Welcome to the Thought & Action podcast hosted by Erik Flegal. The thought for the day is how to know what you’re getting from the luxury travel market and where to go to look. The action for the day is to take this knowledge and plan an awesome vacation of your own.
Today we’re joined by Marco Marano, co-founder and CEO of two luxury travel companies, CountryBred and The Palatum.
Marco has been in this business for over a decade, and with summertime coming and people planning trips, they really need to know about the private and luxury travel world. Let’s start with the private travel landscape, tour group sizes, and how you can maximize your plans.
CountryBred and the Luxury Travel Landscape
CountryBred has been dedicated to private travel since 2009. In this case, private travel is a completely private travel experience. CountryBred doesn’t combine travelers who do not know one another during their journey.
That can include a private ship for transportation, dining by yourself, and immersive activities that are private in nature, where you aren’t sharing an activity or experience with other travelers. The group size is whatever you decide it should be. It could just be you and your spouse on a honeymoon, or it could be four of your closest friends or your family.
That said, there are levels and bespoke options to choose from. The trends that drove CountryBred from the beginning still hold true 12 years later. Private travel is predominantly found through word of mouth. In the CountryBred community of travelers, about 65% to 70% of the trips on the books are repeat travelers and referrals from colleagues, friends, and family members.
If you don’t have a word of mouth referral and you ask someone, “Have you gone to Italy with a company on a private travel?” you’ll usually get “no” for an answer. Without that, you can search online for private travel companies, but they are very country- and region-specific.
The most effective searches will be for private travel or private tours to Tuscany, for example, or private travel to Northern Spain or Southern France. That’s another way to find a selection of companies that specialize in private travel and tours to those areas.
5 Tips for Assessing Luxury Travel Options
Word of mouth has worked well for CountryBred, but people looking on Google may not know how to assess private travel companies.
1. Look for Country- or Region-Specific Specialists
First, to deliver something exceptionally unique to your clients, you can’t offer the whole world.
Companies that try to operate and design private travel experiences in every continent around the world just cannot offer something that is unique and special. Someone who is a country or region-specific specialist can leverage local access, on-the-ground knowledge, and that expertise to truly deliver something special.
2. Consider Overall Business Operations
Also, a number of large group tour types of companies have dipped their toe into private travel in recent years. They know that that’s where the trend is. People are seeking a more personal, intimate, and custom personalized experience. Even large-format operators are starting to offer private travel kind of on the side.
So the second factor is asking whether this company is really dedicated and focused on private or tailor-made travel only or is it a part of their website and they’re still really marketing their 30-40 person bus tours.
3. Experience in the Marketplace
Next, the number of years that they’ve been operating is really important. A lot of new companies spring up here and there that don’t last more than a couple of years. So you want someone who is established in a particular area.
You can usually see via a company’s material that they’re speaking very generally about private travel versus actually talking to you about specific things, or specific cities, or specific areas. That’s where you really want to focus — someone who can deliver a very unique and in-depth experience in that particular destination.
4. Regulations & Insurance
Fourth, look at accreditations. Not a lot of people realize that the travel industry is highly regulated. A lot of licensing, bonding, and insurance comes into play to even be able to sell travel to residents of certain states.
For example, CountryBred needs separate bonding and licensing requirements to sell and book a trip for someone in Iowa, Washington, or Florida. It’s state-specific.
Also, different associations or organizations that the travel company you’re looking at is part of are a good indicator. The National Tour Association, IATA, and ARC are all organizations that have stringent requirements. They look at the type of insurance you carry, how many years you’ve been operating, how many trips you operate, and other factors.
5. Governmental Designations & Certifications
The final component, if you really want to go in-depth and look for best-in-class private travel companies, are the designations and certifications that governmental agencies give to the best or most knowledgeable tour companies that operate in their country.
For example, Spain has a designation called the Spain 360 Expert. That’s actually a certification from the Spanish government to travel companies and entities that they believe have the most in-depth knowledge and expertise in their country. Similarly, Switzerland jas Certified Swiss Travel Specialists. These are all important factors to consider when you’re vetting luxury travel or private travel companies.
