The Story of Luxury Bloc
An interview by Yvan Vermeesch

The XO Private Founder, Yvan Vermeesch, sits down for the exclusive interview series with, Gabriela Markova, Founder of GM Selection and the amazing new Eastern Bloc Trade show Luxury Bloc. This invite-only luxury travel trade show brings together the best travel professionals of the 15 Central & Eastern European countries under one roof for an immersive 3-day experience focused on high-end luxury and experiential travel. Albeit its kick-off took place in the complicated context of 2020 the show has already proven to be a success and it's one of the most awaited industry events of 2021. Fearless Gabriela tells us more about her trajectory, Luxury Bloc and her plans for the future.

Luxury Bloc was successfully launched in September of last year. How did this exciting, new adventure get started? What motivated you?

There were two key factors that made me launch Luxury Bloc.

One was through my representation company, where I started representing various products on (Continental) Europe and was truly thrilled by the amount and quality of inquiries I have received from the C&EE region, as well as the feedback from the travel advisors. I realized that most of them relied on recommendations and brochures from few EU Tour Operators as only very few hoteliers would conduct roadshows or sales visits to this region and only some advisors were regularly invited to international luxury tradeshows.

The second factor was actually You, when XO Private, ILTM Cannes and Traveller Made reached out, asking me for connection to the C&EE advisors to join their platforms, tradeshows and affiliations that made me realize this is a huge gap on the market.

As a Czech national, I am very proud to see the entire region thrive and am delighted to see the growing global interest in this significant market.

Networking and connecting people is a big passion of mine, so I don’t miss any opportunity to make the right connections, in order to enhance business and raise awareness of the power and potential there is in this incredibly fast-growing region.
Yvan Vermeesch, Founder of XO Private and Petr Marek, Gabriela's husband and key part of the foundation of Luxury Bloc
Luxury Bloc provided so many happy surprises in this 3-day industry gathering
How would you describe the DNA of Luxury bloc?

Luxury Bloc is focused on leisure and experiential travel, targeting the upper luxury segment.

The aim is to create meaningful connections and purposeful introductions and this requires a deep knowledge of the market. I know every travel advisor we invite personally which helps me to assess the potential of every product we bring to the show. As a former hotelier, ROI is very important to me and I want every meeting to make sense, every agent to feel that he has learned something new and every supplier to leave with few leads or even bookings in his pocket.

We are very keen to promote authentic products, private islands, local DMCs and family-owned or independent properties. In the case of big hotel brands, we always discuss with the representatives about the destinations or properties they plan to represent here, to make their participation worthwhile.

Also, for us, the promotion of products does not start and end with the duration of the tradeshow. We create a bond with all participants and besides the pre- and post- promotion of their products through newsletters and social media, we use every opportunity that arises to forward any leads for their destinations, products and services.

There often seems to be some confusion about which countries form the Central & Eastern European (CEE) market? So, what are we talking about here?

Yes, people often confuse CIS with the CEE region. Our market spreads from the Baltic region - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Monte Negro. Hence the name Luxury Bloc, reflecting my patriotism for the former so-called Eastern Bloc.:)

Is it correct that the Central & Eastern European market is the fastest-growing luxury market within Europe? How should this be understood?

Absolutely. And now more than ever before. The number of travels we have experienced in the second half of 2020 and YTD this year is exhilarating. The general restrictions, lockdown of schools and imposed home office enables people to study and work from pretty much everywhere with a wifi connection. We see a lot of long stays where people keep extending their holidays for months or increasing the frequency of their travels. And we see an incredible increase in private jet bookings.

But even before this situation happened, CEE was on an economic rise, the unemployment rate was at a historic low and tourism-wise people started to travel more extensively and( in the luxury sector they) became more selective and aware of the travel values. The travel trend changed and luxury gained another meaning – ostentatious opulence has been replaced by authentic, memorable experiences.
Yvan Vermeesch, Founder of XO Private and Petr Marek, Gabriela's husband and key part of the foundation of Luxury Bloc
Luxury Bloc provided so many happy surprises in this 3-day industry gathering
"Luxury Bloc is focused on leisure and experiential travel, targeting the upper luxury segment." - Gabriela Markova | Picture of Luxury Bloc September 2020
Which type of exhibitors did you manage to attract for the premier edition of Luxury Bloc? Can you please share some names? Which new exhibitors can be expected for this upcoming edition?

