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Scott Wiseman, President (The Americas), Cox & Kings

wiseman2With a resume including stints at the likes of Abercrombie & Kent, Scott Wiseman is no stranger to globe-spanning, bespoke travel.

Now the president of Cox & Kings’ The Americas, Elite Traveler sat down with Scott to discuss the hottest trends in luxury travel, personal customization, and how Cox & Kings is looking toward the future.

Elite Traveler: As some of our readers may know, you originally worked for Abercrombie & Kent. How did you come to join Cox & Kings?

Scott Wiseman: I joined Cox & Kings about a year ago and have been building off the foundation of that company. The company has been around a long time. It was a franchise model around the world for a long time. Eventually they sold the franchises back into the subsidiary when the American branch was based in Tampa, Florida. Then everything shifted out to LA so I joined them to help grow the brand in the States because, as strange as it is to say, this an emerging market for Cox & Kings. The brand is publically traded on UK and India stock exchange. We’ve been really busy building off of the foundation that has been successful, developing the product teams and a new website. We have a lot of things we still plan to go forward with, and the last year has been exciting.

ET: So you sell to anyone buying in the Americas?

SW: That’s right. Out of the U.S. market we sell pretty much every destination except Australia and New Zealand. We really have this niche market of what I call “exotic cultural wildlife adventures” and as I mentioned earlier, last year exotic European destinations were up 73%. Our number one destinations to Europe are not France or Italy; They are Russia, Turkey, Scandinavia, Iceland, and Croatia. We have this great benefit where you’re in the safety of a global tour operator but you can still have a unique experience in countries that some people aren’t that comfortable discovering on their own. Experiences like that have really been taking off for us and we see it repeating itself everywhere. We are doing Uzbekistan, Papa New Guinea, Madagascar, and Ethiopia, where we just built out two separate programs. It’s been fun because we’ve been refining our niche. We don’t just add a destination to say that we added it. We want to really add value. There is just too much competition today to not do it right.

We are 87% completely custom, independent travel and then we have a small luxury sized groups— about 25 people—are part of our “Discovery Group Journeys”. Those are global products that all the Cox & Kings offices in Australia, the Americas, and the UK sell into. It’s very value-driven and focused on exploration of places such as Uzbekistan, Madagascar and Morocco. Of the 90 discovery programs that are sold, we took 20 of them and guaranteed those departures with a minimum of two people, so we stepped up the game on that front. Then we have our “Dream Trips”, which are run by our Destination Managers. We eliminated the unproductive step in calling a sales team or reservation center. Instead of calling a call center or reservation team, we allow people to speak directly with the product development team which makes a huge difference because now our customers are speaking to people who know those destinations really well and it adds that bespoke element to the experience.

ET: The term luxury is obviously used very broadly but we do have a percentage of our client base that is traveling on private jets; the ultra-high-net-worth client. Are you also doing that level of customization; taking request such as “there are seven of us and we want to go here, here, and here”?

SW: That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’ve worked with everyone from NFL owners to captains of industry, to celebrities. We work with people who use private aviation and they want to work with a company that understands those special needs such as knowing the length of runways all over the world. We also can also source jets for travelers through a couple of companies we work with.

From this, we have picked up on a lot of trends that have been a lot fun over the past year. You hear terms like “family travel” and “multi-generational” all the time, but this year we started to see a nice spread of new trends that stand on their own. One of my favorites is what I call “the quickie”. Now people are packing in destinations on the way back from other vacations. Central America, for example, is really taking off thanks to destinations like Nicaragua and Columbia with people visiting them on their way back for three or four days, as opposed to making them solid destinations that they would spend eight days at. We’re seeing that in Iceland and the Seychelles and that’s been fun because now we are adding destinations that you normally wouldn’t think of adding on. We see a lot of travelers who are short on time, especially in the affluent sector, so we have high-yield trips we’ve developed. Now you can do Antarctica but fly over the Drake Passage and save yourself five days of potential rough seas. Now people are taking that extra five days and they’re doing other things, like squeezing in Patagonia. We do a trip to base camp at Everest but offer the option to helicopter back down. You’ve already hiked and maybe you want to come back sooner, so you helicopter back out. These are the kinds of things that we have developed from these trends and now we are challenging ourselves with more destinations. Asking what can you speed up and still make a valuable experience.

Festivals have been a big part of it too. We have a lot of people who want to break the barrier of experiencing a festival from the outside, so we are bringing them inside. It’s something we’ve always done. A lot of tour operators list them as things to avoid, because logistics never run right, but we show people how to get to it from the inside. When we do Carnivale, we include a private costume fitting, so now you’re a part of Carnivale as opposed to watching it from the outside. We sponsor families in Myanmar, so when their children enter the monkhood you are there with them, seeing it from their eyes. Festivals are something we have seen really take off and we have a few more trips geared around it, such as the “The Ultimate Travelling Camp”, which takes the African camp concept out of Africa and into India to follow around the travelling festivals. Now in places where you didn’t have the infrastructure to host someone who would have sense of humor failure with the accommodations, now they’re getting that out-of-Africa experience in India and they’re able to handle it.

