple of groups out to Alaska — not cruising — all land, train and motorcoach, this summer. I just did a huge Alaska booking for a client who saw what I had put out there to my clients. They’re doing the eight National Parks of Alaska, which are not easy get to. That’s $25,000 a person, with private experiences and of course the small planes to get over to Glacier Bay Lodge and down to Wrangell and into Kenai and those areas.

I didn’t even realize until the client asked, that there were eight National Parks in Alaska, eight of the 62. So now my new thing is how do we get to all 62 National Parks within the United States?

So, I’m blessed that I’ve been able to do that and have some success with it and look to things that are going to drive a little bit of money towards me.

I hopped on the bandwagon with these cruises to the Bahamas on Crystal when they announced them, thinking, “You know what? I’m going to be a trailblazer.” I’ve got 53 people going with me July 3. So talk about pent-up demand. But now I’m worried about how many may cancel when we start to see these new itineraries. They’re going to say, “Going to the Bahamas for a week isn’t so interesting, but this 10-day Caribbean cruise is interesting or this 10-day Iceland trip becomes even more interesting.” 

But it’s been exciting. I think many of us had not actually explored our own backyards. Being Southern California-based, there are clients who have said, “I haven’t driven the Pacific Coast Highway in 20 years,” and I’ll say, “Okay, drive it, go through Big Sur, spend some time in Monterey, go up into San Francisco and head over to Napa.” These are great trips for adults, and they’re good for families.

Karen Schragle: And it’s not going to stop. 2022 isn’t going to be the end of United States travel. These clients are all in it for the long run. We’re going to be booking way more U.S.A. in 2023, 2024, because so many people want to stay closer to home and until the world really gets vaccinated, we’re into this until 2025.  

Deborah Deming: What happens is that people get this mindset that they’re vaccinated and they’re feeling this huge load of concern and fear lift off their shoulders. Then they look to us and say, “I want to go to Italy,” and we have to say, “You can’t go to Italy yet.” 

Even those who are calling now for Greece or for the countries that are supposedly opening, we don’t know what that really means. Does that mean they’re open and they can go, but are the restaurants open? Do they want North Americans? So I think we have a lot on our plate.

We’re booking Best Westerns and Residence Inns and hotels of that nature. Again, you have to set up expectations. I was in Cody, Wyoming last August in a Holiday Inn that was lovely; the best hotel in Cody. The experience of going to the rodeo and these local restaurants were so over the top for me. We had the most amazing experience. I’ve been able to turn around and sell half a dozen of these trips through the summer.

MT Herring

MT Herring: Clients who would never consider anything other than a five-star international resort are happy to go to a Holiday Inn in Cody, Wyoming, or a Best Western in Cap Rock Canyon. They are appreciating anything. So I think it’s a perfect platform or perfect time for us to shine and to be our best selves.

Deborah Deming: It’s like their form of glamping in a way. And I don’t even think of glamping is the right word, but they’re thinking that it’s part of the adventure, as long as you set up the expectation, right? “This will be your experience, it’s going to be clean, it’s going to be okay.” 

Ruthanne Terrero: Does anyone have any final comments as we wrap up?

Karen Schragle: I just wanted to say that this is the first time in all my selling luxury years that there is an equal playing field, regardless of your ability to pay. Everybody has to follow the same rules. We truly are all in the same boat…the Best Western guy and the Four Seasons guy. It didn’t matter. We’re all in it together.

Christina Turrini: “We are all in the same boat” doesn’t resonate with me as we all have different size boats and are in different waters, but we have all been chartering rocky seas and can relate to the feeling of treading water until the seas calm or we reach shore. Coming together with travel professionals and sharing ideas and working together has been an inspiring takeaway and something I hope is here to stay, a change for the better.

Mireille McQuade: I want to say that I love talking to you all. What’s amazing is you would think that we would be competitors, but we’re not. We actually help each other. We love each other. We want to lean on each other, and it’s true even more so now than I think I’ve ever experienced in my life. 

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