Tom Marchant, co-founder of high-end travel agency Black Tomato, explains how the pandemic has altered the sort of holiday experiences luxury consumers see as aspirational, what the work-from-anywhere revolution looks like at the top of the food chain, the (eventual) return of city-centre hotels, and adapting to a post-plane world.

Do you think the last year has caused any fundamental shifts in how your clients approach travel? 

TOM MARCHANT : As a bespoke travel company, we've always endeavoured to be able to do the impossible for our clients. That attitude has remained the same but it's just been applied to slightly different things, not just necessarily the fantastic experiences we can create in different places around the world, but also the functional aspects of where we can actually get people to. The watchwords now are flexibility and agility. For our team it was clear that our role as advisors was becoming more apparent, rather than just someone who inspires.

In terms of how the pandemic has altered travel intentions, our clients’ responses have been mixed. Some have taken the approach that, when they travel again, they’re looking to do something that's just off the scale and life-affirming. Alongside that, however, is definitely a more centred approach to travel, where clients are looking for remoteness and real solitude, places where they can just breathe in the surrounding scenery. We’ve certainly had people ask us to simply get them away to the wilderness with just their family and a few bookings for two weeks of headspace.

Has what travellers prioritize in their accommodation changed?

Expectations have changed, but in a way they’ve changed around things that guests at this level should really already be receiving as standard, foremost around levels of hygiene. But to give you some insight into the ways those conversations are evolving, when some guests are enquiring about hotel accommodation,  they want to know the distance from their door to other guests’ rooms, literally down to the metre, or they want to know the details of how room service will be delivered. As an extension of that, we've definitely seen an increase in requests for either private properties or hotels that can offer private accommodation within the wider facility.

If you look at somewhere like, say, Amangiri, a hideaway in Canyon Point, Utah, they’ve opened Camp Sarika. That offers guests the ability to stay in these beautiful private pavilions in remote areas where it’s very easy to isolate, but still provide great facilities and incredible service. That addition predates the pandemic, but is exemplary of what guests are looking for. Another place that’s just opened up in Norway is Aurora Lodge, by renowned architect Snorre Stinessen. That has again proved popular because it’s secluded but it still provides the right standard of accommodation. These are the types of property people are looking for.

That whole shift in expectations towards finding deeply private places impacts across the industry. Even in more traditional hotels, the ability to check yourself in and out without having to enter any sort of waiting area has really taken on greater importance. I believe a lot of these changes will remain after the pandemic, because, simply put, it’s a better experience. If you can travel entirely privately from your front door to your holiday accommodation, without any friction or interruption, that’s something people will continue to seek.

What does that mean for city-based venues? 

Some of the things we loved about travel before COVID won’t disappear, such as staying in a buzzy bustling hotel, the sort of places that trade primarily on the atmosphere created by people, pace and energy. That should give the owners of city hotels hope; it's really clear to me that people still like being around people. Indeed we’ve already got clients making bookings for 2022, when they anticipate that these properties will be full of life again. The way many city-centre properties have innovated over the last year, repurposing spaces such a rooftops as restaurants, creating new revenue streams, will help them be more resilient moving forward.

Aurora Lodge, by architect Snorre Stinessen, is situated in the remote Lyngen Alps of Norway, one of the best places in the world to observe the Northern Lights. Photos: Courtesy of Black Tomato

Is the work-from-anywhere revolution impacting high-end travel?

We have seen a number of people going from taking an extended break and then saying, actually, I can make this work from here. Especially since schools started online teaching, we have had a number of clients who have been moving around to various remote locations with their family.

Facilitating some of these moves, seeing people up sticks and create a home in a new place and helping them discover incredible experiences with their children during what’s been a very dark period, it's been a really joyous thing to be involved. They’re working or studying during the day and then we’ve been programming things in for them during the morning, evenings and weekends. When school is back, it will bring families back because they want to be near certain schools and communities. For individuals and young couples, however, I think having that flexibility will be part of how companies now attract talent.

It's a different style of holiday with a different mindset. People are away, but they’re also available – they may have found a great house in Joshua Tree to do some work and then go for a hike when they have a break in their commitments; it's just a new form of travel. For hospitality brands trying to adjust to that trend, the focus really has to be on the infrastructure, the ability to help people move from one place to another seamlessly.

As consumers across all demographics become more sustainability minded, air travel is becoming evermore contentious. How is that impacting luxury travel? 

There’s certainly a shift in ethos towards this idea of ‘low and slow’ in luxury travel, which translates into a lot more journeys by motor vehicle and train and less of an emphasis on flying by default. There’s more of a sense of calm and, even though people are desperate to travel, there’s a greater desire to take their time that contrasts with the frenetic nature of some pre-COVID itineraries.

The largest share of our clients are in the US, so we had a US product portfolio before COVID happened, but we quickly sought to strengthen it.  For instance we created a partnership with Auberge hotels and Mercedes based on a series of iconic road trips across the states. We had to show to our clients that we knew the US well enough to still introduce them to new experiences, even when they couldn’t travel further than their own country.

We've definitely seen an uptick in train journeys through Europe and the States. I’m increasingly getting asked to consult by a lot of people looking to enter the luxury train game, so I can tell you that we’re going to see more in that world; there's some really special stuff coming out. Companies like Belmond are setting the standard there.

Cover image: Camp Sarika offers guests the ability to match high levels of isolation with equally high levels of service. Photo: Courtesy of Amangiri