Defining Bespoke Experiences for Luxury Travel
There’s an important distinction between a bespoke, tailor-made approach and a plug-and-play, pre-established vacation scenario.
CountryBred, for example, exclusively operates in the Mediterranean and has established that as a country-specific area of expertise. CountryBred cultivates exclusive experiences for travelers in the Mediterranean, namely Portugal, Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Switzerland, and Spain.
That experience lends itself to a collection of private travel experiences that fit any style of luxury travel. Again, this is for a private or intimate trip and format, not a big cruise or a big bus tour. CountryBred has never offered a bus tour or group tour in its 12-year history
Today, CountryBred offers four distinct collections of private travel styles. Three of those are ready-to-book itineraries based on that experience operating in certain areas. And these are for the people that want to travel privately. They want just a chosen view on their dates without thinking about the details of a trip.
Pre-Planned, Tailor-Made Trips
These tailor-made experiences are for someone who just wants a great 12-day trip to Tuscany, for example, or a wonderful private yacht experience to Greece that CountryBred has already vetted.
In these scenarios, clients provide dates and a deposit to book their trips. That’s all it takes. One version is the charter collection, which is private yachts, art and sailing, and catamaran experiences in packages that are ready to book.
Country House Packages
CountryBred also has country house packages, which are private villa chateaus and residences. This is very unique in the marketplace because it’s not just an independent rental. It’s a seamless experience with a daily chauffeur, curated experiences, in-villa dining with private chefs, and special dining outside the villa at local restaurants. That’s a full private residence experience for people who don’t want to stay in a hotel.
These are people traveling with family or friends to a secluded area who still don’t want to rent a car. They want everything taken care of. And CountryBred’s Couture Collection provides those tailor-made experiences. The team looks at travelers’ interests, passions, the preferred pace of travel, trip duration, and even travel-related pet peeves.
Creating and delivering a one-of-a-kind, tailor-made itinerary is a differentiator in the marketplace.
Travel Agents & Tour Operators
It’s important for consumers to understand the difference between a travel agent or agency and tour companies or tour operators.
Travel agents are essentially intermediaries. They will speak with you, but they’re going through a catalog of third-party tour companies or third-party cruises and just matching you with the one that they think will fit. It isn’t tailored to the travelers’ interests or even dates.
Further, agents get paid on commission based on that particular tour or cruise they’re selling. But it’s the tour and cruise company that will deliver the experience and provide service.
The issue, oftentimes, is that they’re also servicing 10,000 other people, or a cruise ship of 2,000 other people, or a bus with 50 other people. That personalized attention isn’t available with the agent model. The agent is just working for a commission and moving on to the next target.
Sometimes agents pair you with a great fit, but other times they don’t. And you’re assuming that risk. CountryBred’s model is to work with clients on the front end to design trips according to their needs and their interests and to also be the operator on the ground. That is unique and adds tremendous value.
Finally, CountryBred chose early on also not to sell private tours through intermediaries like travel agents, who earn commissions or markups. That passes even more value on to the end-consumer.
Managing Luxury Travel Retention
Because many CountryBred clients come back for additional trips, it’s essential to keep things fresh. The team always seeks to raise the bar every time a return client comes back for a new trip.
That’s possible because CountryBred’s understanding of clients’ needs evolves during these experiences.
On that first trip, the client may have a sense of what they like and don’t like. But when they come back, CountryBred solicits and analyzes feedback with a keen eye and tunes in to what worked well and what did not.
On future trips, that feedback supports CountryBred’s ability to wow clients with the things that resonated the first time around and raise that bar by avoiding the things that they didn’t like as much.
Finally, CountryBred adds one or two surprise experiences that don’t know clients about in advance. That ability to surprise them with something that wasn’t on the itinerary is also important.
Working with clients as part of a relationship makes it easier to provide that wow experience, which is what bespoke, luxury travel is all about.