On April 4 in London, hundreds of the travel industry’s brightest and best will gather for Skift Forum Europe 2017, our first conference in Europe. In only a few short years Skift’s Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
This year’s event at Tobacco Dock in London will feature speakers including CEOs and top executives from InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Norwegian Air, Google, Lonely Planet, Momondo Group, and many more.
The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Europe and beyond.
For James Lohan, co-founder of London-based boutique and luxury hotel booking site Mr. and Mrs. Smith, selling hotels has become more than simply selecting the best properties around the world and offering them to customers.
Travelers are looking for more than a place to stay the night; they want an experience, and the chance to learn something new that can enrich their lives once their vacation has ended.
Skift spoke to Lohan on the phone to discuss the future of luxury travel, the promise of transformative travel experiences, and the importance of loyalty programs and personal service to attracting repeat customers.
Skift: What are the trends you’ve seen in the leisure space with respect to luxury vacations in recent years? Has there been a movement towards more experiential vacations?
Lohan: That’s definitely happening, we all want more and more experiences, things we can take home to last a long time in memory instead of instant gratification. That’s also coupled with trying to go back to nature, so we’re seeing that through the product being developed, like treehouses and lodges, things that get us back into the wild rather than being in a polished hotel.
Skift: What about the budget luxury space? A lot of research indicates that travelers are spending more on travel. Are you seeing this, and does it affect your business?
Lohan: We have a nice budget boutique hotel collection of guesthouses, pubs with rooms, things like that. When we started Mr. and Mrs. Smith, we were the first company to put those little gems next to five-star hotels. Sometimes you just want to get away for the weekend and do something a little more local feeling. It’s about an attitude about what you want and it’s also creeping into the higher-end luxury. The private house hotel is now going beyond boutique and it feels like you’ve turned up in a very glamorous aunt’s house, and she said to go into the kitchen and tell the chef what you want. You decide what you want to do when.
Skift: What role do your travel consultants play in a world where more people are comfortable booking online? Do you find that travelers looking for a luxury vacation or boutique hotels want more high-touch service even if they can book it themselves?
Lohan: Online bookings are obviously going up, but so are the telephone bookings. People quite often need some inspiration and want to speak to someone who has actually been to the destination, and they don’t want to go through the aggravation of booking every part of the trip. They won’t have the contacts that we do with all the ground handlers, and we personally vet everything that we recommend so we know these people. We’re like the matchmakers and want to work out what you like. It’s quite a labor-intensive thing for a traveler to do, especially on the high-end. If you’re booking two or three hotels on a trip you can’t book them all at once; it’s a complex thing booking that type of travel, specifically booking local flights and transfers. And is your guide going to be as good as the guide we’ve vetted?
Skift: What about the challenge of loyalty in the online space? Especially with higher-end travelers who may want to shop around?
Lohan: Loyalty is the hardest thing in this day and age to really crack because people are fickle and not brand loyal. We try to be very keen on price and match any price you could find on the planet, then if we give you the value add of 24/7 service, that’s a big starting point.
We do also run a loyalty program. Because I don’t like points and miles, if you’re a Silver or Gold Smith member, you get money back… so it’s real money back in your account you can use on a future booking. We also have a nice touch where every single booking gets a gift on arrival, whether a bottle of wine or picnic basket. We have a multi-pronged attack and trying to tell people we’re working really hard on curation.
Skift: When you look ahead, are there any trends you foresee playing a major role in the luxury travel space?
Lohan: We’re moving more into the experience of travel, rather than just being hotel-only. We recognize people want more than that: Transformational travel is the next chapter. Trying to get something where travelers can learn new skills and change their lives in some way, taking travel to the more authentic level, trying to get customers experiencing stuff abroad that slightly reshapes their life. Putting on a few extra tours or cookery lessons is one thing, but really getting something that transforms your life is the next step. We’re about to launch tailor-made India itineraries, so we think people are going to find a more spiritual experience there.