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Friday, May 23, 2008

Plan Less, Travel More, Grab a Bargain



Abandon your plans, throw away the brochures and take the flight of fancy. Jump into the swirling pool of last minute travel opportunities and see where you end up. Roderick Eime dares you.

For many, the family holiday is as meticulously planned as a military operation. Timetables, visas, schedules and check-in/check outs all conspire to make vacation planning as stressful as the life we are attempting to escape from. How about throwing plans out the window and trying some of the many “last minute” travel, holiday and adventure possibilities flourishing on the ‘net?

It’s no secret that hotel and resort bookings can be found on the Internet at rock bottom prices, especially if you seek them out close to your anticipated travel time.

Industry leader in what the trade calls “distressed inventory” is perhaps the website www.wotif.com which currently offers more than 10,000 properties in 40 countries and books almost 3 million room nights each year – numbers that grow every day.

“Large hotels will always drop their rates if they look like getting stuck with unoccupied rooms,” advises Carolyn Prendergast from Wotif.com, “a conference cancellation, for example, can result in a lot of empty rooms at short notice and this is the time to act. The downside, if there is one, is that it might not be the exact hotel in the preferred location, but that’s the fun of it.”

Prendergast also says slightly out-of-the-way locations, serviced apartments and avoiding peak times should be considered.

About 12 months ago, the other industry leader, lastminute.com.au, announced Secret Hotels, a stealthy plot to offer premium 5-star properties at bargain basement rates.

"Secret Hotels is the proactive way for hotels to sell discounted rooms without fear of brand erosion because the hotel name is not advertised to the general public. The results have been incredible; with some hotels selling in excess of 1000 room nights in a single month, which would otherwise have stayed empty," says Brad Gurrie, General Manager Hotels at lastminute.com.au.

Recent examples from the Secret Hotel menu include rates as low as $155 per person, per night twin share for 5-star Sydney CBD hotel. Full relaxation or naughty weekend packages are well under $400 per couple per night and often include such niceties as spa treatments, champagne, chocolates, premium in-room movies, full breakfast or even dinner. A spokesperson for lastminute.com.au was tight-lipped about which properties are participating in the programme, but would neither confirm nor deny such landmark Sydney hotels as Marriott, InterContinental, Park Hyatt, Four Seasons or Amora Jamison.

Tip: Wotif.com offers a similar service with their WotHotel? listings at their site.

Lastminute.com.au is quick to remind us that their array of product extends well beyond crisp linen and comfy pillows. If you’re on a loose end, you could choose from a joyride in an authentic combat fighter, bunk down with the animals at Taronga Zoo, skydive or go rally driving in a fully-tricked Subaru WRX. These spontaneous activities can set you back up to $750pp, but for penny-pinchers, why not take The Rocks Ghost Tour and be scared witless for just $34.

Fancy a Cruise?

Just like hotel rooms, cruise lines must fill cabins and there are some wild bargains to be had.

Since launching in 2000 with just two staff, on-line cruise agency, www.ecruising.travel, has grown on the back of Australians’ love of the cruise ship product to become one of Australia’s top cruise-only agents with over 30 consultants.

“Even though we are not strictly a ‘last minute’ agent, we have sold thousands of cabins through our ability to reach people quickly and efficiently via the ‘net and through our regular newsletter,” says ecruising.travel MD Brett Dudley. “Cruisers have become used to finding amazing cruise bargains at our site. They can find a cruise and be booked and ticketed, with flights if needed, often in less than an hour and sometimes sail within a few days.”

Dudley advises that it is often the less desirable cabins, low and inside, that cruise lines find harder to sell. If you don’t care for a balcony or an owners’ suite, then all your other shipboard facilities are equal. Savings of up to 65 per cent are possible and Dudley predicts that with P&O’s newer, much larger Pacific Dawn now in Australia, bargains will be easier to find.

Timing is Everything

Just as airlines have peak, shoulder and off-peak times, so too have hotels, resorts, cruise lines and experiential products. Needless to say, the holiday crush is the least likely time to yield bargains, but if you can defer to outside peak seasons, your savings will quickly add up.

Tip: Stay flexible with travel times and be ready to pounce on a deal as soon as you see it. If you wanted to travel on Friday but there’s a better deal on Saturday, consider changing your plans slightly.

And don’t give up. Keep checking the sites regularly, maybe even more than once per day, as the dynamic information can, and does, change any time.

Don’t fixate on a destination. You just want a getaway at the right price, yeah? Look in the general regions and states. For example, if you can’t get the deal you want in Surfers Paradise, there may be a better offer from Noosa, Townsville or Cairns. That’s the joy of spontaneity!

Stay Connected

Every travel supplier will want you to stay in touch with them regularly, and why not? Each one has their own bulletin and newsletter packed with opportunities and must conform to stringent e-mail privacy guidelines. You can opt out at any time and just get the information when you want it.

Get a Lesson in Life

It’s a great double header to snare a deal and have great holiday, but to spice the recipe with spontaneity can add an element that might lift your next vacation from routine to truly memorable.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Last Mahouts



They stood before us like condemned men, their proud tradition and heritage had run its course. These well-weathered, handsome men of the jungle were the last real mahouts, trained in the ancient and dangerous art of wild elephant capture.

