Jesse Upchurch, the founder of numerous travel industry companies and former chairman of Virtuoso Travel, passed away this week. He was 93.
In a Facebook post and accompanying letter sent to Virtuoso Travel members, his son and current Virtuoso chairman Matthew Upchurch reported that Jesse Upchurch “passed peacefully” on Feb. 26.
Upchurch called his father “an inspiration, not only to me in my career, but to countless others around the world.”
In more than 50 years in the travel industry, Jesse Upchurch owned a yacht charter company, a hotel rep company in Mexico, and Mexico’s first timeshare. He purchased Percival tours in 1962, offering FIT and group travel programs, and launched tours to the South Pacific and Asia.
But he likely will be best remembered for his timely 1986 merger of Percival Tours with the API travel agency cooperative. Reeling from a travel downturn following a series of terrorism incidents and the U.S. bombing of Libya by President Ronald Reagan, the combination of the two organizations was the begginings of Virtuoso Travel.
In 2000, Allied Percival International was rebranded Virtuoso, and is considered one of the world’s leading networks of luxury travel advisors. Today, Virtuoso has more than 800 agency locations representing more than 16,000 advisors in 45 countries throughout North and South America, the Caribbean, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Jesse Upchurch served in numerous capacities in industry organizations, including helping found the U.S. Tour Operators Association, at one point serving as USTOA’s CEO, president and chairman.
With a love for Africa, Jesse Upchurch at one time served as the chairman of the African Travel Association, and was an original founder of the World Wildlife Fund’s 1001 Club. He purchased and donated land to Kenya’s African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, helping provide conservation of Kenya’s wild giraffes.
The history of Virtuoso and Jesse Upchurch’s life were the subject of his 2014 autobiography, “One Thing Just Led to Another.”
On Matthew Upchurch’s Facebook page, Mary Gallo, strategic account manager at Seabourn Cruise Line called Jesse Upchurch “an icon in the industry and an inspiration to all.”
“Jesse has left all of us with some great memories and certainly laid quite a foundation for what is today Virtuoso. A true pillar of luxury travel.,” said Shawn Johnson, CTC, senior director, sales and national accounts at Abercrombie & Kent.
The Upchurch family will celebrate Jesse Upchurch’s publicly in the months to come, Matthew Upchurch said in a letter to Virtuoso members.