Before the Internet, the impetus for a consumer to contact a travel agent was to book an airline ticket. While you’re on the phone, maybe book a hotel and car rental too, or if it was a resort vacation, talk about ideas and things to do once you got there. For others, there were escorted tours your travel agent could book, pre-planned itineraries usually by motor coach where you joined other travelers with like interests and followed a guide with a sign on a stick through museums and cathedrals. Then for awhile, it seemed like you didn’t need a travel agent, since you had Captain Kirk, Roaming Gnomes, Expedia, Priceline and Kayak. After a couple ruined vacations and trying to get rerouted when your airline’s computers stopped working, many of you realized while being your own travel agent might sound good in those commercials, it was more akin to being your own attorney, and while you can cut your own hedges, you probably would have a hard time recreating Blenheim Palace in your back garden. Your own culinary talents are probably a tad short of Daniel Boulud. In other words, if you wanted to experience something special, you needed professional assistance.
It’s at some point during this period that the species formerly known as travel agents began to morph into travel consultants, advisors, or in the case of Paris-based Traveller Made, travel designers. While today’s breed of travel planners are enjoying a renaissance at all levels of travel, the segment they are now playing the most critical role is in luxury, especially the highest end, where suites and villas rent for $5,000 to $50,000 per night. You can tell the venture capital folks in Silicon Valley that the intermediaries have solidly re-intermediated themselves into the distribution chain.
In two weeks over 2,000 advisors who are part of the Virtuoso network will take over the Bellagio and Aria hotels in Las Vegas to network and be feted by over 2,000 luxury suppliers, including hotel general managers and many CEOs. It’s not small business. The group, which is made up of independently owned agencies together generates over $14 billion in revenue. The global luxury travel industry is estimated to generate over $200 billion annually.
For Traveller Made, which has a laser focus on the Ultra High Net Worth (UHNW) segment and four years after its launch now counts over 200 member agencies in 56 countries with over $2 billion in sales, its founder and CEO Quentin Desurmont is pushing to get more attention for his designers by likening them to star fashion designers and celebrity chefs.
To find its Gordon Ramsey or Tom Ford, the group recently polled over 2,000 of its designers, luxury hotel and travel partners and selected what it is calling, “The 12 most influential luxury travel designers in the world.” Selection criteria included destination knowledge, client knowledge, supplier knowledge, travel design and crisis management, the latter something that comes in handy in the travel industry.
“Over the past decades, there has been a craze for fashion designers, then contemporary artists and, most recently, the transformation of Michelin-starred chefs into real-life celebrities. It is now time for Travel Designers to step into the spotlight. Their secret skills and hidden expertise are absolutely essential for the most fortunate travelers on the planet,” Desurmont told Forbes.com. “As important as a personal lawyer, the private Travel Designer is often as familiar as a friend, a confidant, and knows their client inside out. Sometimes with just a short (conversation on) WhatsApp, they are able to build a trip in such a way that it creates lasting memories,” he continued.
Is there a limit to what a Travel Designer can do? Doug Easton of Los Angeles-based Celestielle said he once planned “a fourteen-month tour of the world’s most interesting places, for a family of five. It covered every continent and included 108 extraordinary hotels, lodges, camps, and ships. Its planning was a labor of love.” That wasn’t the most complex trip he has put together. That would be a treasure hunt in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles during a four-week honeymoon for a bride, a groom, and 20 guests. “We designed the treasure hunts and wrote the clues as limericks, poems, puzzles. All four treasure hunts unfolded like a military operation,” said Easton.
Last week, Traveller Made announced its 12 “stars” reflecting the global nature of its designers, with winners hailing from Brazil, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, France, Israel, Germany, and the United States.
Most Thorough Designer (Hotels) – Sheila Zatz – Summit Viagens e Turismo – Brazil
Most Thorough Designer (Destinations) – Jan Vos – Van Vos Loon – Netherlands
Most Thorough Designer (Hotels) – Jonas Rask Eilersen – Rask Travel – Israel
Most Thorough Designer (Destinations) – Michaela Kügler – Design Reisen – Germany
Most Creative Designer (Hotels) – Gemma Antrobus – Haslemere Travel – UK
Most Creative Designer (Destinations) – Ico Inanc – Il Viaggio – Italy
Most Creative Designer (Destinations) – Manuel Chablais – Ailes Voyage – Switzerland
Most Creative Designer (Hotels) – Olivier Weisse – Weisse Voyage – France
Most Expert Designer (Destinations) – Doug Easton – Celestielle – USA
Most Expert Designer (Client Knowledge) – Gonzalo Gimeno – Elefant Travel Consulting – Spain
Most Expert Designer (Supplier Knowledge) – Isao Numano – Regency Group Inc – Japan
Most Expert Designer (Crisis Management) – Evgenia Komarova – Personne Travel Club – Russia