Christoph Gerth, as Commercial Director at JI Experience, manages and develops the international content platforms for American Express, including globally renowned premium publications Centurion and Departures.
The last two decades saw him spending significant time at major publishing houses such as Bloomberg, Gruner + Jahr and the Financial Times, accruing air miles even as he kept his international network of representatives, close. Gerth, as a frequent jet setter and commercial head of two significant luxury magazines, is perfectly placed to analyse how the travel and luxury segments will evolve in an After-COVID world.
Christoph, you are a true global citizen, having lived and worked in several geographies. Tell us about your journey thus far. How have the last four months impacted your life?
I was born in Germany and spent the first few years of my life in the country. My father owned a publishing house so the world of media was never far away. After moving to Switzerland for boarding school at the age of 12, I spent the next years living, studying and working across Europe. Certainly, the longest and most defining time I have spent is in London.
Strangely I now find myself back in Germany, working at a publishing house, so in some way, life has come full circle. The last four months have left me contemplating what I hold dear and it turns out, they include next to family and friends, the world of media.
Centurion and Departures are magazines that you publish for American Express’ most affluent and frequent travellers. What are the average age groups of your readers and their average spends?
Although the median age of our readers currently stands at just over 50 years, the age distribution is quite varied. There is a tremendous amount of young card members who have joined over the past year and they will continue to shape our future. However, no matter what the age, their credit card spending has increased constantly every year without fail. This has held even during times of war, recession, financial crisis and pandemics, as the affluent continue to make purchases and investments.
You have the exceptional distinction of reaching the most sought after audiences in the UK; Europe; Middle East; Asia and India. Can you share some insights that differentiate them by the trend, habit, and such?
With the world moving ever closer together and travel becoming such an integral part of life, there are certainly more similarities than differences, but the differences make it interesting. For example, card members across Asia will spend three times the amount on shopping while travelling than their European counterparts. Conversely, Europeans are twice as likely to include sports activities during their holidays.
Globally, many readers are regular visitors to India with British spending by far the most, followed by the Singaporeans and Australians during their stay. Interestingly, the highest increase in spending has come from premium card members from India itself, with an annual growth rate of 38%.
There is growing consensus that travellers’ habits will change dramatically post-COVID, in their choice of destinations, hotels and consumption patterns (on their travels). What trends are you seeing emerging among your audiences and what plans do you have to cater to their interests?
In my view, the crisis has further boosted the trends that we were seeing even before COVID. The drive towards sustainability, for example, is certainly one that will continue. Also the importance of health and wellness, especially in these times, will be a vital factor when making travel plans.
The affluent have always valued their privacy and I believe this will continue, as witnessed for example by the major boost to the private jet and yachting industries. While our magazine pages reflect these developments of interest, we are also making major investments in the digital content that we provide, as ultimately the crisis has changed the way we will research and book travel in the future.
With consumers reading habits changing, will you continue with your lavishly produced print products?
All of our recent research confirms the card members value their magazines more than ever. Especially in the fast-paced and sometimes crazy world we live in, our magazines offer time for reflection and inspiration that is hard to find elsewhere. Having said that, though, the digital distribution of our content has tremendously increased; it not just complements the magazine but offers a whole new experience and touch points.
Who are your key advertisers? Are they spending currently? And what advice are you offering them about when they should communicate and what kind of messaging they should create?
The majority of our advertising partners come from the travel and luxury categories. Both sectors have certainly felt the brunt of the crisis, with travelling curtailed and many luxury shops closed. However, we are now witnessing most global brands returning as they reap the benefit of the created vacuum of brand communication. Frankly, I believe that all businesses are handed a chance now to lead, pioneer and transform, which will ultimately lead to long-term success.
If you look ahead in the future, say two years down the line, what sort of travel trends are you predicting?
As health will be paramount in the minds of most while travelling, the next two years may see a premium paid for space and privacy.
There is a lot of talk about how the luxury industry will take years to revive or get back to the pre-COVID era. What is your analysis of how the industry will be hit and what it can do, or is doing, to deal with the situation?
I believe the opposite will be the case and the industry will revive quickly and thrive to new heights. For instance, as the Hermès store in Guangzhou opened its doors again, it raked in $2.7m in sales in just one day. The appetite for luxury on a global scale remains firm and in the long term, a reduction in the production of luxury items caused by COVID will create more demand and drive prices up, rather than down.
Your high-spending readers are very important to India as they are to so many other destinations. Do you have any thoughts on how India can differentiate itself? When should it start reaching out, to which markets first and why?
India is so diverse and unique in so many ways that no other destination can equal it. As card members are in the process of rethinking their travel habits, this is the perfect timing to influence their choices. Travelling will remain an essential component of their life and they are actively seeking out opportunities to indulge in unique experiences. Therefore, communicating that access to the plethora of unique experiences available now will have the most impact.
Although there has been a noticeable return to normality including travel across borders, I have remained close to home and have no plans to venture out immediately. Thankfully, we have been able to keep the office open continuously and to stay in touch with all our representatives, partners and clients virtually. We expect that this will form part of the new normal.
You would have stayed in some of the finest hotels in the world and eaten at the best kitchens. Name some of them and why do you like those?
Although I have had the pleasure of staying at some fine hotels and eating in some fantastic restaurants, it’s always the people that make the difference. I miss eating tacos in the middle of the night at Taqueria El Califa with clients and colleagues after our annual event in Mexico City. I wish for another night at the One & Only Pamilla with my wife, watching whales pass by in the moonlight. And I can’t wait to share a cold beer with you Marzban, as we did at the Island Shangri-La bar in Hong Kong.
And now, on a different note: Are you back at the office? What has your lockdown experience been? What have you binge-watched on the small screen? What’s been running on your playlist? What are you reading? And finally, now that the European league is back, who are you betting on to lift the cup?
I never spent so much time in the office, this is the longest I have been grounded. However, as I have been making the daily journey to the office on foot, I have reached new heights on my running miles. While out running, I have been listening to German techno from the likes of Sven Väth.
At home, I have been reading ‘The Neverending Story’ by Michael Ende with delight to my son. I am spending Saturdays with our editor, watching Bayern Munich play against Chelsea, wishing for the Blues to lift the cup, although frankly, I am more excited about the return of F1 to our screens.
Before you go, a line on Mediascope….
Just like India…INCREDIBLE!