Virtuoso Travel Week returned to Las Vegas this summer, bringing together leading lights from the travel industry to present insights into the changing behaviour of wealthy travellers. The number-one takeaway? Luxury travel is exploding. John O’Ceallaigh reports

Visit Las Vegas nowadays and the immense economic impact of tourism is plain to see: thronged again by tourists, the city’s attractions are packed and its many mega-hotels are enjoying punchy levels of occupancy. Las Vegas welcomed nearly 39 million visitors in 2022, when the economic impact driven by tourism hit a record high of US$79.3 billion.

But for a select community of participants attending this month’s Virtuoso Travel Week in the casino resorts that line the city’s neon-lit Strip, the revival of Vegas’s tourism industry was just one part of a broader story of threatened fortunes gloriously regained.

Described as “the fashion week of travel”, this annual get-together is organised by the American-headquartered company Virtuoso, a global network of luxury-travel agencies and advisors that partner with thousands of the world’s most prestigious hotels, cruise lines, tour operators and other industry players.

Together they represent one of the world’s biggest networks of luxury travellers and the companies that cater to them. Over a series of press briefings, roundtable sessions and networking events, one welcome message was uttered repeatedly throughout the week by the 5,000 or so invitees: the uncertainty of the pandemic is history; in the luxury sector, business is booming.

In the US, luxury hotels are 57 per cent more expensive this year than they were over the same period in 2019.

Securing between US$28 billion and US$32 billion in annual sales and established in 54 countries, the Virtuoso network is affiliated with 21,000 travel advisors spread across 1,200 agencies, and partners with 2,300 luxury-travel businesses that are in turn found in over 100 countries. Released during Virtuoso Travel Week, the result of Virtuoso’s latest stats compilations and surveys provide precise context for the successes the event’s attendees so enthusiastically reported.

Four Seasons Taormina at San Domenico Palace

San Domenico Palace, Taormina, A Four Seasons Hotel

In the first half of 2023, Virtuoso’s partners achieved their highest sales figures ever, reporting combined earnings that were 36 per cent higher than over the same period in 2022. And that jump wasn’t a result of pandemic-related travel restrictions still in effect over the previous year. Those figures were a striking 69 per cent higher than over the same period in 2019.Those higher sales are partially due to an explosion in the ADRs (Average Daily Rates) now charged by hotels globally. In the US, luxury hotels are 57 per cent more expensive this year than they were over the same period in 2019, pretty much on par with the international figure of 58 per cent.

Luxury cruise sales are up 106 per cent on 2019 levels.

A significant contributor to those higher prices has been the increased cost of staffing, with members of the hotel industry either leaving or losing their jobs during the pandemic and greater compensation now being demanded by prospective employees. Inflation, political complications such as Brexit, the war in Ukraine, and soaring energy prices are among the other issues that have compounded pricing pressure around the world.

While the reasons for those significant increases may be troublesome, they carry a silver lining for Virtuoso advisors: their pay packets are heavily tied to the commission hotels and other partners pay on each booking. And those advisors can look forward to more income from the cruise industry too, where 2023 sales are up 106 per cent on 2019 levels.

Yachting and private-jet travel are up too, partially because wealthy travellers rejected commercial travel in greater numbers, and often for the first time, when concerned about Covid. They subsequently acquired a taste for it: yachting is up 79 per cent on 2019 levels.

94 per cent of HNW clients embed wellness and self-care into their trips.

Other trends also seem to stem from that period of subjugation. Some 57 per cent of Virtuoso’s clients now agree with the statement that “creating a travel experience that best fits [their] expectations is more important than price” and there have been notable shifts in the number of HNW and UHNW clients requesting taxing experiences that test them mentally and physically; interest in challenging expedition-style voyages is on the rise too. Some 94 per cent of these clients also embed wellness and self-care into their trips as a standard component of any holiday.

Other shifts in travel behaviour are more subtle. Like pretty much every other consumer set, Virtuoso’s clients have always been motivated to sample drinking and dining experiences on their travels. But they’re becoming more experimental, with 88 per cent now classifying visits to breweries or distilleries as their top culinary experience. Many also prioritise trying street food over Michelin-style fine dining and there’s a growing interest in hyper-local dining, focusing not just on farm-to-table menus but on “neighbourhood to table” dining opportunities.

Next summer, expect to see a growing number of travellers sharing Instagram snaps from the Norwegian fjords and Arctic Finland.

Virtuoso’s travel-advisor partners are also noticing shifts in the countries their clients are now considering for future holidays. Following the heatwaves and wildfires experienced across Southern Europe this summer, the founder of the hotel-booking platform Little Emperors Rebecca Marsi reported that her network of consumers is increasingly looking towards Scandinavia – next summer expect to see a growing number of travellers sharing Instagram snaps from the Norwegian fjords and Arctic Finland.

The Peninsula Istanbul

The Peninsula Istanbul

Also significant, she noted, is the shift in travellers now looking to explore the European Alps in summer, given snow is no longer a guarantee over the winter holidays and the region’s viability as a ski destination is being called into question.Still, the awards ceremony that marked the conclusion of this year’s Virtuoso Travel Week signalled that certain standout hotels will always have the capacity to lure an appreciative clientele, irrespective of what may be happening around them environmentally or politically.

The prize for Best Hotel of the year was awarded to San Domenico Palace, Taormina, A Four Seasons Hotel. In sight of Mount Etna, the Sicily property was also subjected to searing temperatures this summer – though its starring role in the latest series of The White Lotus no doubt helped to remind the industry of its many beautiful attributes. The award for Best New or Re-imagined Hotel, meanwhile, went to the Peninsula Istanbul, which continues to draw rave reviews irrespective of the continued political turmoil afflicting Turkiye.