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Celebration travel — trips where groups of family or friends gather to mark a significant birthday, anniversary, or other milestone — is not only a fast-growing niche but one where travel advisors can strengthen bonds with clients and hotels, boost profitability, and put creativity to the test.
While weddings are most commonly associated with celebration travel, countless other types of events are transforming the field, said Jennifer Doncsecz, a longtime destination wedding specialist and owner of VIP Vacations. “We’ve seen a huge growth in the past two years of groups that are not destination wedding related,” she said. “There are bachelorette groups, big milestone birthday groups, family reunions, high school or college reunions, sports and hobby enthusiasts, leadership retreats. It can also be a group of family and friends that traveled to a destination wedding and just want to continue traveling together.”
Jack Ezon, owner of Embark, a New York agency that focuses on luxury travel, is also seeing increased demand, so much so that 35 to 40 percent of his business now involves group celebrations, only half of them weddings.
“There’s a real trend to take the party on the road, whether it’s a family group of 20 or less or something that involves hundreds of people,” Ezon said. “The options for these are really growing in sophistication as well. Where you used to see a destination wedding in Mexico, now it might be in South Africa or Morocco. People are going to Bali for a 20th wedding anniversary.”
What is fueling demand for celebration travel? Consultant Dan Chappelle, author of Get Your S.H.I.P Together: The Wealthy Travel Agent Guide to Sales, said it has much to do with the considerable affluence of today’s travel consumers.
“Celebration travel has been around for years, but now more people can afford to do it,” he said. “It’s not unusual to have a grandparent paying for everything. The amount of money in the marketplace today is allowing for this.”
There are also other factors at play, according to Doncsecz.
“People feel safer traveling in numbers, and many realize there are deals to be had when a group is put together. Often there is a free room credit or freebies that a hotel or cruise line will offer groups,” she said. “Social media also puts pressure on families and friends to not miss out, so there’s more pressure to go with everyone.”
The logical starting point for travel advisors looking to develop celebration business is their existing client base, said consultant Stuart Cohen, who conducts online Group Sales Boot Camps for advisors.
“I encourage all travel advisors to ask every client — or everyone they know for that matter — about what big celebrations are on the horizon,” he said. “Maybe there’s a big birthday or anniversary coming up. Most people don’t know what to do about it. That’s your opportunity to suggest that they go someplace fun.”
While affluent clients may be the most likely to spring for celebrations, Cohen said it’s a mistake for advisors to assume celebration travel is strictly for the wealthy.
“Celebration travel really transcends all categories. Sometimes people who normally just do inexpensive trips will spring for something really special if the occasion warrants it,” he said. “They may have been saving up for a trip of a lifetime. So even your clients who don’t normally spend much money may be good prospects.”
Good Niche for Advisors
A big factor making celebration travel a likely niche for advisors is the fact that most clients cannot easily handle the details on their own, said Doncsecz.
“Consumers need travel advisors to put this all together, particularly with pricing and creating a group contract,” she said. “It is nearly impossible to do a group online and group contracts have words like attrition and clauses that make consumers feel uneasy.”
Cohen believes that celebration business holds advantages over other types of group travel, particularly those where the advisor has to find participants to fill a particular tour.
“The beauty of celebration travel is you’re not trying to put together a tour that you have to advertise to the public,” he said. “It’s also great for agencies who focus on FIT business and don’t want to go whole hog into groups. It can be a nice sub-niche for them. Or if you’re an agency with a particular specialty such as cycling trips or religious travel, celebration travel can fit in with this too.”
Cohen also emphasizes the potential for repeat business. “Some of the participants in my boot camp have told me that they have clients who will do a birthday celebration every five years.”
Despite the advantages there are challenges involved in successfully executing celebration travel. One of the biggest ones is to keep things under control, particularly if there is not a designated group leader.
“The most difficult thing is having too many chefs in the kitchen,” said Doncsecz. “This causes a huge influx of indecision and options, which means it can take a long time to get everything zipped up. Group rates that are initially quoted can change over time and sometime specials disappear, so it’s important to stress validity times and explain that a price might change if a group waits too long to get everyone’s input.”
Another pitfall occurs if the travel advisor offers a bare-bones, off-the-shelf product.
“This opens the door for price shopping, particularly if the client feels it’s something they could get online,” Cohen said. “Celebration travel is all about doing things that you don’t just do all the time.”
Going above and beyond to create experiences with strong emotional impact is an essential part of celebration travel, said Ezon.
“It’s not just about finding a villa for 20 people but about creating lifetime bonds,” he said. “It depends on what’s meaningful to the client, whether it’s an Olympics day at the beach or creating a family documentary together. You want to provide things that people will walk away and say ‘I’ll never forget that.’”
Package for Profit
To maximize profitability and ensure that advisors are compensated for the work involved, Cohen recommends offering all the trip components, including special events and activities, in a single package, with compensation for the work involved built into it.
“Seek permission to create an inclusive package right away and to prebook all the special activities involved,” he said. “Point out that this will allow you to negotiate on their behalf and ensure that they won’t have to wait in a long line or miss out on anything they want to do. Explain that if it’s not prebooked, it might not be available.”
While travel advisors can often handle most aspects of celebration travel themselves or through supplier partners, there are times, particularly if the requirements are elaborate, when it may make sense to work with an experienced event planner.
“We often partner with top event planners, people who can really take things to the next level,” Ezon said. “We will handle the travel logistics, and they will do things like transforming beaches and ballrooms, things that are not our specialty.”
Ezon said he learned the value of partnering with experts earlier in his career when planning a destination wedding for 500 people on a hotel rooftop where the seating, tenting, and other infrastructure turned out to be too heavy for the venue.
“The engineers told us that the roof would cave in,” he said. “We had no choice but to pay for trusses, which cost a fortune. There are other things you have to know about too, including handling shipping containers. So you have to know the risks and what you can and cannot do yourself.”
Photo Credit: Relais & Chateaux 60th Anniversary Guest Chef Dinner Launch at Consulate General of France on October 1, 2014, in New York City. Travel advisors are increasingly booking groups for milestone celebrations. Relais & Chateaux