It’s been exhilerating to build product around these trends, which has been a good challenge for the team but they like it because it gives them opportunity to be custom, to avoid being cookie-cutter. We have people who call and want to charter Antarctica for a family of eight. That’s crazy if you think about it because there really aren’t yachts in Antarctica. You can charter smaller ships but then you’re paying for what would be about 60-70 people on a given vessel for a single family. By the time you ring that up for a family of eight, all-inclusive, that pushes half a million dollars. If they can afford the privacy, then why not? So it’s been a good year for us to build that product back up and get it out into the market place. I think we are seeing more and more opportunities to blow out some destinations that weren’t as accessible in the past. Africa, for instance, is a great place because if you have the equipment you can pretty much hop around wherever you want and all of a sudden you can cover the key points of the continent in two weeks, which is a value you couldn’t get commercially.

There’s a lot of niche operators out there who just focus on a region, but where we do really well is in our global reach. The benefit is being able to tie it all together, even just going from Argentina to Brazil where someone needs a Visa and the other doesn’t, and we can consolidate that and make it a seamless experience.

Overall, it is a great model. We are small and nimble. We don’t want to be the largest because we want to be bespoke and you naturally lose some of that the larger you get. We want to stay true to what we are already really good at and not force ourselves into a market or a destination that doesn’t make sense for us.

Another trend is that we are also finding that a lot of groups and families are staying together for a small part of the trip before scattering to go do their own thing and that has been great for our custom ethos. In South Africa, you will have some people that want to go shark cage diving, some that want to go to wine country, and some that just want to hang out in Cape Town, so that’s been a great development for us. These are what we call our “Hub and Spoke” multi-gen trips. “Farm to Table, Vine to Glass” is another trend we’ve spotted. Previously, we would take people to the local market not open to tourists to see where their food and products were acquired. Now they say, we want to go to the grower, so we have begun pushing the envelope on that and really sourcing back to the growers to see what they are providing to the local markets. Food and wine trips are also still really popular, of course. Restaurants like Noma have helped with that, proving to people that there is good food outside the USA. But we have people that come back and it’s never the restaurant experience that you hear people talk about; it’s their experience having dinner in a private home. We do some special events, such as in Peru for where they can celebrate a very special birthday with a local family. It is unique as it is a delicacy to enjoy guinea pig for a birthday.  It’s not something you would normally eat here, but we can arrange that. Restaurants are important, but it’s those experiences that people come back and talk about.

We are also finding local wealthy individuals and pairing them with travelers who have the same economic status in another country. This provides an immediate connection that, as a result, gives us access to things we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Like your clients, these individuals have private art collections and other personal things they show to their friends, but what we are finding is that if we can match them up with someone of similar ilk, then they have a great desire to host and show off their collections. So we say “we have a CEO coming in who collects art similar to that which you collect. Would you be open to them coming by the house and viewing your collection?” and they love it. We have seen this emerging in India where we have groups that get to go and have cocktails at a Bollywood director’s home and see their art collection. We have also seen it throughout Latin America. Ignacio, who heads up our Latin America Dream Trips, has made connections with a few businessmen down there who are proud of their car collections and so on. This is very new—we are just starting to blow it out—so we are challenging our people to go back and think about their connections. I think next year this will be at the top of our trends, pairing titans of industry with the very same on the other end.

ET: So what are the details of your Travel + Leisure collaboration?

SW: We are proud to have this relationship with T+L. It’s essentially a product line of trips inspired by the editorial content in Travel + Leisure. They are called T+L Trips and they are specific itineraries—with pricing built out—that are held twice a month. They are designed to spread the word about destinations, so that if you see a destination that you are interested in, Cox & Kings can help you put together trips to those areas. There is added incentive for T+L readers if they book within 30 days of the issue being out but they’re available to book anytime, of course.

ET: Is high-end travel Cox & Kings primary focus or just one of the many things the brand works on?

SW: It’s a big part of what we do, but it’s not all we do. Obviously value has taken on a pretty important presence even in the high-end, luxury tour space, but we definitely have a group of clientele who want to travel when they want, how they want; whose budgets are dictated by what they want to do, not what they have to do. Then we have the in-between as well, but 4-star plus is the lowest you will see for us. Not all of our clients travel by private jet but it is something that we deal with. Like I said our team is pretty well versed in private aeronautics. The person that heads our Africa department knows exactly what private jet travel is like and can speak good plane-speak. He knows exactly what everyone is asking about—how long are the runways? where is the plane going to sit overnight?—and those types of trips are really fun. We look forward to putting those trips together. We’ve had a few in the last year, uber-luxury, nothing spared, and they are great.

So it’s been really exciting and we look forward to building on some of the trends we are currently seeing. We can develop product all year round as well because we are not beholden to groups. We print a brochure but these aren’t really “escorted departures” so we can continue to develop product and push it out all year round. It’s been busy, and we have a lot more stuff to do, but it’s been a great start with the company.