How has COVID-19 changed affluent travel in the South of France & beyond? Local luxury real estate brokers St Tropez House and Cap Villas share and compare their data with other sources.
 
Bookings

High-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth travellers have been more willing to make plans despite Coronavirus restrictions, showing a heightened resilience thanks to their affluence and heightened experience of travelling. Insight from global travel network Virtuoso shows that wealthy travellers are more comfortable with booking holidays as normal and simply waiting to see whether they can go.This perhaps explains why St Tropez holiday rental agency St Tropez House noticed a 28% growth in rentals from 2019 to 2020, despite COVID-19 meaning that travel and holiday rental was out of the question for a significant part of the year.Let’s compare this to the occupation rate in 4 and 5 star hotels in France, which experienced a 26.1% drop when comparing from October 2019 and October 2020, according to data from specialist firm MKG. This is likely due to the close proximity that people are in while staying in a hotel, when compared to a private villa with plenty of its own land.

How businesses enticed clients

Both St Tropez House and French Riviera holiday let agency Cap Villas report that in order to encourage bookings and allow clients to view accommodation in a safe way, luxury travel businesses all over the world had to rethink their marketing strategies to make them COVID-proof.This has seen the introduction of 360° videos to better display features and entice clients, social media Ask Me Anything sessions replacing client lunches, and digital tours replacing physical ones, to name just a few changes.

Length of stay

The average length of stay at St Tropez House’s rental properties has grown compared to last year. In 2019, the average stay was two weeks, while in 2020 the average stay was 3.5 weeks, likely indicating people wanting to make the most of their holiday in a time when many of us didn’t know when our next chance to escape would be. St Tropez House also noticed something it had never experienced before: certain clients who had already booked extending their stay, on average by 25% compared to the original length of their stay.This correlates with information from Virtuoso, which says that HNW holidayers have been booking short stays for working vacations with their families and then extending as restrictions change and they perhaps realise there is no point rushing back, with the extra financial cost being no problem.

Cancellations

The uncertainty of 2020 has led to a change in the contracts of many businesses in the luxury travel industry working with HNW and UHNWIs. Companies such as yacht charter agencies, villa let businesses and hotels have felt pressure to modify their contracts to allow clients to rebook or cancel their holidays as needed in the light of the pandemic.Both Cap Villas and St Tropez House updated their policies on cancellation, and an investigation by Elite Traveller shows that the vast majority of luxury hotel groups also updated their cancellation rules during the COVID-19 crisis, in order to ensure guests did not lose out financially.St Tropez House witnessed an increase in cancellations in 2020, rising from one in ten in 2019 to three in ten last year. Out of these, 70% of St Tropez House’s holiday rental clients were moved to 2021 and 30% were simply refunded. The vast majority of cancellations came from the UK, where the situation seemed to be most volatile due to ever-changing restrictions.

Transport

Some 35% of St Tropez House clients came by private jet during COVID times – a significant increase from 15% in 2019, driven by the wish to travel safely and avoid being in the same space as other travellers.This aligns with data from private jet firms such as VistaJet, which charters private jets through a membership program and reported that July 2020 saw a 320% increase in new memberships compared to July 2019. Fractional jet ownership business NetJets also reported that between January and October 2020 they saw three times as many new customers as the same period in 2019.

Nationality of HNW travellers

St Tropez House noticed that no clients from the USA, Russia, Middle East, South America – nationalities who do typically book its holiday lets in the South of France – booked to stay in 2020.Instead, St Tropez House saw an influx of more local clients, likely because it was easier to make the journey due to proximity and travel corridors. For example, the number of clients coming from nearby Monaco rose by 250%, while there was an 80% rise in those coming from Switzerland.This correlates with a wider uptick in staycations in the luxury market, with many feeling their way back into travelling through more local holidays (according to Hong Kong Tatler).

New priorities

When looking for villas, both Cap Villas and St Tropez House clients in 2020 prioritised privacy and a larger land. Many were essentially looking for a ‘quarantine villa’ – somewhere they could hunker down with their bubble and enjoy a bigger space and change of scene. As such, Cap Villas and St Tropez House spotted new trends in demands for online shopping and private chefs, avoiding the need for clients to ever leave their holiday property.

Rumble Romagnoli, president of luxury digital agency Relevance, which specialises in targeting UHNW clients, confirms that demand for these convenient enjoy-at-home services is something he has seen across multiple clients in the travel and hospitality industry.

This can be compared to previous years, where priorities from St Tropez House and Cap Villas guests have included a close proximity to the town centre, restaurants and boutiques.

Cosette Cutrara, Client Relations Manager at Cap Villas, says:“In the midst of COVID 19 we have witnessed some unprecedented shifts in villa rentals along the French Riviera. Not only has our client demographic changed dramatically to be mostly European but also their criteria has changed, for example fully staffed villas have become more sought after than ever before.”
 
Emilia Jedamska, Booking Manager at St Tropez House, says:“My high-net worth clients are moving further and further away from hotels and requesting villas for longer periods of time and with more spacious land, creating their own private oasis separated from the outside world.”