Tony travelers seek out quality

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Marketing travel to the affluent set means knowing how the other half -or 1/20th , actually-lives.

Rich but not flashy, adventurous but safety- and security-conscious, today's affluent aren't like those of just a few years ago. And they can best be reached through very targeted media pushes that promote an exclusive experience rather than the status such travel brings.

"We don't do shotgun advertising. There's far too much waste, and it's just not cost effective," says Deborah Natansohn, president of Seabourn Cruise Line, the Miami-based "ultraluxury" operator whose three ships sport a combined 624 beds-each going for $15,000 for a 14-day trip.

Of course, nothing beats finely enunciated word-of-mouth. Seabourn relies on delivering five-star service and amenities that lead to referrals by past guests. Upwards of 60% of future bookings are from repeat guests.

Seabourn's marketing speaks to the affluent mind-set as it partners with charities in tony Palm Beach and Bel Air. The cruise line also runs ads via Tinsley Advertising in affluent-targeted magazines like American Express Publishing's Travel & Leisure and Departures. An aggressive direct mail effort pitches the line to prospects and agents with such luxury travel consortia as Virtuoso Ltd. and American Express Co.

Luxury travel, from trips to five-star resorts to cruise vacations, remains strong, and has even strengthened over the past 12 months, says Peter Yesawich, chairman-CEO with Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, Orlando.

attitude change

The affluent also are undergoing a change, according to the agency's "Portrait of Affluent Travelers," a spring 2004 survey that studied business and leisure travel patterns and preferences of 600 individuals who are in the top 5% of U.S. households by income.

This group still wants exotic destinations, Mr. Yesawich says, but isn't necessarily eager to flaunt their plans. Just because the affluent have it to spend doesn't mean marketing to the wallet will motivate them, he says. This isn't the late 1990s, when obvious indulgence and conspicuous consumption were the norm.

Tech-savvy and likely to research destinations and deals on the Web, the affluent traveler is a "smart shopper not very inclined to overpay," he says. Purchases are more a reflection of their demand for life's finer things, not a means of displaying status.

Marketing to the affluent means projecting a promise of luxury, top-notch service, and attention to security and privacy, he says, adding, "People are not buying luxury brands because of what the brand says about themselves. They're interested in the brand from a standpoint of quality."

Properties like Canyon Ranch Health Resorts, Starwood Hotels & Resorts' W Hotels and Morgans Hotel Group (formerly Ian Schrager Hotels) serve the affluent and those who at least are willing to spend like they're affluent. Even Club Med, the all-inclusive resort operator, is positioning its offerings with an upscale touch.

By no means inexpensive, Club Med's resorts draw a clientele that tops $100,000 in annual household income, and its marketing efforts hit the affluent as well as some mass market. Club Med has linked with Conde Nast Publications' Bon Appetit for an awards program; serves Hennessey, Skyy and Beefeater in its open bar; offers L'Occitane en Provence bath products in its guest rooms; and has aligned with Crunch Fitness as part of its "significant efforts" to target upmarket vacationers, says Mark Wiser, VP-marketing with Club Med Americas in Coral Gables, Fla.

The company uses direct mail to high-income ZIP codes, as well as print ads in Time Inc.'s Real Simple, Hearst Magazines' O, the Oprah Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure. Direct response TV runs on Scripps Networks' Fine Living and Discovery Networks' Travel Channel.

Club Med's agencies include Zimmerman Agency, Tallahassee; Aegis Group's Carat, Atlanta, for media buying; and WPP Group's Wunderman, New York, for direct response TV.

"People are seeking out premium experiences," Mr. Wiser says. "Where the Ritz is a classic luxury hotel, people are looking for a good base product with great experiences."

Quality can be reflected in numerous ways-some more affluent and upscale than others. With personal safety a concern for some, the ultra-affluent are taking to private jet charters in increasing numbers, says Doug Gollan, founder and editor in chief of Elite Traveler, positioned as the "in-flight magazine for the private jet set."

Mr. Gollan says his readers, whose median household incomes top $900,000, are looking for the best spas, therapists, resorts and providers like fractional-ownership jet company NetJets, the Irish Tourist Board and the Breakers Hotel. He adds they're not tightfisted about a summer vacation that includes one-week rents of $250,000 for a yacht, $80,000 for a vacation home or $40,000 for spa services.

"I don't know how you get enough hours to spend $40,000 in a summer's spa treatments," Mr. Gollan jokes.

While the number of first-class seats plummets on commercial air carriers, private jets are expected to triple in the next 10 years, their $5,000-an-hour price tag notwithstanding, he says.

skipping the airpoRt lines

"Among C-level executives, money is no object," Mr. Gollan says. "If you're super-rich and time is money, going two hours early to the airport to have a security guard pick through your belongings-these people don't want to tolerate that."

If ad pages are any indication, luxury travel is indeed growing. AmEx Publishing, whose library includes Departures and Travel & Leisure, is up over the past several years, says Ellen Asmodeo, VP-publisher at Travel & Leisure. Publishers Information Bureau bears out that trend, with Departures' ad pages up 19.9% through July, vs. a year ago, and Travel & Leisure up 4.2%. These increases stack up against a 0.8% uptick in ad pages for the magazine industry overall.

While domestic travel nose-dived post-9/11, affluent travel never really abated, Ms. Asmodeo contends. This is especially true with international excursions, which have grown as travelers reveal "an insatiable appetite to go farther and experience more exotic places."

Cases in point: In Travel & Leisure's recent "2004 World's Best Awards," the Singita Private Game Reserve in Sabi Sands, South Africa, was named the top hotel, even at $1,000 a night. Bali, where terrorists struck in 2002, was the best island.

While luxury travel costs more, Ms. Asmodeo agrees that value and authenticity remain important among affluent travelers. They want a customized itinerary or unique excursion.

"Our readers may travel in jeans and T-shirts and Birkenstocks, not Prada and Gucci all the time," she says. "It's not about an aspirational approach because you have money. They just want something special."

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