Why exotic experiences led by hard-to-get experts is new travel trend

Travel agents design packages for high-end tourists that avoid the usual destinations in favour of more exotic trips, led by specialists or plugged-in locals, that are as much about learning as leisure

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 5:56pm

Luxury travel, like other industries, has had to adjust to the times. Retail-driven travel has waxed and waned, following the vagaries of the world economy; lately, post-Brexit Britain has enjoyed a boom as the value of the pound has plunged, making luxury products bought in the UK the cheapest in the world.

More well-to-do travellers are seeking safer countries as well as more exotic and curated experiential holidays.

Terrorism in Europe, unsurprisingly, has put many travellers off visiting tourist magnets such as Paris. The Paris region’s tourist board revealed in August that tourism revenues had dropped 750 million (HK$6.3 billion) year-on-year since January, with much of the drop-off coming from the high-end travel sector. Luxury travellers are staying away, and high-end hotels are suffering with revenues down by 30 to 40 per cent.

“Safety, for wealthier travellers, has gone from a low consideration five or six years ago to one of the most important now,” says Alex Malcolm, founder and managing director of travel specialists Jacada Travel. But safety alone isn’t keeping tourists away from Paris, Rome and other typical holiday hotspots. Malcolm believes that high-end holidaymakers are increasingly interested in seeking out experiences.

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“You can book a villa in Bali and lounge about, but you may end up spending all your time on your device; you may not connect with the person you’re travelling with or the place,” says Malcolm of the typical travel experience he often hears about from new clients. “People need more out of their travel experience – they are looking for more authentic places and want to connect with those places,” he adds.

The explosion in travel-related information online through websites such as TripAdvisor has been another hindrance to many luxury travellers. Places that were once secluded, rarely visited or “secret” have become more accessible following online exposure. “There’s too much information out there,” says Malcolm. It makes it difficult for people to know what they want, he says.

The curated travel experience begins well before the client boards an aeroplane, says Malcolm. Jacada Travel’s offices in Hong Kong are designed more like an experienced traveller’s living room, complete with artefacts and objets d’art from around the world. “We wanted to make coming [to our office] an experience in its own right,” says Malcolm. Prospective clients respond more readily to what they want and what they are looking for in a trip in a relaxed, unhurried environment, he says, rather than sending rushed e-mails between meetings and during their lunch hour.

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Founded in 2013, Chosen Experiences is another curated travel company that has tapped into the trend for experience-led holidays. Chosen, similarly, spends a great deal of time “knowing the clients’ motivations and the intent”, says co-founder John Stanton, making them fill out detailed lifestyle questionnaires.

Chosen specialises in travel experiences that push clients “out of their comfort zone”, the company says; it offers health and wellness, active and sustainable holidays. Among its more regular experiences, Chosen offers prospective clients water awareness experiences in Bali and volcano exploration in Guatemala.

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“Increasingly people are using travel as an opportunity for learning and self-exploration, which is where the curation becomes more important,” says fellow Chosen founder Robin Connelley.

The personal touch is also crucial. Curated tourism hinges on exclusive access to tour guides or people that cannot be found on the internet and would be out of the budget of the ordinary traveller; such holidays often sell themselves as much on the people as the destination, offering time with plugged-in locals or specialists.

Malcolm says one of Jacada’s most popular locations is the wine country in Mendoza, Argentina, where clients are shown around the region by a winemaker named Pedro, who is something of a local celebrity. Likewise, Chosen offers health and wellness clients time with Olympic athletes Andrew Lauterstein and Michael Klim, who give unparalleled insight into the lifestyles of elite sportspeople.

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So what are the popular curated travel destinations? For both Jacada and Chosen, Iceland and New Zealand have been hot destinations. Malcolm says the trend at the moment in specialist travel is for cold places such as Iceland, which has benefited enormously from Hollywood as well. “They filmed Interstellar there, Prometheus and I think Game of Thrones, so obviously that’s a factor,” says Malcolm.

New Zealand’s own Hollywood hangover from the Lord of the Rings films may have dissipated from a peak 10 years ago, but the country is popular for outdoor activities, food and wine tours and pursuits such as skiing and water sports. (Just last week it was reported that tourism has overtaken dairy farming as the nation’s top earner of overseas dollars. And tourism officials say the success of The Hobbit has helped.)

Like New Zealand, Iceland also benefits from its relative safety and security.

Despite being a niche, if high-value, segment of the travel industry, high-end curated travel has grown quickly and is only likely to keep growing, according to people in the industry.

Malcolm says Jacada has engendered a great deal of loyalty from clients, and not just for the personalised service. “People come back because once they’ve had a taste of experiential travel, they can’t imagine going back to the run-of-the-mill type of holiday,” he says. Chosen’s founders also see the trend only growing; the company says that true luxury travel is moving away from the need “to possess” to a need “to live”.

“Luxury is about living an ideal lifestyle of continued learning, self-nurture and exploration and connecting with people who constantly inspire us to become the better versions of ourselves,” says Stanton.