Are “Bubble Vacations” the Future of Travel?

James Henderson is the CEO of Exclusive Resorts, a luxury vacation club with 380 multi-million dollar homes in 75+ destinations around the world. Upon registering, members are assigned a personal vacation ambassador (like a travel advisor) who remains with them for the duration of their membership, helping plan and book each trip. The personalized vacation experience continues at the destination, with the help of an on-site concierge who takes care of every detail, from stocking the fridge to filling vases with fresh flowers.

Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica

Esme Benjamin: Obviously, the pandemic has been a real spanner in the works for the travel industry as a whole. What went through your mind when you first realized that this was really serious?

James Henderson: One of the benefits of being a private club is that most of our members are affluent and have some level of insulation from the current crisis. And because members pay dues in advance, we’re not beholden to cash per night. For us, if occupancy drops, which it obviously has, it doesn’t mean to say our revenue drops. So in that respect, we’ve been pretty good.

EB: What’s the response from members been like? Are they keen to travel again?

JH: The last thing people want to worry about at a time like this is their vacation, so we have become incredibly flexible with our members in terms of cancellations. We’re allowing them to roll over days they haven’t used, and we put a lot of policies in place to give them more peace of mind. Interestingly, as we got to the point when the pandemic really peaked, we had a number of people who decided to shelter in place with us at villas in destinations like Hawaii. I think there is this pent up demand for travel. I was texting a good friend of mine this morning, somebody in private aviation, and he was saying that they are on to track to do three times the volume expected this year. I think people desperately want to get out and connect with others.

EB: Has Exclusive Resorts had to pivot or rethink any of its services?

JH: We weren’t sure how quickly things were going to close down, but we’ve gradually put on hold a lot of the homes in our portfolio. We’ve reduced expenses in our operations where we can, but we haven’t had any lay-offs. Many in our team have been with the company for a really long time; they are like family to our members. I’m also a great believer that when the chips are down, you’ve got to support your people.

The other thing we did was really elevate our cleaning protocol. We introduced a three-part strategy, starting with a really intensive cleaning of all common areas, right down to the decorative items. We’re providing PPE to all staff, and we’ve developed contactless travel opportunities. We have an app, so before members arrive, they can tell us what they want, and we’ll fully provision the home. They can decide whether they want housekeeping or not, and when they leave the residence, they can checkout without even seeing anybody.

Virgin Gorda, BVI

EB: Interesting. I think contactless is going to be key moving forward. How else do you think the pandemic will change the way we travel?

JH: I think people are going to be a little bit wary of going back to large hotels. I think they are also going to stay away from short term rentals where they have no guarantee of the cleaning standards and hygiene protocols. They are going to want to be in a luxury villa with their family, where they’ve got a kitchen and dining area, and a pool, and provisions, and an outdoor area, and they can control that environment. Exclusive Resorts is well-positioned to be there for people when they come out of this because we can provide safe sanctuaries.

EB: We actually did a survey of 500 affluent travelers back in April, and one of the things they were willing to pay extra for was, as you say, a safe sanctuary — a bit more distance from other people, and a feeling of privacy and seclusion. But many are also keen to travel with loved ones, so I think we’re going to see a lot of people looking for “bubble vacations.”

JH: I think you’re absolutely right. I was with friends recently for some socially distanced socializing, and they were saying they want to reconnect and get back to prioritizing the values of family. In the neighborhood where I live, I’ve never seen so many families out walking together as a unit in the evening. I think people really value that. They want to travel with those who are within their bubble — including close friends and extended family.

EB: Like a circle of trust?

JH: A circle of trust, yes. That’s a great way of putting it.

Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica

EB: I wanted to ask you about your partnerships with AirMed International and Travel Insured International. Can you tell me a bit more about those offerings?

JH: We’ve actually had these medical and insurance partnerships for a long time. A lot of our members joined Exclusive Resorts because they like traveling with a trusted brand that backs and supports them. If something goes wrong, we’re going to fix it. We have a team of 120 people in our Denver headquarters, and this is what they do. We have incredible local contacts worldwide that we can use if something happens. We can help you get back home if you need to do that.

EB: That seems even more crucial right now. Maybe previous to this people would have DIY-ed their whole trip, but now they want additional support and guidance when it comes to travel.

JH: For that reason, I think we’re going to see a big resurgence in travel agents. I think people want to at least have the peace of mind of working with someone who knows the place they want to visit.

EB: So much of what people love about staying at resorts or hotels, especially luxury ones, is that feeling of being completely taken care of. The personal touches, the intuitive service, and just the warmth of the staff. How do you think the hospitality industry can reduce the risk of infection while also retaining all those things that make the experience special?

JH: If you’re staying at a luxury resort, they don’t really know you and what you want until you get there, but we already know our members. Even if we can’t have face-to-face interaction with them anymore, they will still feel completely taken care of. We can still provide that service through all the other touch points through their vacation ambassador and concierge. We have over 4000 members, but we have personal relationships with each one of them, so we’re in a pretty good position to give them the best experience despite all the necessary changes the pandemic brings.

For more on Exclusive Resorts or to book your trip, visit www.exclusiveresorts.com.

Learn more about Full-Time Travel by visiting fulltimetravel.co, following us on Instagram @full_time_travel and listening to our podcast, The Trip That Changed Me, available wherever you get your podcasts.

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