Guilt trip: Luxury travelers tone it down in hard times

She had planned to visit the Medina in Fez, the souks in Marrakesh and the mosques in Casablanca. But the Moroccan vacation would have set Nancy Yale back $15,000 for her family of five. And after laying off a full- and part-time employee last fall, the travel agency owner in Fairfield, Conn., decided to scrap the December trip.

"I just didn't think it was prudent. It wasn't a good message," she says.

Call it luxury shame, stealth wealth or guilt downsizing. Even if you've "got it" — and maybe especially if you've got it — economic times like these are no time to flaunt it.

In a time when posh has become a four-letter word, forget about keeping up with the Joneses. It's more socially expedient to stay down with them. Economic turmoil is giving luxury a bad name, it seems, and not just among the private-jet set, either. The desire to tone down consumption is affecting how some Americans vacation — or at least how they say they vacation.

It's the sort of environment that has people claiming they got that winter tan on the local ski hill, when in truth, they were skiing in Gstaad. Or, for appearances' sake, hailing a cab from the airport instead of pulling up to the hotel in a town car — never mind that the fare's the same.

The sentiment resonates in cyberspace and includes travelers who say they're lying or feeling guilty about their vacation plans or simply keeping mum about them.

Even former Securities and Exchange Commission head Arthur Levitt hasn't escaped a guilt trip, telling the New York Times Magazine he canceled a spring trip to the Far East, because "I don't feel right about spending large sums of money in this environment."

"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."

Beverly Hills-based Gary Mansour, CEO of Mansour Travel Co., says his affluent clients are still traveling: They're just being more discreet about it. Maybe they'll downgrade from their own private jet to a seat in a shared one. Or they'll pop open a bottle of Cristal in the privacy of their hotel room rather than in a restaurant, he says.

Not that excess — wretched as it may be regarded these days — isn't thriving in some decadent corners of the beleaguered economy. In fact, at the newly opened Encore Las Vegas casino, the nightclub, XS ("where too much is never enough"), offers a $10,000 Cognac and Champagne cocktail (includes stingray cuff links for the gentleman and a gold necklace for the lady). A few miles away, the Palms Place Hotel and Spa has reintroduced its $120 Veuve Clicquot Pedicure, back by popular demand.

The upscale Caribbean island of Anguilla issued a press release in January boasting about the traffic jam of private jets on its runway over the holidays. A marketing pitch for an $18,000-a-night private resort in Barbuda asks without a hint of irony, "Who says luxury isn't still affordable in tough economic times?" And in Waikiki, the Halekulani Hotel just rolled out a fleet of over-the-top vehicles, including a custom Maserati GranTurismo and Lotus Exige S, for its well-heeled guests to tool around in. (Those booked in the $7,000-a-night Premier Suites get the cruisers at no extra charge.) While CEO Peter Shaindlin acknowledges that tough times can spark traveler guilt, the flashy cars are "about quality. I don't think there's anything embarrassing about quality."

Perhaps. 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."

The Leading Hotels of the World group of high-end lodgings has shifted its emphasis, too. "In contrast to last year, we aren't marketing over-the-top. We're marketing more value-driven packages," says senior marketing vice president Claudia Kozma Kaplan.

At Abercrombie & Kent, which bills itself as "the world's premier luxury travel company," interest in trips that incorporate a philanthropic element is on the upswing, says spokeswoman Pamela Lassers. The company now offers six itineraries, up from two. Conversely, a sale in February that promoted savings of up to 60% on trips such as luxury African safaris and Egyptian cruises signals less-than-vigorous bookings on A&K's more self-indulgent tours.

Some in the industry believe the recession is sparking a behavioral shift that will continue even after the economy improves.

"We're witnessing a change in consumption patterns," says Karen Weiner Escalera, a publicist who writes a newsletter and blog on luxury travel trends. "People are looking more at function and comfort and authenticity."

She predicts that luxury as a marketing pitch will lose ground to messages that focus on niche interests as people pursue true passions rather than indulgence for the sake of indulgence.

Not that so-called luxury shame is necessarily bad for business. On Grand Cayman, The Reef Resort, a midscale all-suites hotel on a predominantly upscale island, director Tom McCallum believes he has gained some guests this season who in better times would be checking into digs that cost more than the $250 a night he has been charging.

"We're definitely getting people who would have grabbed a luxury hotel last year," he says. "People still want a Caribbean vacation, but they want to tell themselves they haven't spent as much money. They're being more selective."

But they're still traveling. At Ellison Poe's Little Rock travel agency, sales of midrange package tours to Europe may be down, but bookings to exotic locales such as Sri Lanka and Madagascar are up, thanks to deals being snapped up by people whose bank balances or credit limits still allow it.

"I feel like a Turkish rug salesman," she says. "These deals won't be here in three months, so if you have the money, you should take advantage of it."

That's Jackie Ross' sentiment exactly. The retired Bellingham, Wash., hypnotherapist sailed the eastern Caribbean in February, her third cruise in a year. She and her husband have always been avid travelers, and it's not unusual for friends to ask them where they're off to next. These days, however, her responses are more circumspect. "I'll say, 'Oh, we're just going somewhere warm for a while,' " she says. "It's general sensitivity. There are just so many people who are going through so much. We've been affected by the stock market, too. But we'd planned this cruise, and we're going to go."

They'll be sailing again next year, too. "We weren't going to," Ross says, "but a really good deal came up."

Contributing: Kitty Bean Yancey

Travelers, are you cutting back on luxury trips? If so, is it for financial reasons or not wanting to appear extravagant during tough econcomic times?