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Have you thought about your travel bubble yet? When we’re finally given the green light to satisfy a year’s worth of wanderlust, luxury travel’s new normal will be more intimate than ever before. “This year was a reset year for everyone,” says Albert Herrera, the senior vice president of partnerships at Virtuoso, a luxury travel agency network. “But there’s so much pent-up emotion for travel, which we think will lead to pent-up demand.” Industry experts expect people to travel less often, but to want every step of their journey to feel especially personal.
“Giving people confidence that we’re able to provide a physically distanced atmosphere is first and foremost our priority,” says Nancy Munzar Kelly, the general manager at the Shangri-La Hotel Toronto. Just as important is the ability for guests to continue to connect with their destination, especially at urban hotels, which tourists typically book because they will be well situated to explore a city.
With many local events, festivals and shows either cancelled or drastically scaled back, the Shangri-La is bringing urban experiences in house, allowing guests to book the hotel’s private screening room for NBA or NHL games, for instance. The property’s famous afternoon tea, typically hosted in the bustling street-level lobby, is now available via takeaway for enjoyment in a suite. Demand for that sort of hands-on service is much higher than it was at this time last year. “Hotels are getting to know the guest preferences a lot more,” Herrera says.
Privacy is another priority. The Belmond hotel group launched Exclusive Places in 2020. It offers accommodations for families and small groups in private sections of a building or standalone structure, whether it’s chartering a barge to sail the canals of France or a villa stay in the Caribbean. “Our greatest priority is that our guests can reconnect with loved ones and explore these exceptional locations in a safe and comfortable environment,” says Andrea Filippi, Belmond’s vice president of global sales.
One thing that can’t be controlled on a commercial flight is other passengers, so it’s safe to expect increased demand for business class pods and the private suites offered by airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Singapore. The space and privacy provided by partitioned spaces offer peace of mind, and dedicated service from a limited number of flight crew can mean fewer social interactions.
Private charters are also seeing increased demand. Several luxury resorts and hotels, including Four Seasons Resort Lanai in Hawaii, Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal in Mexico and SHA Wellness Clinic in Spain offer packages that include transportation via private aircraft. Stan Kuliavas, vice-president of sales and business development at Levaero Aviation, which sells private aircraft and owns the Toronto-based charter company Private Air, says the company has seen a spike in bookings. A lot of the business is coming from new customers, he says, or people who did it once a year, or once a few years ago, and are doing it more frequently now.
While many large cruise companies are cancelling sailings well into next year and some destinations such as the Cayman Islands are restricting cruise ships from their ports for the foreseeable future, it’s a different story for small-ship cruise operators. Bookings for river cruising are up 14 per cent for Virtuoso clients. And companies such as Riviera River Cruises have dropped single supplement fees and introduced a series of solo traveller itineraries.
“Since guests haven’t been able to travel for most of 2020, they are gravitating towards destinations they’ve been dreaming about,” says Navin Sawhney, the CEO for the Americas for luxury cruise company Ponant. “Whether that be sailing to the North Pole or to Tahiti or to Antarctica.” Ponant has operated 50 cruises with over 3,000 passengers since July. On board, social distancing is integral to the company’s protocols. “We have also redesigned our restaurant layouts and will only offer contactless a la carte dining options,” says Sawhney. “Your waitstaff will remain the same throughout the sailing as will your cabin steward.”
“I think the world desperately needs experiences that elevate us out of the every day, and travellers still want genuine, human connections when exploring a destination,” says Belmond’s Filippi. For visits to Brazil’s Iguazu Falls National Park or the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Belmond can organize before-hours access. At the Shangri-La Toronto, in-room wine tastings are hosted on-screen by a master sommelier. All year, agents at Virtuoso have helped clients move big trips for milestone celebrations and bucket list items to 2021. Herrera advises booking sooner rather than later, but to still have a plan B.
Up to date details on travel restrictions are available through canada.ca. For more coronavirus information, visit theglobeandmail.com/canada/the-zero-canada-project/.