Entrepreneurs speaking in Palm Beach upbeat about luxury market for 2011
If the past few months are an indication of the future, 2011 is on its way to being a more prosperous year than the past few for those whose focus is the luxury market.
But don't get out your hats and blow the horns just yet. Sustained growth does take time.
Although it was one of the coldest mornings on recent record, the ideas and shared business experiences of a panel of three, and audience attendees, at the Luxury Marketing Council breakfast meeting Dec. 8 at The Brazilian Court were anything but chilly.
That's because business -- in basically all sectors of the luxury market, from finance to travel and retail to real estate -- is improving.
Ian Black, Brazilian Court director of group sales, said the hotel is seeing an increase in guest bookings in the leisure and corporate markets.
"In 2009, guests were still arriving, but if they had been coming down for six weeks in the past, they were staying for four. Now we're starting to see steady growth in our occupancy over last year."
The Brazilian Court isn't the only local business experiencing growth. Panelist Laurel Baker, executive director and board secretary of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, said there's been a resurgence in new businesses on the island this year.
"We can look to one club that's opening, two new restaurants, a new market and three small businesses."
Although the prospect of growth is exciting and full of promise, it's the experiences of the past that may offer the best guidance into 2011 for those who serve the high-end luxury market.
Desmond Keough, president of Haifa General, understands it will take time for business cycles in the real estate and building-related arena to re-gain strength.
"It's been interesting because I talk to people around town -- professionals, financial advisers, Realtors -- and I call them a bunch of spin-meisters because they are always talking happy, happy, happy, positive, positive, positive, no matter what," he said. "So you really never get a straight story from anybody. The reality is change is not going to happen in six months. It will take a lot more time than many are willing to admit. But things are getting better."
To weather the past several years, Kristina Feil, vice president of sales and marketing at Meetings at Sea Inc. in Stuart, decided to alter her business focus.
In 2008, business was soaring and she wrote a 55-page business plan targeting clients who book high-end corporate and incentive trips -- where her bread and butter had been. "Well, by 2009, that was like, shoot me in the foot," she said. "That's not going to happen."
So Feil changed her target audience and moved from corporate concentration to the high-end individual luxury traveler.
"I consider myself an optimist, but at the same time optimism doesn't pay your bills, so I quickly reinvented myself and found a new direction for the company."
How's that working out for her? "I like it," says Feil. It was out of necessity that she had to re-target her business and, as a result, found a new clientele, she said.
Panelist Robert Ruderman is the sales manager at ETC in West Palm Beach, which brings sound and theater systems into luxury homes. ETC also has had to change some of its focus.
"Between 2007 and today, we've seen that wants and needs have been pushed further and further apart," Ruderman said. "A few years ago it wasn't necessary for some to justify luxury services. Today, there is still a guilt factor."
Working more closely with clients to quell concerns -- and working harder to build a long-term relationship -- is now a more vital part of Ruderman's job, he said. ETC also has begun to expand its services into the commercial market.
Then there's the retail world.
Just back from Milan, Italy, was panelist Hilarie Viener, director of communication and strategic services for MDG Advertising in Boca Raton. "In Milan, stores are packed, no discounts, nothing on sale and prices are higher than they are here."
Given that the familiar luxury brands are global brands, Viener said the successful retailer of tomorrow would be wise to cater more to the international traveler, particularly since it's less expensive to purchase those brands here than abroad.
That traveler has plenty of money. And tends to spend more while on holiday than at home.
Those in the financial arena also see an upward trend in business.
"Last year people were in cash and didn't want to be invested," said Margo Kohlhoff, director of marketing at the investment firm of Carl Domino Inc. "Now there definitely seems to be activity and people are starting to invest again."
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