Executive view 2023: Roeland Vos, CEO of Belmond

2022 was one of the best years ever for about 70% of our businesses around the world. Local markets were very important, and it was a remarkable thing to be able to see that you don’t have to travel around the world — that you can travel within driving distances or within three-hour flights — and create a wonderful experience for your family or loved ones. People truly changed their habits, staying closer to home and enjoying that.

At the same time, especially beginning midyear, long-haul travel came back, as well. So, we had local European travelers booking into our hotels, trains, cruises and boats, and then on top of that, Americans and South Americans coming in. That created a bonanza of business for us in 2022.

When I look at 2023, I see more of the same. Even better. North America is an extremely important outbound market for us. Before, people coming from the U.S. would do Paris, London, Rome and then two or three destinations within Italy and say, “Wonderful. I’ve done Europe.” Now, they will go to one or two locations and go much deeper. Special entrances, special food, special beverages, that special bakery around the corner. People want to hear stories, but more than that, they want to live the stories.

And that takes more time. It’s slow travel. It’s what we do with our trains, with our boats. Our boats are slower than slow — you can’t go any slower without going backward. But it allows you to really sink into the local culture of the Champagne region. It takes a lot of time, but it’s memories that you will never forget. That’s where the educated traveler is nowadays. They’ve seen all the glitzy stuff. This is what they’re looking for.

Before Covid, brands were all about being your home away from home. I think that has changed. What I now expect is that people will want to experience the home of friends who live in that location and who share what their passions are. What is their favorite pub? Where is their favorite bakery? Where is it that they go on weekends? Where do they ride their bikes? Guests want to experience the truth that’s underlying the destination they’re visiting.

This is why I don’t think pent-up demand is going to die off. It will change. There will be some people who will say, “OK, now I’ve resumed traveling for the last two or three years, I won’t travel as much.” But, I think that as long as we continue to create experiences like I just described, experiences that people have not seen, it will not die off. Personally, the more I travel, the more I realize how little I’ve seen.

The other trend that is very clear is that people travel for longer time periods and in bigger packs. Not groups but family travel, where they’ll take a whole villa or boat. We’ve seen more buyouts last year than ever. It’s about the intimacy but, at the same time, the security of being with your loved ones. I don’t think that will go away.

2022 is ending stronger than 2019 — it will be our new reference point — and bookings for the coming two quarters look stronger in nearly all areas than what we had in 2022. For the upcoming season, most of our places are booked out. In Mexico, we have a new property coming online, Moroma, on the Riviera Maya. It isn’t even open yet, but prebookings look very good. Brazil and Peru were very strong from local markets last year, and we’re seeing international coming in now, which is very helpful. Peru recently lagged because of the political situation, but it is starting to pick up. Last year was very difficult for South Africa and Botswana, but now — last week, in fact, it was really very good.

Asia is the area where we still see that things are slower. But the fact that all our properties have now reopened is very good news.

Our exposure to China is very limited. We have a Chinese contingent of customers, but they were easily replaced. So once that starts opening up, it’s only upside.

We had to make a tremendous effort to scale up staff, not just the quantity but also the quality. The interesting part is that, in the beginning, right after properties reopened, people were so happy to travel again that they were willing to accept the fact that it was difficult. But that didn’t last very long.

I don’t want to sound cocky, but I think people in our travel segments are less impacted by inflation than other people. The increases are a much smaller piece of their overall spending power. Wealthy people are much less touched. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact of life and of math. The inflation rate will go down in a year or two, but the prices will probably stay. 

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