Editor's Note: Headquarter Happenings keeps you updated on the marketing and technology programs of major travel agencies, host agencies, travel agency consortia, cooperatives, travel networks and franchise groups.
The successful turnaround of the travel agent profession, once thought to be dying, was in the spotlight at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas last month.
It was not long after the turn of the millennium that Virtuoso determined that “we had to make this profession desirable” and subsequently refocusing its mission on improving the compensation and fulfillment of frontline travel advisors, chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch recalled during the opening session at Virtuoso Travel Week.
“It’s been so heartwarming to watch new talent coming in, working with veterans and both being energized by the other, and now everyone’s on the bandwagon. You’re the hottest new thing that never went away,” he said.
Today, Upchurch said, the luxury agency network is focused on “continuing to find people who believe what we believe, increasing your sales, collaboration through Virtuoso communities, partnering with you to tell your story, and leveraging technology.”
But it is the renewed recognition that being a travel advisor is a worthy profession, together with an increase in millennials joining the retail travel trade, that are among his proudest accomplishments.
Upchurch’s vision is now to entice aspiring businesspeople to see the “Virtuoso life experience business as an entrepreneurial opportunity of choice [as] new entrepreneurs come up with incredible variations of how they go to market."
The robust health of the travel agency profession is reflected in Virtuoso’s own growth. Since January, the network has added more than 1,000 travel advisors worldwide. Many are new employees at full-service member agencies and independent contractors newly affiliated with Virtuoso not just in the U.S. but in Australia, Mexico and Europe, said David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships.
The network now counts more than 800 agency locations in 47 countries. Together they generated $21.2 billion in global sales last year.
Virtuoso continues to expand globally—this year alone it has added agencies in seven countries, including Japan, South Korea and Russia. Expansion in Australia and New Zealand has driven a threefold growth in its Asia-Pacific volume over the last four years, and with the recent addition of a business development manager in Asia more growth is expected.
Closer to home, a working group of Canadian members is looking at how the network might tailor its offerings to their market, and Virtuoso expects to announce new programs and services for Canada by year-end, Kolner said.
Virtuoso Travel Week
The 29th annual Virtuoso Travel Week was its largest ever. Some 5,670 industry members from 103 countries attended, including 2,700 travel advisors.
One addition to this year’s conference was Community Globetrotting, a one-day expo-style event centered around agent-supplier networking and education in the niches of adventure, cruise, wellness and family travel. The program is part of Virtuoso’s communities program, which provides collaboration, training and mentoring opportunities for agents and suppliers that share interest in the four niches.
Virtuoso also held its first Sustainability Summit, and Upchurch said the network will be doing more around sustainability. “We believe travel has to be a source for good.” Moreover, he said, agencies that embrace sustainability at the leadership level will gain a leg up when it comes to hiring, especially among millennials.
On the technology front, Virtuoso’s big news was the deployment this past April of a long-awaited hotel booking tool that allows member agents and consumers to book rooms at Virtuoso rates and access Virtuoso amenities.
Agents can include the booking tool on their private-branded Virtuoso websites (available free to member advisors) and offer it as a convenience to clients who want to book their own hotel stays. The tool is also a potential source of new business, since hotel bookings made online by non-agency clients are automatically queued to a Virtuoso travel advisor, who can then reach out to the travelers to offer additional services.
Consumer traffic to Virtuoso.com, the network’s 20-year-old consumer site, is up 30% year over year, for a total of 130,000 unique visits a month. Virtuoso boasts strong Google search results for the advisor profiles and now “regularly in North America outrank Facebook and LinkedIn for first name, last name searches,” Kolner said.
Growing strong advisors
Professional development for frontline agents, especially new talent, is central to Virtuoso’s mission, and this year its members are expected to complete more than 90,000 training courses. “We say you can’t be a Virtuoso advisor unless you’re curious,” said Kolner.
To help advisors sift through its trainings, Virtuoso now publishes lists of its top 10 trainings, based on member ratings, on its learning management platform, Virtuoso Travel Academy.
Frontline advisors can also participate in Virtuoso Travel Week on Tour, which brings one-and-a-half-day supplier networking and training opportunities to cities around the U.S., and one-day programs to Canadian cities. Virtuoso Global Forum is a yearly partner networking and professional development program for owners and managers.
The network’s weeklong Virtuoso Certified Travel Advisor program, an in-person program for individuals who are new to the travel agency profession or to Virtuoso, has graduated 200 individuals in its four-year history.
Virtuoso’s supplier programs continue to grow. In 2018, Virtuoso Voyages, the network’s hosted cruise program, will offer more than 550 departures featuring exclusive shore experiences and other value-adds. Some 2,000 headquarter groups provide benefits such as reduced fares, onboard booking credits and specialty dining at no charge.
Virtuoso’s 25-year-old hotel and resort program now encompasses 1,200 properties, ranging from five-star hotels to private residences to luxury “glamping.” According to the network, the program offers clients up to $450 in benefits per stay. One new benefit that’s proved popular is a guaranteed 4 p.m. late checkout.
Virtuoso’s air program has added 11 new airlines, and the program recorded 20% year-over-year growth in sales. A new group air desk to help member agents manage and sell groups was recently added.