Special report: Experiential travel

Cookson Adventures didn’t say no when a client asked whether it could guarantee a sighting of the unpredictable northern lights. Instead, the tour operator contacted its friends at Nasa, who studied the sky and managed to pinpoint the most reliable global location. 

Landing on an extremely remote part of Norway, the only viable accommodation in the vicinity was a frozen-over fishing hut. Cookson’s team spent a week dethawing it and furnishing it with candles, furs and heat lamps. As it turns out, the client got four full days of swirling, green magic.

For brands such as Cookson Adventures, it’s just another day in the office. Experiential travel has hit extraordinary heights in recent years, with an American Express survey finding that 72% of respondents would now rather spend money on experiences than items. As Belmond’s Roeland Vos summarised at Aspire’s Leaders of Luxury conference: “You’ve got two cars, or you’ve bought your second house and you’ve got people saying ‘How much more stuff do I need? What I’m really looking for is an experience that will give me bragging rights and, most importantly, experience rights with family or loved ones’. It’s truly a shift in behaviour of the luxury customer.”

Today’s luxury customer has generally seen and done most things, so agents must think outside the box to meet their clients’demands. Done right, experiential travel holds great rewards; bespoke itineraries curated by the likes of Cookson Adventures, which recently began working with the trade, cost anywhere between £50,000 and £7 million.

Next-level travel

But Cookson Adventures isn’t the only operator pushing the boundaries of experientialtravel. Richard Branson’s space tourism firm, VirginGalactic, is said to be just a few tests away from commercial service (albeit following continued delays), while a number of companies are looking at itineraries using submersibles to visit the Titanic, which lies 3,800 metres below sea level.

Carrier can whisk veteran Italophiles to Andrea Bocelli’s exclusive summer performance in his hometown in Tuscany; theatre lovers to the 2,000-year-old Epidaurus Amphitheatre in Greece; and sporting enthusiasts to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, complete with a stay at the Yas Hotel.

TCS World Travel, which offers private jet expeditions, recently unveiled a partnership with genealogy research firm, Heritage Consulting, to plan personalised ‘Legacy Journeys’ based on guests’ ancestry, from meeting distant cousins in an ancestral village to following in a great-grandparent’s footsteps to the fields or factory where they worked. 

Family is one of the largest factors driving the experiential travel trend. Cookson’s business development manager Amanda Pezzaniti said holidays for multigenerational families made up “most” of its bookings, while Abercrombie & Kent also reported big spend for special family holidays. The tour operator recently designed a £150,000 trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar for a family celebrating multiple retirements, birthdays and anniversaries. The group was treated to a private Maasai ceremony in the Ngorongoro Crater, exclusive bush dinners overlooking the Serengeti and a pop-up cinema screeningof The Lion Kingfor the kids. 

A rosy future

Demand for such experiences is set to grow further. Elegant Resorts said it had also seen an increase in demand for big‑ticket experiences, citing clients’ need to “tick off their bucket lists” and the rise of experience hotels opening in “incredible” locations. Senior product manager Paul Britchford recommends: “The One&Only Gorilla’s Nest in Rwanda to see the famed mountain gorillas; the Aman Summer Palace inside the grounds of this national treasure [in Beijing]; and Scenic Eclipse – the first luxury exploration yacht.” 

VIP concierge services such as Velocity Blackare also thriving, in spite of the invitation-only, £2,000 annual membership fee. With Gigi Hadid, Ellie Goulding and Poppy Delevingne among its clientele, the app can book everything from exclusive dinner reservations and tickets to sold-out shows to flying to the edge of space. The impossible, it seems, is no longer off the table.

Ask the expert

“When looking for a holiday for the more adventurous client we recommend finding out their reason for travelling," says Julie Barker, head of reservations and operations at Carrier. "Experiential travel means different things to different people so find out what they hope to achieve from the trip, what gets them excited – are they eco conscious, animal mad or adrenaline junkies? If they are travelling as a family, what makes all of the family happy? Having this information allows you to personalise a trip.”

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