Luxury Travel Intel with Cruise Planners’ Vicky Garcia

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Vicky Garcia at Cruise Planners' Luxury Forum. (Photo courtesy of Cruise Planners.)
Vicky Garcia at Cruise Planners’ Luxury Forum. (Photo courtesy of Cruise Planners.)

During Cruise Planners’ recent Luxury Forum, which took place in Fort Lauderdale, Recommend’s managing editor had the opportunity to sit down with Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, to talk to her about luxury travel—how’s it’s changed and what she foresees. Here’s some intel on what’s trending in the luxury market, what’s in the forecast, and how you can best foster a relationship with your luxury clients.

Michelle Marie Arean (MMA): What trends do you see for the luxury market? We know wellness has been around for a year or two already, what do you see as the next trend?

Vicky Garcia (VG): Wellness has been around, and it’s obviously not going anywhere when you look at that they’re still focusing on yoga, but cuisine is always important. They’ve introduced vegan menus on Oceania. It’s interesting to see how everyone’s looking at that segment and saying, ‘We can’t just tell them, “oh we don’t have vegan, we don’t have gluten-free”‘…that’s just a way of life today. Even when we put on events like this, we ask for dietary requirements, but for the most part you just have to be ready for it. If you want to treat a luxury audience, you have to be able to offer customization. You can’t be one size fits all.

Vicky Garcia with Cruise Planners team member Tony Bello and a Cruise Planners agent. (Photo courtesy of Cruise Planners.)
Vicky Garcia with Cruise Planners team member Tony Bello and a Cruise Planners agent. (Photo courtesy of Cruise Planners.)

MMA: It’s not so much about diet anymore to lose weight, but it’s a way of life.

VG: It’s totally a way of life. And people are looking at clean and farm-to-table. All of those trendy words are truly resonating; and I don’t think people want to just hear it for the sake of hearing it; it’s what does it look like, what does it feel like. I was on the Crystal Mozart a few months ago and the food on the river product was spectacular—it is on all river products.

River, I don’t care which line it is, is luxury. You can go on a Viking cruise and it’s a luxurious experience. And nowadays they’ve raised the bar. It used to be so regionally food specific that sometimes you’re like, ‘how do I eat brioche everyday?’ It’s not like that now. River cruise companies are really doing phenomenal things to bring a top culinary experience—you can go shopping with the chef. For people that buy luxury, it’s about the experience. They want to come back with a memory, not just a badge saying they went on a cruise. It’s an ‘I took the grandkids’ or ‘we had this amazing culinary walk throughout Lisbon and got to literally go back behind the restaurant and to the galley, see the chef cooking, and [take part in] tastings and go to the demonstration kitchens on board Oceania and Regent.’ And now Scenic mentioned that, too. And the demonstration kitchen…I was hoping Regent would talk more about it, but on the Regent Explorer it blows your mind because it’s all ocean-facing. They took prime real estate. If you think about it, usually ships don’t do that. But they know that it’s a luxury client; if they’re in there for a cooking class—and it’s a real cooking class with knives, it’s not a little let’s frost the cake class, you’re chopping your own stuff—they’re enjoying the views.

Obviously, food and wine continues to be a trend and a desire for that group. And I love the fact that now they’re bringing in all of these other elements. We saw helicopters today, and the underwater submarines. Scenic mentioned it, but the Crystal Esprit has a 2-man submarine as well. That’s a shore excursion that you pay for, but what an amazing experience to get to take this out from the back of a yacht. I have them booked for vacation next year, so I’m excited about that.

MMA: Do you see the yacht industry, since there are more coming up like Crystal, taking over more high-end cruises?

VG: It’s growing significantly. If you’re looking at just the investment that Crystal is making, and Scenic with the Discovery yacht. There are some companies out there, not in the main companies so we’re not partnering with them yet, but yachts are a growing market, just as private jets are. And I don’t know if you heard Michelle Fee mention earlier, we’re launching a new airport concierge service.

MMA: Yes. So what is that going to look like exactly?

