PHOTO: Left to right: Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Gary Murphy, John Stauss, Randall Soy, Matthew Upchurch and Chuck Imhof during the 35th anniversary of Valerie Wilson Travel. (Photo by Robin Amster)
Executives from the ocean and river cruise, hotel, airline, and consortium segments shared their challenges, trends and hopes for 2017 at a panel discussion during a multi-faceted event commemorating the 35th anniversary of Valerie Wilson Travel (VWT).
The event, at the St. Regis New York, included the first VWT (Valerie Wilson Travel) Academy, two days of training and networking attended by more than 150 VWT advisors from the company’s 16 offices along with more than 500 luxury hoteliers, resort and cruise line operators and their teams. There was also a trade show and a gala dinner.
Founded 35 years ago by Valerie Ann Wilson, owner, chairman & CEO, VWT is one of the country’s largest and most influential travel consulting agencies specializing in luxury travel and “high-touch” services.
VWT is also a family-managed travel concern. Ms. Wilson’s daughters, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, both carry the title of co-owner and co-president. Jennifer, who joined VWT 25 years ago, oversees the corporate and meetings division. Kimberly, who joined 21 years ago, manages the leisure division.
Wilson Wetty, who moderated the panel, said VWT decided to mark its 35th anniversary by focusing on education and professional development. The panel discussion was another venue for attendees to hear from suppliers.
The panelists were Gary Murphy, vice president of sales and co-owner of AmaWaterways; Randall Soy, executive vice president of sales & marketing, Regent Seven Seas Cruises; John Stauss, regional vice president & general manager, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts; Chuck Imhof, vice president, New York sales, Delta Air Lines, and Matthew Upchurch, CEO of the Virtuoso luxury travel network.
Most of the panelists were optimistic—if not outright bullish—about the New Year.
“I’m optimistic for 2017, if everything stays quiet,” said Murphy referring to the effects of issues like terrorism and Zika, while Stauss noted that the first quarter for Four Seasons was “terrible but the fourth quarter” was fantastic.”
Upchurch noted that the last few years have been positive or travel advisors given the boost in awareness for the profession. “The whole idea of using an agent—at the upper end of the market—is getting stronger,” he said.
“2016 had its challenges but we got through it,” added Soy. “The future is bright.
Among the challenges the executives detailed were Soy’s in “finding new customers who understand my product;” Murphy’s for “enlightening travel advisors as to what we do” (all river cruise companies say much the same thing about their product, he added); Stauss’ for the need for hotel companies to simply keep up with what luxury travelers want; and Imhof’s that “there’s always something we can’t anticipate; our challenge is the unknown.”
For travel agents, the challenge is “merchandising,” said Upchurch.
“We need to get better at telling people what we do,” he said. “If you’re a travel advisor and you say you book travel, you’ve already lost. The way you deal with the customer is the product [your product] itself.”
Wilson Wetty pointed to VWT’s slogan—“The Power of Access”—as “what we do” as travel advisors. That means “we open doors” for customers, providing experiences, services and amenities they can’t get on their own, she said.
Wilson Wetty detailed her own take on the major travel trends including:
• Millennials—“We know Millennials think it’s a luxury to have someone take care of them,” she said, citing the research showing that Millennials’ want to use travel advisors. “I hope we’re ready for them.”
• Social and the sense of community—“Peer to peer” judgments are so significant now “we’ve almost forgot how to make decisions ourselves,” she said.
• Duty of care and safety—“Travelers need to know we care and we need to work with suppliers on this,” she said referring to customers’ safety and concerns while traveling.
• “Bizcations”—“We need to be mindful of these,” trips where travelers tack on leisure time to a business trip. These are especially popular with Millennials.
• Being local—Travelers now want to get away from branded hotel experiences and immerse themselves in a destination.
• Tech versus the human touch—Regardless of what apps are used, the human touch matters greatly, she said, noting that VWT’s office still has a receptionist who answers the phone.