When we launched Luxury Bloc in January last year, the response was overwhelming as 2020 looked very promising for travel and everybody was keen on exploring new markets. The unexpected global situation disabled many suppliers from participation due to imposed travel ban. Yet we had an amazing diversity of products from private islands, European resorts and ski resorts, DMCs from all over the world (with representatives based in the EU), expeditions and adrenaline experiences and a few niche luxury brands. To throw some names, we had Joali, Fregate Island Private, Six Senses, Rocco Forte, Rosa Alpina, Terre Blanche, Hummingbird, White Sands or Quark Expeditions. This year we have a nice mix of repeaters coming back with news about their products and services and new names joining in, such as Patina Hotels, One&Only, Jumeirah, Marbella Club, we have more African suppliers and private jet companies.

What about the buyers? How do you source them? Which criteria come into play?

Given that I know all advisors personally, our invitation is actually addressed to a particular colleague in every agency, not the agency as such, to send a representative. We know their focus and interest and this is the main factor we base our selection on. But to give you some criteria, we run a questionnaire before we select the top 60 agents which are based on their focus (leisure and/or experiential), minimum spent per booking, number of private jets they book per year and for buyers who participated last year the number of bookings to products they have met at the show (of course taking into consideration that due to the restrictions only a few destinations remained open for travel).

We also asked advisors about what they were missing at Luxury Bloc last year and what destinations and products they would like to see this year. Africa, Latin & South America, European ski resorts and private jet companies were on top of the list. Recently we have conducted a questionnaire about top destinations they were booking pre-Covid situation and top destinations they were booking during/post-Covid to see the shift in the market.

Luxury Bloc made lasting professional relationship s within the industry's masters
Gabriela Markova with the XO Private team and Frédéric Roman-Hauduroy from Step-in DMC between meetings
Luxury Bloc is high-end travel trade show, yet priced very attractively and you even offer exhibitors a flexible option to participate, right?

I’d like to believe so, yes. Luxury Bloc is my passion, not my living. I do it to inspire, to help people kick off their sales, to bring value to participants by meaningful introductions, to strengthen partnerships and create new ones and overall to enhance connections and business together.

The first edition of the show took place in the prestigious Mandarin Oriental Prague hotel. Will the upcoming edition be hosted in Prague again? What are the exact dates for the upcoming edition?

Yes. I believe that a luxury show needs a luxury venue and the Mandarin Oriental, besides its renowned quality, provides an authentic sense of place, being housed in a former monastery from the 14th century. We have also already chosen very exciting venues for our evening events and I cannot wait to host our dinners and parties there. This year the dates are from 31st August – 3rd September.

Which destinations are most popular for travellers from Central & Eastern Europe? Are there any new destinations gaining some serious traction?

Glad you asked because we have recently evaluated the questionnaire we ran last month. While before Covid the top destinations were the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, the US and Latin America with very few European destinations, this year the top list consists of the Indian Ocean still, Africa, Latin America and Southern Europe. Also, we see an increase in demand for everything new, private and secluded. Private villas, private islands, private jets and privately guided tours.
Picture of the end of show party, toasting to the next Luxury Bloc in 2021
You're a successful entrepreneur sporting different hats? Who is Gabriela Markova? What is your personal background?

You humble me, as I have only recently started and feel nowhere close to my goals and dreams. As a kid, I always wanted to be a hotel receptionist. I think I loved watching the ladies interact in different languages with people from all parts of the world (which during the communist era was quite a thing). While renowned hotel schools were out of my reach financially, I started at a 4* chain in Europe as a receptionist before joining Mandarin Oriental, where I have stayed for nearly 10 years and discovered the intriguing beauty of everything sales & marketing. Another highlight was my time with Velaa Private island in the Maldives where I have developed my passion for the Indian Ocean and my weakness for private islands.

The launch of GM Selection, my sales representation company, was a coincidence of two factors – the difficulty of finding a job as a fresh mother and the demand of my industry friends and colleagues for recommendations, introductions and connections within the travel sector. I realized that my contacts could bring value to certain products and I could contribute to their sales successes.

There is this saying ‘Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life. This is me. My passion for travel and people in our industry is what defines my ‘modus operandi’. I cannot wait for my daughter to be old enough to travel with me on business trips so I can make her discover the beauty of the world and of travelling itself.
Yvan Vermeesch
A Belgian by birth, Yvan Vermeesch grew up across Africa before heading to the Caribbean followed by the stunning city of Prague before calling the Mediterranean island of Mallorca home. Always looking to innovate across the board and with a clear penchant for everything experiential in travel, Yvan Vermeesch takes great pride in connecting the finest players in bespoke travel around the globe.