As senior vice president, luxury brands for Marriott International, Chris Gabaldon has had a unique perspective on Covid-19 and its effect on luxury travel. But now that the world is deep into the vaccination process – roughly 31 percent of Americans are said to be fully vaccinated – he’s feeling optimistic that luxury travel is back, and he’s got the bookings to prove it. Gabaldon leads global brand operations and marketing for the company’s luxury portfolio – more than 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 enriching experiences that today’s modern luxury traveler craves. We sat down with Gabaldon to talk top travel trends, emerging destinations, and which properties he’s most excited to open.
Marriott International’s luxury brands reported an uptick in business, specifically within the leisure space. To what do you attribute this increase in bookings?
With so many people forced to put travel plans on hold for the past year, there is incredible pent-up demand, specifically for leisure travel. People are ready to see friends and family, explore and make up for missed milestones. With the news of vaccine approvals here in the United States, there’s been an incredible optimism felt towards travel and hospitality. The vaccination rate continues to increase and, with the CDC recently announcing that it’s safe for vaccinated people to travel without testing and quarantine restrictions, Marriott International has felt an immediate impact in leisure bookings both in the short term as well as advanced bookings as far out as the holiday season in destinations such as the Caribbean and Mexico. In other parts of the world, such as in China and across the Middle East, regional travel continues to drive demand across our luxury portfolio.
Are you finding leisure bookings outpacing demand for group or business travel?
We’re seeing record breaking numbers across our portfolio in select markets. In March the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa had the most leisure room nights on the books in the hotel’s history, and April is on track to break March’s record. Similarly, both The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island and JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort are seeing leisure bookings outpacing pervious years in its summer months. The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Nigel is recording one of its highest leisure revenues in the 36-year history of the resort. While leisure demand is driving reservations, wedding business is also starting to return to pre-pandemic levels at select properties, and we are starting to see an increase in requests for smaller incentive groups.
Now that vaccinations are rolling out globally, are there other markets now leading this return?
It fluctuates, but bright spots include Greater China, Australia, Korea, Maldives, vacation drive-destinations in the United States and locations 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 the demand beginning to expand more broadly across out 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 to get underway. The recent news that France would reopen its borders in early May to vaccinated Americans was another positive development.
With U.S. travelers looking to stay closer to home, have you seen an increase in demand at your domestic hotels and resorts?
Over the summer and holidays especially, our North American hotels and resorts are seeing an increase in reservations from domestic leisure travelers. When, perhaps, in years past people may have looked to travel abroad over these periods, they are now discovering incredible hospitality experiences closer to home. Destinations like South Florida, Aspen, Savannah, Nashville, among others, are all becoming epicenters of leisure travel, and we anticipate this continuing into fall and winter.
Which markets are seeing an increase in off-season bookings? Are any destinations seeing their peak seasons expand?
Across our resort portfolio, we are seeing cities once thought of as seasonal destinations now in demand year-round. Our mountain resorts are great examples. The St. Regis Aspen Resort is recording increased demand for July and August, and The St. Regis Deer Valley is seeing an unprecedented increase for July and August compared to the same time last year, driven by leisure business. Additionally, in warmer weather destinations, the season is noticeable expanding.
Are you seeing any new trends or surprising booking patterns for summer 2021 and beyond? Are travelers still planning trips relatively last minute or are they booking farther in advance?
March and April reservations at our luxury properties were largely coming from last-minute bookings, but as we look toward the second half of this year, we have begun to see bookings farther in advance. The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch already has demand for next ski season with holiday and President’s Day bookings outpacing last year. From September on, Solaz, a Luxury Collection Resort, Los Cabos is almost fully booked driven by group and leisure travel. We attribute this to increase confidence in the ability to safely travel as the vaccination rate increases. We are also seeing a continued demand for longer stays, up to two and three week stays for families at some of our properties.
Last summer, travel seemed to focus on drivable destinations and road trips. Will this continue or do you feel we will see people looking to farther flung destinations?
Last year brought back the summer road trip, and this year is giving us the summer of private aviation. While our luxury guests continue to seek out room categories – like suites or villas – that offer more space and privacy, that is extending to how they arrive at a destination as well. For example, we have seen an increase in private charters to our luxury properties over the past year, a trend we expect to continue. As vaccinations continue to roll out globally, people are also beginning to feel more comfortable hitting the road. And, as travel returns, I think we are going to be seeing 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 are going to see people deciding that now is the moment for those once in a lifetime trips, to places like the Maldives. One thing we are already seeing here in the U.S. is interest in “second-tier cities.” Our luxury properties in places like Savannah and Nashville are already benefiting from heightened demand.
Can you tell me about the significance of the brand extension with The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection debuting later this fall? How has the appetite for this new luxury experience been impacted by current travel trends?
With its slated launch this fall, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection will carve out an entirely unique space in the industry and deliver an experience designed to be highly curated and personalized. Demand remains high, especially for 2022 and beyond. February and March marked the best months of booking since we first opened sales in 2018. One of the benefits of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection is that guests have the ability to extend their stay with us pre and post voyage, enjoying Marriott International luxury brand properties in the different destinations which the yacht will sail. We expect people to take advantage this seamless 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 an expected 10 in the brand’s pipeline. Does this signal a shift in focus toward expanding in leisure destinations?
This is an incredibly exciting moment, as this resort is also our first Marriott International luxury brand property on this island, which is such an iconic leisure destination. We are really going to redefine luxury in Bermuda. And it’s not just St. Regis – we have some truly outstanding resort properties opening up across our broader luxury portfolio. In June, The Ritz-Carlton brand will debut in the Maldives offering the very best in barefoot luxury, in addition to opening in Turks & Caicos – another first for our luxury brands portfolio. Later this summer, W Algarve will offer a new option for travelers to Portugal’s famed southern coast. As multigenerational travel and longer-term stays look to be trends continuing in the post-pandemic era, resort offerings are an increasing appealing and important arm of our luxury portfolio.