“Luxury shame:” traveling in the new economy

USA Today looks at luxury vacation downsizing:

“Luxury shame is very real,” says travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research. “When your neighbors are losing their jobs and you’re doing well, you don’t flaunt your success. Of course, there are still people who will continue to enjoy the fruits of their success. They may still rent the beachfront home and continue to fly in the G5 and tool around in the leased Bentley, but they’re not going to go home and brag that that’s what they did on vacation.”

In a recent survey of travelers’ intentions, Forrester found the solidly middle class intended to cut back on travel, but so did 28% of those with household incomes of $100,000 and above. “It shows that the well-to-do are not being spared by this recession,” says Harteveldt.

Neither are the wealthy, even if it’s just for appearances’ sake. One of Yale’s best clients canceled a pricey trip to Asia explaining, ” ‘It’s too embarrassing to tell anyone I took a $40,000 vacation,’ ” she says.

Josh Friedman, a luxury travel consultant in San Francisco, relates how a wealthy Pasadena couple, “the kind of people who book $3,000-a-night suites,” called him to say they’re cutting back 50% on everything and had him redeem frequent-flier miles for a trip to the East Coast. Another client who booked a $30,000 luxury European cruise with extra nights in Athens and Rome lopped a night off to assuage his guilt over spending so much. It cut the price by a mere $1,000 or so, but “it made him happy,” says Friedman. “He realizes times are tough.”…

But in some quarters, lean times have sparked a shift in marketing messages. The Ritz-Carlton chain, which in the past has trumpeted luxury amenities bordering on the absurd (bath butler, anyone?), is playing up its altruistic side. Give Back Getaways, launched in April, puts willing guests in a half-day local volunteer effort. Response so far has not been huge, says spokeswoman Sue Stephenson, but a sister program, Meaningful Meetings, which donates 10% of a participating group’s room revenues to charity, has resulted in $420,000 in donations since 2007.

Virtuoso, a travel-agent network that specializes in luxury travel, has similarly tweaked its message. In December, it launched a “Return on Life” advertising campaign that stresses authenticity over opulence.

“People are traveling less for bragging rights these days,” says Virtuoso spokeswoman Misty Ewing. “Luxury travel had an (image) of self-indulgence. But the mind-set has changed. It’s really about wanting to spend quality time with family and friends.”

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