As senior vice president of luxury brands for Marriott International, Chris Gabaldon had a unique perspective on Covid-19 and its effects on luxury travel. But now that the world is deeply engaged in the vaccination process – about 31% of Americans are said to be fully vaccinated – he’s optimistic that luxury travel is back, and he has the reservations to prove it. Gabaldon leads global brand operations and marketing for the company’s luxury portfolio – over 440 properties under The Ritz-Carlton, Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Bvlgari Hotels & Resorts, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts, EDITION, The Luxury Collection, JW Marriott and W Hotels – and is busy defining the rare and fulfilling experiences modern luxury travelers need. We caught up with Gabaldon to discuss the top travel trends, emerging destinations, and properties he’s most excited to open.
Marriott International’s luxury brands reported an increase in activity, particularly in the leisure sector. What do you attribute this increase in bookings to?
With so many people forced to put travel plans on hold over the past year, the demand is incredible, especially for leisure travel. People are ready to see friends and family, explore, and catch up on missed milestones. With the news of vaccine approvals here in the United States, there has been incredible optimism about travel and hospitality. The vaccination rate continues to rise, and with the CDC recently announcing that it is safe for those vaccinated to travel without testing or quarantine restrictions, Marriott International has felt an immediate impact on both short-lived leisure bookings. term and advance reservations as far. like the holiday season in destinations such as the Caribbean and Mexico. In other parts of the world, such as China and the Middle East, regional travel continues to drive demand across our luxury portfolio.
Do you find that leisure bookings exceed the demand for group or business travel?
We are seeing record numbers across our portfolio in some markets. In March, the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa recorded the most leisure nights in hotel history, and April is on track to break the March record. Likewise, the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, and JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort see leisure bookings surpass previous years during the summer months. The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Nigel records one of its highest leisure revenues in the resort’s 36-year history. As demand for leisure drives bookings, wedding activities are also starting to return to pre-pandemic levels at some properties, and we’re starting to see an increase in requests from smaller incentive groups.
Now that vaccinations are rolling out globally, are there other markets leading this comeback?
It fluctuates, but the bright spots include Greater China, Australia, Korea, Maldives, US driving vacation destinations, and places like St. Thomas and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and Latin America. These hotels in North America and the Caribbean have seen the immediate impact of this resurgence, and demand begins to grow more broadly in our luxury portfolio as vaccinated Americans look to book international travel in the second half of 2021 and beyond. We hope to see a quick turnaround in Europe as vaccinations continue. The recent announcement that France would reopen its borders in early May to vaccinated Americans was another positive development.
With American travelers looking to stay closer to home, have you seen an increase in demand at your domestic hotels and resorts?
During the summer and vacations in particular, our hotels and resorts in North America are seeing an increase in bookings from domestic pleasure travelers. Where, perhaps, in the past years people may have looked to travel abroad during these times, they are now discovering incredible experiences of welcoming closer to home. Destinations like South Florida, Aspen, Savannah, Nashville, among others, are emerging as leisure travel epicenters, and we expect this to continue into the fall and winter.
Which markets are experiencing an increase in off-season bookings? Are there any destinations that are seeing their peak season expand?
Across our portfolio of resorts, we see cities that were once considered seasonal destinations and are now in demand year round. Our mountain resorts are good examples. The St. Regis Aspen Resort is seeing increased demand for July and August, and the St. Regis Deer Valley is experiencing an unprecedented increase for July and August compared to the same time last year, driven by leisure activities. In addition, in warmer weather destinations, the season is expanding noticeably.
Do you see any new trends or surprising booking models for summer 2021 and beyond? Are travelers still planning trips at the last minute or booking more in advance?
The March and April bookings at our luxury properties were largely from last minute bookings, but as we look into the second half of this year we have started to see bookings more in advance. The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch already has demand for the upcoming ski season with reservations for the Holidays and President’s Day exceeding last year. As of September, Solaz, a luxury collection resort, Los Cabos is almost fully booked due to group and leisure travel. We attribute this to increasing confidence in the ability to travel safely as the vaccination rate increases. We are also seeing continued demand for longer stays, up to two and three week stays for families at some of our properties.
Travel seemed to focus last summer on passable destinations and road trips. Will this continue or do you think we’ll see people looking for more distant destinations?
Last year brought back the summer road trip, and this year brings us the summer of private aviation. As our luxury customers continue to seek room categories – like suites or villas – that offer more space and privacy, this also extends to how they get to their destination. For example, we have seen an increase in private charters at our luxury properties over the past year, a trend that we expect to continue. As vaccinations continue to roll out around the world, people are also starting to feel more comfortable on the road. And, with the return of travel, I think we’re going to see more demand for unique and remote destinations, as people will continue to gravitate to places that offer access to nature and space. And I think we’re going to see people decide that now is the time for these once in a lifetime trips to places like the Maldives. One thing we are already seeing here in the United States is the interest in “second tier cities”. Our luxury properties in places like Savannah and Nashville are already enjoying increased demand.
Can you tell me about the importance of expanding the brand with The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection which will debut later this fall? How has the appetite for this new luxury experience been impacted by current travel trends?
With its launch slated for fall, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection will carve out a space that is entirely unique in the industry and deliver an experience designed to be highly organized and personalized. Demand remains high, especially for 2022 and beyond. February and March have been the best booking months since we first opened sales in 2018. One of the perks of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht collection is that guests have the option of extending their stay with us before and after travel, by taking advantage of the luxury brand Marriott International properties in the various destinations that the yacht will sail. We expect people to take advantage of this unwavering ability to stay with us both on land and at sea.
This year will see the opening of the St. Regis Bermuda, the first of 10 expected in the brand’s pipeline. Does this indicate a shift in focus towards expanding leisure destinations?
It’s an incredibly exciting time, as this resort is also our first Marriott International luxury brand property on this island, which is such an iconic leisure destination. We are truly going to redefine luxury in Bermuda. And it’s not just St. Regis – we have some truly exceptional resort properties opening up in our larger luxury portfolio. In June, the Ritz-Carlton brand will debut in the Maldives offering the best in barefoot luxury, in addition to opening up to the Turks and Caicos Islands – another first for our luxury brand portfolio. Later this summer, W Algarve will offer a new option for travelers to Portugal’s famous south coast. While multigenerational travel and longer stays appear to be continuing trends in the post-pandemic era, resort offerings are increasingly attractive and important in our luxury portfolio.