Travel is back, baby, but the old rules no longer apply. “Covid-tested” flights, quarantine requirements applied and then abandoned on a whim, countries opening and then closing to foreigners … even the savviest travelers are banging their heads against the proverbial wall.
Enter the experts: travel agents and consultants, whose roles and responsibilities are intensely expanding. “We’ve always specialized in being a full-service tour operator, but ‘full service’ has taken on a new meaning now,” says John Spence, president of Scott Dunn USA.
“Our team takes care of the basics that have always been a part of travel—accommodation, experiences, transfers—but now also assist with the new components of travel, like arranging Covid tests in-country, preparing you with any necessary health documents, and monitoring the ever changing restrictions.”
After a nearly dead year, business is booming throughout the sector, especially among the consultants who cater to the 0.1 percent. Jaclyn Sienna India, whose Los Angeles–based concierge service, Sienna Charles, works primarily with families whose net worth is more than $100 million, has never been busier.
“In the last three weeks, business has come back 300 percent,” she says, citing the surplus of savings that many titans of industry have accrued during the pandemic. “We’ve picked up 20 to 30 new clients, as their assistants are going full-throttle dealing with new homes, new planes, new everything. They don’t have the time and space to be dealing with the lifestyle.”
India’s nine-person team is spending hours studying the new protocols. “But once we have the information down pat, it keeps changing,” she says, citing a recent client’s voyage to Uzbekistan as especially challenging. “We can get people in everywhere, and there’s always a way to do it, but everything is taking longer.”
After a nearly dead year, business is booming throughout the sector, especially among the consultants who cater to the 0.1 percent.
In pre-pandemic times, the .01-percenters often sought to avoid the masses and the predictable resort areas in favor of roads less traveled. Not so much for the summer of ’21, when visiting old favorites, and being among throngs of (a certain type of) people after a year of lockdown, is more desirable than ever.
“Everything is sold out—Italy, France—and we’re having to pull special favors to get people into the place they want to go,” says India, who predicts that Greece will be the international jet set’s primary stomping ground in August. “Americans are very excited about Europe opening up, and therefore everyone is trying to plan their trip before it opens up to all of the U.K.,” says Spence.
If you haven’t already booked your hotels, good luck. According to India, most of the five-star rooms in Europe have been reserved by flush millennials and Gen Z types who couldn’t afford the Hotel de Russie or J.K. Place under normal circumstances but have saved enough, thanks to the lockdowns, that they feel the urge to splurge.
Are there any of those old pandemic discounts left? “That’s funny,” she says, without laughing. “In the beginning of Covid, everyone tried to pretend like we’re in this together. Now it’s game time for everybody. Prices are almost double. A standard hotel room in Paris right now is $2,000.”
Her clients usually prefer to stay in private homes and on boats, anyway, but this year everything is supersized. “Villas are quadrupled, yachts are 300 feet … [my clients] are going big, and they’re bringing their whole families.”
But this frenzy among the billionaire set may not be enough to offset the damage, and to European cities in particular. Tourist meccas such as Venice and Florence have seen their economies decimated by the dearth of day-trippers, who temporarily flood the streets, spend with abandon, and then head home, making way for the next wave.
For Emily FitzRoy, it’s finally a good time to see the Tintorettos. A London-based travel consultant whose firm, Bellini Travel, is the go-to resource for exclusive experiences in Italy, she is advising clients for the first time in her career to immerse themselves in Venice, Portofino, and Capri during the summer months.
“Once the cruise ships stop, there are no longer thousands of people in those little streets,” she says. “In April, I was in the Duomo in Florence on my own at nine o’clock in the morning—not one other person in there!” she recalls. And even if the five-star hotels are booked, there is still availability at private apartments, especially since many of the Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders who usually rent them are staying home this summer due to strict quarantine restrictions.
FitzRoy prides herself on providing authentic experiences—she updates her custom, painstakingly detailed guides to each region before every season. But she is no longer advising her clients to arrange after-hours tours of sites such as the Sistine Chapel. “Now, I’ve slightly shot myself in the foot—I’m telling people it’s just not worth it to go privately,” she says. “Just go at lunch, and there won’t be many people there anyway.”
Restaurants and bars in many European cities have been open for only a matter of weeks, and so travelers should expect to encounter ever so slightly altered universes.
“It’s the one-man bands who have really suffered—our drivers, our guides, the little coffee shops in Venice, but the Italian approach is very different from ours,” says FitzRoy, citing the attitude of an Italian friend whose business was badly hit during the pandemic: “Come on, Emily, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve got the olive oil, we’ve got our wine … and look at this view!”
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for Air Mail