The mighty Asian elephant has featured large in Asian culture for centuries. This enormous beast, a perennial symbol of strength and power, has been tamed and trained to perform in a variety of roles in agriculture, royal ceremonies, circuses and even combat.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Brand of the Long White Cloud

Published Sunday Telegraph Escape - 6 May 2007 - © Roderick Eime [PDF]



“New Zealand. Show me one good thing about it,” asked a cynical Peter FitzSimons in Tourism NZ’s highly successful 2004 TV campaign. His artificial rhetoric has come home and our Kiwi cousins are basking in tourism success.

Of course, catalysts like Lord of the Rings and even Zena, Warrior Princess catapulted New Zealand’s spectacular scenery and landscapes onto the world stage. Almost at once, Middle Earth and 100% Pure New Zealand were indistinguishable.

I’ve made three trips across the Tasman in as many years and one thing that sticks with me is the Kiwis’ consummate expertise in service excellence. And not just the five star hotels and resorts in which they excel, but right down to the little corner shop. Regular folks, it seems, are ready to go the extra mile for visitors, something I’m sure we don’t manage here at home. “Youse right there?” I still get from staff at large retailers here when I attempt to interrupt their leisure time behind the counter.

Eco-tourism, adventure tourism, adrenalin jumps, luxury lodges and indigenous tourism are all putting a swagger into the step of the New Zealand tourism industry as they command world attention and premium pricing for their products.

“The fact is, times are good and high-end American travellers generally remain unflustered by the lofty rates,” asserts de luxe maestro, Andrew Harper, editor of the salubrious Hideaway Report.

But for just how long can they keep it up?

The luxury sector for example, is a wriggly one and hard to define. What is luxury exactly and who exactly is buying it? For some clues on this I consulted a panel of of acknowledged luxury experts:

“First of all you must define just what luxury is. Luxury isn’t just a commodity. It is a rare quality that isn’t available in abundance,” explains Welf J Ebeling, Executive Vice President and COO of The Leading Hotels of the World (LHW).

“The upscale traveller wants authenticity and individuality when he travels, especially for leisure. They are looking for an experience that matches the destination and the cultural and natural environment. And of course, the human touch, service.”

And New Zealand has produced some eye-popping examples of blockbuster locations for their lodges. Take Huka, Grasmere, Peppers on the Point and Blanket Bay to name just a few. Ebeling was in this part of the world for a good reason. He was having a darned good look at these properties for his company which already has nearly 500 elite establishments in its portfolio. Just not enough down here.

And they’re getting the asking price, for now. All-inclusive tariffs for the Kiwi properties listed above start at $1000 per couple per night. No tyre-kickers here thank you.

So what does this mean?

For this one I asked Richard Rosebery, executive director, Select Hotels and Resorts International. The NZ “super lodges”, as he calls them, have earned their prestige, position and pricing, but concedes there is downward pressure on tariffs generally.

“Australia’s problem,” he proclaims with gusto, “is that we are underpriced! Traditionally our (marketing) reaction has been to discount in the event of crisis. We seem to be forever trying to recover our tariffs, not grow them. And even though our friends the Kiwi’s may have to moderate only slightly, their lower dollar keeps them attractive.”

In pulling this rationale together, Richard views the problem as more on our side of the “ditch.

“So, in effect, we have the best value up-market lodges here, but the danger is that they become potentially unprofitable.

To illustrate his point, an equivalent all-inclusive package at the glorious Cape Lodge on WA’s Margaret River is roughly half of the NZ rate.

Across the street, Lynn Ireland, regional director, Asia Pacific, Small Luxury Hotels of the World says the luxury travel market is extremely resilient and New Zealand, in particular, has demonstrated stalwart “year-on-year” growth.

“Pricing may sometimes be adjusted due to seasonality, events or trends in the market; however these have not been significant, remaining at a maximum (negative swing) of 7 per cent on average rate over the toughest times,” says Lynn.

“Australians are actually the second largest market for New Zealand SLH properties and the third largest worldwide. How about that?”

So despite our convict upbringing and propensity for underarm deliveries, we are waking up to luxury products and falling in line with international luxury buyers.

As a person intimately in touch with the luxury travel mindset, Claudia Rossi Hudson, managing director, Mary Rossi Travel is quick to acknowledge the growing sophistication of the discerning Australian clientele.

“New Zealand was once the preferred budget blue rinse destination but, to the credit of Tourism NZ, it has completely turned around,” says Claudia, “clients are often surprised at the range of superb properties across the Tasman.”

And what about Australia’s perception in the luxury destination market compared to New Zealand?

”I don't think Australia’s international marketing is doing any favours for our best properties. Shrimps on barbies and ‘bloody hells’ are not raising our profile in this segment,” concludes Claudia with thinly disguised understatement.

And the luxury market is changing all over the world as countries like China, India and Russia soar headfirst into the rarefied atmosphere of the high flyers.

Robb Report’s Chief Luxury Officer, Carol Brodie, says “The whole face of luxury is changing. Even though luxury consumers across different cultural backgrounds have one thing in common, namely wealth, their desires, passions and interests are very different. They are attracted to luxury brands, but they want different things from each brand.”

So how is this forever shifting landscape going to affect us? Will we entice the nouveau luxophiles from China and the sub-continent, growing at a rate of 15 per cent per annum according to BNP Paribas’s World Luxury Index, or will our barbies and bikini bottoms send them scurrying for the Kiwi alternative? Watch this space.