Virtuoso’s Big Week in Vegas
By James Shillinglaw
August 14, 2012 11:45 PM
I’ve been attending Virtuoso Travel Mart for at least 15 years now, so when the largest luxury travel group unveiled plans to transform its top event into Virtuoso Travel Week, I wasn’t exactly sure how it would differ from previous Virtuoso gatherings. The idea, according to Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch and President Kristi Jones, is to create a “happening” like Fashion Week and drive consumer awareness of both the importance of travel and travel agents (or “advisors” in Virtuoso speak).
Well, four days into Virtuoso Travel Week here at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (with two days to go), I can tell you that the "new" event is off to a good start. On a numbers level, Virtuoso Travel Week is mostly likely the largest travel agent conference today, with a record number of 1,700 suppliers and 1,850 travel advisors, as well as media and others in attendance, for a total of well over 3,800 people. In fact, I was told the event is the Bellagio’s largest conference each year now. It also now may be the top candidate for the longest travel industry conference in the business today.
Virtuoso also has made a definitive effort to “invite” consumers and customers into the process, as well as to publicize the event with consumer media. Indeed, if you were up early enough yesterday you might have seen a report by my friend Peter Greenberg on the CBS Morning News on Virtuoso Week. But Peter’s report seemed to depict an insider’s conference where luxury travel is surprisingly (and maybe secretly) still sold to high-end customers (the “very wealthy”) through travel agents and top suppliers. CBS Morning News anchors also seemed rather surprised that people were actually buying and selling travel, not to mention through travel agents. (To paraphrase an old line from “Casablanca,” I’m shocked, shocked that travel is going on here!)
In my view, that’s not exactly what Virtuoso wants to project with Virtuoso Travel Week. (And everyone is encouraged to say Virtuoso Travel Week or Virtuoso Week to avoid confusion with Travel Week in Latin America, an event that Virtuoso also backs.) Instead of a secretive, backroom meeting where travel is bought, sold and discussed, Virtuoso Travel Week is an effort to let consumers in on the entire process -- to show the nuts and bolts of what travel agents do today (and the fact that they are still doing it!).
Virtuoso travel advisors told their clients they were coming to Vegas in advance to learn more about all the great products and services they could buy and sell. They also told their clients to send in photos of themselves on their favorite trips. Virtuoso advisors also could access a Collaboration Lounge, where they could use Skype for Facetime to have video chats with their clients, even bringing suppliers into the conversation.
Now how well that worked, I can’t say yet, but Virtuoso executives have plans to expand their efforts in the future, possibly even inviting high-end customers to attend (I don’t think they’d survive all the parties and dinners though).
Virtuoso also wants Virtuoso Travel Week to be a place where top suppliers unveil new products and plans for the future. This year six suppliers and destinations were showcased during a press event, although only a few truly new products were announced, such as Mexico’s new travel promotion plans, Aqua Expeditions’ new Mekong ship, and Abercrombie & Kent’s new Connections value brand of group tours.
If Virtuoso truly wants to make its Virtuoso Travel Week into a “happening,” however, it’s doing to need a lot more press coverage by both trade and consumer journalists. I’ve been coming here 15 years or more, as has Peter Greenberg, but except for the usual trade journalists and a smattering of consumer reporters, it hasn’t exactly been a media circus (maybe that’s a good thing!).
If Virtuoso also wants this to be a travel industry “happening,” it also needs to invite in all the publishers, editors and even select ad salespeople from both consumer and trade publications. As it is now, many of those folks already attend, but outside the ropes, so to speak.
The U.S. travel agency industry is in desperate need for a unifying event that can put a new and very public face on the travel agent community. Right now consortia and travel agency networks, like Virtuoso, stage the largest travel conferences, since events like ASTA’s Travel Retailing & Destination Expo have seen dwindling attendance in recent years – though I hope that turns around very soon!
In the meantime, Virtuoso is using Virtuoso Travel Week as a new way to connect with the customers of its members as well as let the traveling public know that travel agents (or “advisors”) are alive and well – and at least for this week living at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. In my next column I’ll discuss how Virtuoso is trying to bring consumers into the process in a different way, namely with its own dedicated technology that brings travel advisors, customers and even suppliers into a collaborative travel planning process.
James Shillinglaw is editor in chief of TravelPulse.com.