VG: It’s really cool. We’re not even near opening that offer yet; I didn’t even think she was going to mention it. Imagine for a luxury client or a celebrity, or someone who wants to be a little more low-key or escorted, you’re dropped off at the airport and there will already be someone waiting for you who greets you, they take your luggage, check you into the flight, then takes you, probably in a golf cart, through [security] faster than TSA…and totally scoots you through to your gate. Or if you’re going to the lounge first to wait an hour or two, that concierge person stays with you in the lounge. They watch your bags if you want to go take as shower, or nap, or whatever. Then comes to get you when it’s time, and takes you right to the gate. The same thing happens if you have a connecting flight. Imagine the Paris Airport—it’s probably one of the worst connection airports ever, that and London Heathrow for tight connections. This person picks you up outside of your airplane, grabs your bag, gets you in the cart, whizzes you through the airport terminal, and through security if there’s security. You still have to do the paper work and stuff, but they’re flying you through it. I looked up landing in Rome and it was $300 for two people. That’s a value if you don’t want to schlep your luggage. It’s more expensive if you have more people. But think of Brad [Pitt] and Angelina [Jolie], they have kids, they don’t want to be stopped and asked for autographs. So imagine a family traveling with four or five kids, they don’t want to schlep with all of that stuff.

MMA: So how does it work when you arrive to a destination? Do they go with you through customs?

VG: Yes, they’ll go with you through customs and take you right out through after the luggage claim. The travel agent still arranges that, and arranges the transfers if needed. And this person coordinates with the transfer service. You give them the transfer service information and they’ll call to make sure that person is waiting outside.

MMA: But this service isn’t available yet, right?

VG: No. It will be available soon through Cruise Planners. We’re working towards offering it soon and it’ll be commissionable to travel agents. This is another service, that as a Cruise Planners agent they can say, ‘Mr. Tom, I can do this for you.’ Imagine how that looks to that client; how that presents that person. That agent is so empowered saying, ‘I have all of these services, I can have your luggage shipped with a partner that we have.’ Just so many different levels of offering luxury service, which differentiates from going through Expedia.

Vicky Garcia leading a panel discussion during Cruise Planners' Luxury Forum. Photo courtesy of Cruise Planners.)
Vicky Garcia leading a panel discussion during Cruise Planners’ Luxury Forum. Photo courtesy of Cruise Planners.)

MMA: What other trends do you see?

VG: River is still booming. Our growth has been strong double digits. It’s been crazy. So there’s still a high demand for that. We’ve also seen the age dip a little bit lower.

MMA: What would you say the age has dipped to?

VG: You know, it’s hard to say because there are so many different products out there. But we’re seeing the average across the board drop about 10 years. People used to think that if they go on a river cruise it’ll be people who are 70 years old; we’re [now] definitely seeing a lot younger, and we’re seeing multi-generations doing river cruising. People are looking at experiences more. When you look at millennials, we focus on them a bit, but we’ve been watching them, we’ve been watching them for a while, and our best thing for millennial travel is that they’re traveling with their families for now. We’ll get them when they travel alone, but multi-gen travel is happening a lot, and that segment of millennials is very focused on experiences, too. So it lines up really well. I have a niece who is younger than a millennial, she’s 16—and she’s loving it. Two years ago she told me she wants to go to Greece, and I was like, ‘ok let’s do it.’ She hadn’t even been traveling at all before. And now one of her first cruises was going to Greece.

But food is also a big thing across the board, even the presentation of food. It’s almost like a competition, the whole Instagram posting food thing, and for travel it’s amazing. If we travel and post pictures of our travels, that’s a slam-dunk.

MMA: I see that myself when I go on trips from my postings.

VG: Totally. I always tease these guys [travel agents], ‘What do you post?’ This is like, ‘Look what I just ate from a Michelin-star chef.’ Well that’s trends in terms of how they’re getting the word out.

MMA: How about with adventure travel…it was trending a lot right before wellness. How do you see that segment now?

VG: I think it’s definitely a niche. We don’t track it now. We’re launching another tracking system hopefully at convention. We’re trying to put our travelers in buckets and have them fill out the things they like to do. And then we’ll be able to say, let’s categorize them as adventure. Because right now we don’t know, unless we know what they book, and we know their age, and we know their income levels. But we don’t know what they like.

