We ask expert advisors what they’re doing with customized experiences and itineraries on the rivers and high seas.
Exposed to high-end luxury products at every turn, consumers of diverse income levels are increasingly buying luxury cruises. “Everybody has awakened,” says Ellen Kalish, partner, CruiseCenter, Houston, TX, who calls it “a circular response,” based on what consumers see in magazines, online and digitally. Here’s a look at three top cruising trends moving into 2017.
Not surprisingly, luxury cruisers seek private, personalized experiences ashore or customized shipboard arrangements. Kalish’s agency often reserves Crystal Cruises’ intimate Vintage Room for spectacular, private gourmet dinners and wine tastings. “These are in the category of once-in-a-lifetime’ evenings with extraordinary wines and comments by the sommeliers and very special food presentations,” says Kalish.
Off the ship, cruisers on a port call at Marseilles or Bordeaux can head out with a private car and driver, stroll through a fresh food market with a local cookbook author, take a helicopter tour above vineyards and blend their own wine with a local vintner. How about lunch with savory dishes prepared by a renowned chef at his or her estate, accompanied by regional wines? One of Kalish’s agents recently worked with Crystal’s shore-side land programs department to arrange an extensive helicopter tour over Monte Carlo for a family of four, with the family providing the final instructions to the ship’s onboard concierge.
Whatever the arrangements, “we’re saying, let me do this for you. I promise you it will be worth it,”’ says Kalish. “The growing list of specialty arrangements includes special food requests, flowers from a husband to his wife, wildly expensive champagne and caviar, intimate cocktail parties for small groups and so on.” One change in the marketplace is that only a small fraction of Kalish’s luxury clients are gourmands who absolutely “must have” high-end, multiple- course dining day after day. Others now prefer a more casual, local and often more authentic approach, she says.
So when a trusted private guide asks Kalish about where to take luxury customers to lunch, she’ll often say, “someplace local that you love.” In other words, gourmet dining is wonderful, but for many luxury travelers, pizza in Roma or tapas in Portugal and conversation with the locals is something they’ll talk about for years. Several of Kalish’s cruisers recently toured Rome with a private guide, who truly impressed by taking the travelers to his grandmothers home to meet his family. They watched the preparation of a fresh meal and dined with the family, before strolling through a safe, local neighborhood — off the tourist path — with a chance to meet the neighbors.
The travelers loved it.
And while privatized, customized arrangements have been well-patronized by senior and boomer travelers for years, she stresses that, increasingly this year, younger travelers — Millennial and Generation Xers — are now asking for and appreciating the suggestion for private, personalized experiences in conjunction with a cruise.
One new option highly appealing for Kalish’s customers is the newly introduced Crystal Esprit, a luxury yacht product that’s a good fit for those who value the luxury yachting lifestyle, but perhaps aren’t yet ready to step in to a private charter. In addition, Ponant, Windstar Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club also offer intimate sailings or mega-yachting experiences, depending on the vessel.
For advisors designing private shore trips, securing a stellar local guide is critical, according to Kalish, who works through tried-and-true local contacts, taps into the knowledge of other trusted travel advisors or the Signature Travel Network, and then, most often, sets up the private shore trip arrangements herself. Why?
“The cruise lines are all catering to them [luxury clients] but with the private car/driver and guide’ option they have, it’s usually a suggested itinerary and a set group of drivers or guides. She says that could end up being a “canned tour in Rome” except that it’s in a private car.
She prefers to maintain the control, using companies and specific guides she knows, and really asking exactly what the itinerary will entail. “When trying to determine the clients’ interests, I listen carefully and, if they are of a mind that, if you’ve seen one church you’ve seen them all,” I make sure the guide knows that and limits the visits accordingly. The same goes for archeological sites. I have one client who thinks they are ‘just one more pile of rocks’ but still wants to check them off his ‘I’ve been there’ list, so visits are shorter and only to the most significant sites. Since many private guides are Ph.Ds or professors, travel advisors need to spell it out as to what’s desired,” Kalish says. Prior to one family’s tour, she thus instructed the guide that “all this has to be tailored to kids 12 to 14 who don’t want to hear history all day, so just cover the basics.”
One issue she sees regularly is that some luxury cruisers pride themselves on searching the Internet and telling their travel advisor, “Hey, I’ve found the perfect private guide.” She urges cruisers who’ve independently arranged to use a certain guide to actually talk on the phone to that specific guide they’re hiring — not just the company — and assess language skills. “ Don’t rely solely on English in e-mail, as the note could have been written by a cousin. Make sure you can understand them,” she cautions her travelers.
She also tells people to ask any potential independent guide (directly arranged by the traveler) about what specific vehicle will be used for the tour, what insurance coverages the guide or vehicle have, and what’s the back-up vehicle, should the first vehicle have an issue. Also, with many pre-paid private tours arranged directly by the traveler, if the tour isn’t satisfactory, there may be no recourse. Travel advisors bring value to the customer because they know what questions to ask and they deal only with truly “known and trusted” professionals.
An advantage for advisors who book families on personalized, customized tours? Increasingly, “a lot of the travel people do is sentimental,” Kalish notes. In one recent case, she arranged a visit to an African elephant sanctuary for 25 family members to see a place their parents had loved and to meet the specific elephant the couple had “adopted” years before. “These adults with grown children of their own wanted to visit the place they had heard so much about while growing up,” she says. Similarly, adult children who have fond memories of travel with their parents often may wish to share those same places years later with their own children on a customized day tour.