PHOTO: Valerie Wilson Travel is a family affair. From left, Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Valerie Ann Wilson and Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg.
Back in 1981, Valerie Ann Wilson opened what she envisioned as a small boutique travel agency in New York City with three employees.
Thirty-six years later, Wilson – founder, owner, chairman and CEO of Valerie Wilson Travel (VWT) – said that in her “wildest dreams” she didn’t think VWT would grow into the $305 million-a-year luxury travel agency it is today.
VWT, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in December 2016, is still headquartered in New York City but now has 15 offices nationwide and more than 315 travel advisors, including 175 independent contractors (ICs) and support staff.
The agency is indeed a success story and a multifaceted one at that. It’s a story about a powerful family-owned business, about women in the travel industry and about the thriving market for high-end, personalized travel.
VWT’s tagline, “The Power of Access,” is designed to represent its mission to provide clients with exclusive rates, VIP treatment and exceptional service and amenities with its preferred partners. Since 1998 it has been a member of the Virtuoso luxury travel consortium.
Wilson, whose original career was in fashion – as a vice president at GANT shirt makers, she established the ladies shirt division – hadn’t planned to create a travel business. But the travel bug bit her during the three years she spent living in London with her family. When they returned to the U.S. in 1980, friends asked Wilson – now an experienced traveler – to book their travel. VWT was born.
“When I started 36 years ago, the conversation was about the challenge of women having careers,” Wilson said, noting that women’s careers then primarily included education and nursing. But the travel business accepted “the creativity and women’s logical minds; it was also a smaller industry then,” she added.
“It never entered my mind that I could be in over my head. I started in a small way. I made up my own way of doing things,” Wilson said. “Success is in the small details; knowing the product. But number one is being honest. You have to develop a trust between yourself and the client.”
With that philosophy, VWT grew and developed a strong reputation in luxury travel yet, Wilson said, “I never envisioned it [VWT] would be a name, a brand and a leader.”
How then did that happen? It was due, at least in part, to Valerie’s daughters, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, who joined their mother in the business.
Wilson-Buttigieg joined VWT in 1991 and is now co-owner and co-president, overseeing the corporate and meetings division along with managing airline relationships. Wilson Wetty came on board four years later. Also a co-owner and co-president, she manages the leisure division, VWT’s Virtuoso membership and human resources. Wilson Wetty is also responsible for all of the agency’s brand and marketing strategies.
Each daughter brought her own expertise and interests to VWT. Wilson-Buttigieg was charged with negotiating annual corporate rates in her former position as corporate sales manager at New York’s Westbury Hotel. “I realized I loved hospitality but selling one hotel was not enough,” she said. “I said I would join the agency if I could develop the corporate side of the business.
“In the early nineties there wasn’t a lot of corporate travel management for small and medium companies,” she explained. “Everything was unconsolidated. Companies used travel agents who did their personal travel. It was a huge new opportunity for VWT and it gave me the opportunity to do something different from what Val [Valerie Wilson] was doing.”
VWT’s Suite Access program, launched in 2015, was an initiative overseen by Wilson-Buttigieg. The program, responsible for $4.5 million in bookings since its inception, is now a collection of the world’s finest hotel and resort suites, offering travelers special amenities and benefits.
Wilson Wetty, meanwhile, said she swore she would not join the family business. “Growing up I watched Mom put her heart and soul into the agency and I did get the travel bug as a kid,” she said. “But I wanted to create my own path.”
Right out of college, Wilson Wetty managed an Ann Taylor store in New York where she “loved the people and the hospitality side of it, but the fashion/retail part of it? – not so much.” She then moved to a marketing coordinator position with CIGA Hotels.
“CIGA was a dream job,” she said, adding that she’d probably still be with the company if it hadn’t been sold to Starwood Hotels & Resorts in the mid-90s. The company had a job for Wilson Wetty in Boston but she said that wouldn’t work. She interviewed with a couple of hotel firms and then, “I called Val, who said, ‘Just start on Monday.’”
Wilson Wetty asked Valerie to write a job description for her – something that never happened.
What did happen? Wilson Wetty launched VWT’s cruise division and got involved in developing the agency’s marketing. “One of our greatest strengths … is that all three of us bring different things to the company,” she said. “We have different interests; we can do the others’ roles, but it’s not like Jennifer and I are competing. There’s a role for both of us, and then you throw Val into it. She loves to travel, be the VWT brand and foster supplier relationships.”
Yet, “any family business that says it has no challenges is lying,” said Wilson Wetty.
VWT, however, has clearly met those challenges. Both Wilson-Buttigieg and Wilson Wetty noted that VWT has worked with family business consultants setting boundaries between business and personal lives. “We text as sisters but email as colleagues,” said Wilson-Buttigieg. “We literally change our tone to be respectful of those boundaries.”
The rewards of running a family business, though, are immense, according to all three women. “Some would say it’s a challenge, but your back is always protected. We think of business but family comes first,” said Wilson. “The number-one thing is we respect each other and trust each other,” she added. “We each have our respective jobs and we find a way to intertwine those.”
“Blood is thicker than water,” as Wilson Wetty put it. “It’s a beautiful gift as an executive to know that I have that in my corner.”
The family connection, she added, represents “a sense of comfort for us along with our advisors, ICs and clients.” Eighty-nine percent of VWT’s travel advisors and associates have been with the agency for more than 15 years, while the actual family connection was expanded when Jennifer’s husband, Brian Buttigieg, joined VWT in 2007 as vice president and general counsel.
“We think of the agency as one big family,” said Wilson.
CHALLENGES AND TRENDS
Valerie Wilson Travel executives discuss travel industry trends and challenges.
Communicating instantly. The difference in the industry today from 35 years ago is the need for “instant response and instant communication,” said Valerie Wilson. “You used to have a couple of days with a telex or a fax. Instant communication makes the process today both easier and harder.”
Targeting the younger generation. “Millennials will be the largest demographic ever, so their travel history is something we should all be paying attention to,” said Kimberly Wilson Wetty.
Finding new agents. “How quickly can you train new advisors?” Wilson Wetty asked, adding that older advisors may not want to work as hard as they used to. “This will be an ongoing issue for us, along with how to find new advisors,”
Painting the right picture. “Last year was a challenging year for all of travel,” said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg. “All of our travelers became instantaneous news reporters. How do we present active information and how do we know our advisors can reach out to our clients when things go wrong?”