Luxury travel, even for business, continues its comeback from the depths of the recession, the industry is finding.
But an erratic economy is making for a slowand spotty return that remains below the highflying days before thefinancial collapse of 2008.
The investmentbankers, Wall Street lawyers and other elite business travelers servedby high-end travel service Ovation Travel, for instance, are buying just3% more first-class airline tickets this year than they were last year,according to Ovation senior executive Michael Steiner.
"It'sthe same as last year, which for some people is a good sign," he says.It could be worse. Despite continued economic uncertainties, he says,Ovation's corporate clients have eased up on the restrictive ticketpolicies they imposed in 2009.
Where Ovationand luxury hotel chains Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons have seensignificant growth in business is in business meetings and specialevents.
GROUP BOOKINGS UP
Ovation'sbookings jumped 15% this year over last year, and clients are back tobooking four- and five-star hotels for their corporate retreats andother gatherings, Steiner says.
"During the recession, forget it. There was nothing going on," he says.
Duringthe last three to four months, Marriott International's Ritz-Carltonhas seen the pace of group business bookings for 2013 improve "in thelow single digits" over last year's levels, says Chris Gabaldon, thechain's chief marketing officer.
Some groupsare booking events during off-peak times, he says, which suggeststhey're trying to make their dollars stretch further -- or, better forhotels, seeking to secure events further in advance.
Andwhile companies had been booking smaller meetings instead of thesplashy, high-profile national meetings before the recession, Gabaldonsays, they're starting to enter a cycle in which the bigger meetingsthat are booked further in advance are starting to return.
Theoverall state of travel at Ritz-Carlton will not reach levels seen inthe peak year of 2007, he says, but "next year, we will be reallyclose." Early next year, the chain is on track to reach its revenue peravailable room rates seen in 2007.
LEISURE IS MOST STABLE
Luxury-travel agency network Virtuoso, which covers about 340 agencies in 20 countries, specializes primariy in leisure travel.
Itsays its agents are booking 51% more business this year than 2009.Broken down by category, hotel bookings jumped the most (82%), followedby rental cars (70%), airlines (68%), tours and on-site arrangements(51% apiece) and, finally, cruises (30%).
Ritz-Carlton'sexperience is the same. "The strongest segment by far has beenleisure," Gabaldon says. "The consumer is buying more premium roomsevery year over the previous year.
This year,they'll buy more club rooms and suites vs. last year, and moreocean-view rooms at a higher rate than last year in season.
"One thing they haven't been willing to give up on was a family-oriented vacation," he says.
ForNew Year's Eve 2013, Virtuoso-affiliated travel agent Meg North ofBrownell Travel says she's researching options for a client whorequested unique experiences.
Among theoptions she's come up with: a St. Petersburg, Russia, trip to attend theCzar's Ball, a trip to Australia to ring in the new year at the newlyredone Park Hyatt Sydney or a stay at the InterContinental Hong Kongoverlooking colorful Kowloon Harbor.
MONEY IS NO OBJECT
ShelbyDonley, who bought an existing travel agency in 2008, says her businesshas grown thanks to customers who will spend $20,000 to $50,000 on aweek's vacation.
Some customers, however, havebeen blinking at hotel prices in European capitals, where $1,000 anight may buy only an entry-level room during peak season, she says.
"Rateshave grown so much, so fast. It's the one thing that the Americanmarket's having a hard time adjusting to," says Donley, owner ofPhoenix-based Camelback Odyssey Travel.
KimberlyWilson Wetty of another high-end service, Valerie Wilson Travel,recently arranged a week-long family trip for 18 people to the Casa deCampo resort in the Dominican Republic. With flights, several villas, aprivate chef, private golf lessons and an excursion with an amazingcatamaran, she says the family spent $500,000.
Of course, there's ultrawealthy -- and then just the merely wealthy.
"Theultrawealthy never stopped traveling," Wetty says. "The ones who spentmaybe $15,000 to $20,000 on a week's vacation? They are back."
But money can be a concern for the merely wealthy.
Oneindication: Last month, luxury-tour operator Abercrombie & Kentlaunched a division, Connections by Abercrombie & Kent, that willsell exotic tours at around 30% less than its 50-year-old parent.