James Shillinglaw | May 18, 2015 3:28 PM ET
Virtuoso's Luxury Travel Think Tank
Late last month I attended the Virtuoso Symposium in Hong Kong, the annual gathering of the luxury travel network’s top travel agency owners and preferred suppliers. Indeed, this meeting featured 493 top travel professionals from 42 countries, which was one of the largest such Virtuoso events ever.
Now I’ve been fortunate to attend many Virtuoso Symposiums over the years; they have always served as “think tanks” for the luxury travel segment and where it’s heading. Virtuoso itself has always been one of the cutting-edge groups in the luxury market, so its Symposium is always noteworthy both for news about the group itself, as well as the state of luxury travel.
This year Virtuoso brought together keynote speakers, including Larry Pimentel, President and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises; Jason Clampet, co-founder of travel website Skift; and William Paley, senior associate at tonychi and associates, for a look at the luxury market from a global perspective.
Pimentel shared findings from a recently commissioned report from Boston Consulting Group for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, which shows how affluent travelers desire local, authentic and enriching experiences.
Clampet discussed Skift’s Megatrend report, which shows that a lifestyle brand which connects travelers’ ideals of themselves with the world has become one of the only vehicles left for building long-term, meaningful relationships with customers. Paley shared the role that design plays in influencing a guest’s hotel stay, because it promotes a stronger connection and lasting impression.
As always, however, the Symposium served as a bellwether for where luxury travel and Virtuoso itself are going. Indeed, David Kolner, Virtuoso’s senior vice president-consumer, offered new research into the luxury buying habits of four generations—Matures, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials—as well as how Virtuoso is approaching all four customer segments.
According to Virtuoso Chairman Matthew Upchurch, this spells great news for his travel agency members as well as for travel agents in general. “This is the first time this industry has had four generations of travelers spending at major levels of contribution, all at the same time,” he told attendees. “What we’re finding is a universal desire to collaborate with a trusted advisor, plus the willingness to pay for that opportunity. This isn’t an American mindset—our speakers are telling us this need exists worldwide.
“With continued global expansion at the forefront of our growth strategy, we feel confident about our next steps as a network,” Upchurch continued. “The consumer’s want for human connection bodes well for us and for our agency members, and what we are able to deliver together with our partners for the traveler.”
Indeed, Virtuoso has been working to expand worldwide over the past few years, adding 46 new member agency locations globally, including, most recently, 16 in Europe, as well as 83 in Latin America, and 67 in Australia and New Zealand. Prospective members in Hong Kong and Singapore were also in attendance at this year’s Symposium. Virtuoso currently has 672 locations worldwide with total network sales of $14 billion.
Virtuoso also has been working to generate more leads for its affiliated travel agencies and travel advisors. Since last May it has been busy revamping its Virtuoso.com website, developing new destination pages and travel advisor profiles that can help consumers plan travel better.
Upchurch told attendees that there have been more than one million visits to the website since the beginning of the year and more than 730 travel advisors are participating in the lead generation program. The average sale generated by that program, according to Virtuoso, is $7,000, including a $400,000 trip booked for a client in Colombia through a Virtuoso member in Chile, according to Upchurch.
In addition, more than 263 member agencies now have co-branded versions of Virtuoso.com, while roughly 340 advisors also feature co-branded sites. That means their individual websites now feature Virtuoso destination and supplier content that is constantly renewed.
Beyond lead generation, Virtuoso also has made progress with a new program called Virtuoso Reserve, which caters to the needs to top 2 percent of Virtuoso clients, or those generating an average of $100,000 in bookings per year. More than 100 Virtuoso travel advisors in the U.S. and Canada are currently enrolled in this program, which focuses mainly on booking partner hotels.
By the end of the year, Upchurch said Virtuoso will be opening up the Reserve program to other partners, such as cruise lines, tour operators and onsite destination management companies. The network also will soon offer the program to Virtuoso travel agency members in Brazil, Latin America and Australia.
Virtuoso is still ramping up on another key program: a partnership with Merrill Lynch’s Clear retirement program to make travel a core focus of retirement planning. That program was first unveiled in January, but it really only kicked off this past February, according to Upchurch. Under the plan, Merrill Lynch financial advisors will refer their customers to Virtuoso travel advisors to help plan out their travel needs. So far roughly 100 Virtuoso advisors have signed up for the Merrill Lynch program.
One of the biggest changes for Virtuoso that was unveiled at this year’s Symposium was restructuring of the group’s showcase event, Virtuoso Travel Week, held in August in Las Vegas. Upchurch said 2015 will be the last year where Virtuoso will hold its notorious four days of four-minute meetings, where every Virtuoso travel agency meets with virtually every Virtuoso preferred supplier in attendance. That process has been looked upon with a mixture of anticipation and dread by many Virtuoso advisors and suppliers, especially as the number of attendees at Virtuoso Week has grown.
Indeed, Virtuoso Week now has grown into one of the largest events in the travel industry, with more than 4,500 attendees, so it has outgrown the Bellagio, which has served as the site of the event for more than a decade. According to Upchurch, Virtuoso Week will now be broken up into a series of what he calls “communities” and “neighborhoods,” offering individual appointments with selected groups of suppliers instead of four-minute meetings between every agency and supplier.
The event also will be expanded into the neighboring Aria resort and casino, which like Bellagio is an MGM Resort. Starting in 2016, Virtuoso Week will now feature a combination of introductory meetings, set appointments, and supplier and destination “neighborhoods” where travel advisors can interact with preferred partners.
“We’re building stronger structures around communities and building a pipeline to sell products… (through) a community of superstar advisors,” said Upchurch. “The future of Virtuoso is to deal with micro-communities, multiple communities...and address individual advisors needs.”
All of these programs are part of an effort by Virtuoso to create a global brand that relies on the craving for human connection in travel planning. “The core product of (Virtuoso) agencies are trusted advisors who build long-term, meaningful relationships and deliver valuable clients,” Upchurch told attendees. “It’s all about the UX, the user experience…when it comes to building a UX for human connection we have a very big advantage: Our members' advisors…..their strength and diversity has grown….and our members' clients have amplified that core message.”
For Upchurch, how Virtuoso raises the bar on collaboration between travel advisors and their clients is key for the group’s success in the future. “We believe a significant portion of affluent travelers will be represented by travel advisors,” he told attendees, “[and they will] see advisors as indispensable parts of their lives.”
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