Other than we can see what vendors they book, so International Expeditions I can assume it’s adventure travel; or Celebrity Xpeditions then that’s Galapagos.

We’re definitely seeing growing numbers on those suppliers. So adventure travel, I think, is still a market, but I think some agents focus on it better. You have to specialize in it to understand it. If you talk to me about it, I have nothing for you other than here are some products. But the best thing about our agents is that they’re probably an adventure traveler. That person that focuses on i, probably likes to talk about it. It’s like golf cruises. I know nothing about golf. I can tell you a good itinerary that I heard where the golf courses are good, but if I had my agent Rodney, who is a golfer, talk about it…that’s it, you’re going to book through him every time.

MMA: I heard that mentioned earlier today. Are golf cruises trending now?

VG: Yes. Azamara has an itinerary that goes to seven of the world’s best golf courses. I almost want to take up golf because of that one itinerary. Imagine a true golfer or golf group, they go nuts. These people who golf are intense, they wake up at 6 a.m. and they love it.

MMA: For the luxury median age, each line said the age ranges. But what would you say is the median age for a luxury traveler?

VG: I don’t think there’s going to be one because it really depends on the itinerary. Because if it’s longer than seven or 10 days you’re not going to get the younger scope of people. I consider myself a luxury traveler now, but I don’t have the time to take two weeks to go on a trip. And most people don’t. We’re still in the grind, as the joke says, we’re working wealthy people. So we don’t have the time. If you think of something longer than 10 days, you’re not going to get the younger scope.

But multi-gen to me again is a huge one because you’re introducing the younger crowd to traveling. I was in the Galapagos in June, we took our top producers there, and the ship held 60 people (we were 24 of them) and there were two families that traveled together with a total of five kids between the ages of 17 and 22. But they are travelers. These kids had already been to Antarctica; they were all home-schooled. The kids were so well-established.

But I do think that multi-gen and families is a market for luxury that they haven’t explored totally yet because they don’t put kids programs in. Where now I think luxury suppliers are seeing they need to have some things for the kids to do. For example, Lindblad is doing that, and Tauck is doing it on select sailings. Laura, who works for us, just came back from a [Tauck] sailing with her family, and on the sailing it was a river cruise with 32 kids and she said the kids had a blast. They did cooking classes, and different experiential things. She said the kids almost cried when they were leaving. I loved taking my niece and nephew to the Greek Isles. They sat and listened to every tour—my nephew was always upfront listening.

MMA: What does the next few years hold for the luxury market?

VG: They keep saying customization. But I think on our side it’s personalization in terms of when we go to market. The more personalized we can be on every touch point, the better. If I’m sending something to Carol Smith, I should be saying ‘Dear Carol.’ And the more one-to-one…even if the photos can change to be more fitting to them; if you’re pitching multi-generational travel, then the photos should show that. We’re working down that path, a bit more for it to be super inclusive. In most of our marketing we’ll show accessible travel, because that’s a big market as well. People who have accessibility issues still want to travel—the focus on that and education on that is important. We’ve partnered with a special needs group to do training and certification on how to sell to that market because they have special needs, and sometimes a river cruise is not the right place for someone who has mobility issues.

MMA: What suggestions would you have for an agent who wants to sell luxury, who might not sell much of it?

VG: Invest in yourself. Partner with the right partners and products. Learn the products. Pick a few and learn them well. And look at how you present—dress the part. One of the questions this morning was about that, ‘If I’m not in their circles how do I reach them?’ You don’t have to be. You just have to be confident, know your product, but also you can’t look like a schlep.

Regarding how to get the message out—social media is still key, even with the luxury market. Just position it correctly. Don’t focus on price. Focus on value; the all-inclusiveness of it. People who are buying luxury products don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed. Don’t tell me the WiFi is this much, and that is that much. If you tell me this is the price and includes all of these things, that’s much more appealing for them than someone else who is just starting out that maybe needs to look at a budget and say maybe we won’t do WiFi this week, or a drink package because I don’t drink. The luxury person for the most part isn’t going to care, they just want the value of the package. Don’t buy with your wallet! Because sometimes you look at these prices and gasp, it’s $58,000. It is. And I’m sure they’ve asked around already so they know that.