Upchurch: “We are really trying to grow the base of consumers and bring new customers to our advisors.”
Virtuoso, one of the top travel agency consortia in the luxury travel space, has long focused on the networking power of its top agents and preferred suppliers. Indeed, one of the group’s strengths has been its annual meeting and conference, now known as Virtuoso Travel Week, which has grown from just under 100 attendees back in the early 1990s to nearly 5,300 (including nearly 2,500 agents) this past August. That makes Virtuoso Week effectively the largest leisure travel trade event in the U.S.
Other consortia and marketing networks have great technology, marketing programs and training, but so far nobody but Virtuoso has the size and scope of its annual Virtuoso Week, which this past August was held at three Las Vegas hotels—the Bellagio, Vdara and Aria. That was a first for Virtuoso, which had outgrown the Bellagio, where it had held its event for the past decade, into a campus-like event spanning three adjacent properties.
Virtuoso week evolves
For Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s chairman and CEO, the evolution of Virtuoso Travel Week is one of his group’s greatest accomplishments. His goal five years ago when he rebranded the event as Virtuoso Week was to create a “happening” in the travel agency and luxury travel space that would serve to highlight the power and success of all travel agents—and get more people interested in the travel agent profession as well. As he’s fond of saying: Travel advisors are “the hottest new thing that never went away.”
Virtuoso Travel Week was famous (some say infamous) for the roughly 400 four-minute “speed dating” appointments that its agent members had with the group’s preferred suppliers over a four-day period. But this past August, when Virtuoso changed the meetings format, it added more extended 10-minute appointments in the afternoons, along with its existing VAST (Virtuoso Adventure & Specialty Travel) showcase of niche and adventure tour operators and destinations on the Saturday before Virtuoso Week began. Virtuoso also recorded more affiliated events during Virtuoso Week than ever before, growing from roughly 539 events in 2015 to more than 750 this year, according to Upchurch.
Growing members abroad
Beyond the revamped Virtuoso Week, Virtuoso also has been focused on international expansion in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, as well as continuing to grow in the U.S. and Canada. “We look at the market penetration,” says Upchurch. “Our intent is to be fully global. We only started Europe a year and a half ago and we now have nearly 40 members in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). We’ve doubled the number.”
Upchurch says Virtuoso also has grown by a “huge percentage” in Australia and New Zealand, with 46 members in 95 locations as of 2016. “We also added members in Singapore and Hong Kong,” he says. “We continue to grow in the U.S. and Latin America.” Overall, Virtuoso now counts 391 travel agencies and 743 travel agency locations around the world, 11,400 travel advisors, 1,700 preferred partners, and $15.5 billion sales.
Attracting more advisors
But one thing that Upchurch says he’s most excited about is not just the growth in new members, but the growth in the number of new travel advisors joining existing Virtuoso agencies. “In 2015, this network added 2,400 advisors globally,” Upchurch says. “That’s a big number. What was really impressive is that of those 2,400, 57% of them were with existing members. Those represent the career switchers and the new people. If you were to ask me to pick the one thing that I’m the most proud of that we’ve accomplished it’s absolutely the mentoring and acquisition of new talent.”
A new hotel booking tool
At this year’s Virtuoso Week, the consortium also introduced a number of new programs, including a long-awaited hotel booking tool for members. Upchurch is quick to point out that this is not a typical booking engine, similar to what some other agency groups have developed. “We could have gone out and white labeled a hotel booking engine,” he says. “We actually built a hotel booking tool that deals with one of the biggest issues we’ve heard about over the years, which is the ‘please bother me’ syndrome.”
Upchurch says this is when you have great client and you do all their big fancy trips, but they don’t book with you for shorter weekend trips. “The issue is availability…they probably woke up, decided last minute and found a good rate,” he says. “What we’ve done is build a hotel booking tool that displays rates and availability all the 1,100 properties that are part of Virtuoso’s hotel collection, with special rates and amenities. Then they can make the reservation, but it automatically queues the booking into Sabre, and it is completely handed over to the travel advisor.”
A new website
In other technology announcements, Virtuoso debuted a new Virtuoso.com internal communications system, formerly known as Composer, which is personalized at the travel advisor or branch or agency level to provide all the news about the network. “It gives you all that functionality, but only with that person and it’s all mobile responsive,” Upchurch says.
Virtuoso.com also is a consumer-facing website that contains thousands of profiles of Virtuoso advisors detailing their experience, training and specialties. Indeed, at Virtuoso Week advisors were able to get professional photos and writing assistance to improve their profiles, which also are subject to reviews and recommendations from their clients. Roughly 4,000 Virtuoso advisors now have profiles on Virtuoso.com, which is turning the website into a lead generator. The site gets roughly 100,000 unique visitors per month, according to Virtuoso, and the leads generate an average first sale of $8,000 with a nearly 20% conversion rate.
The Virtuoso.com site also has been revamped to tell the Virtuoso story to consumers, including testimonials from Virtuoso clients, a showcase for preferred partners, and content from the group’s consumer facing publications like Virtuoso Life. One of the goals, according to Upchurch, is to spread the word about the capabilities of travel advisors. “We’re doing a lot of public relations to spread the word about travel advisors,” he says. “We are really trying to grow the base of consumers and bring new customers to our advisors.”