Matthew Upchurch speaking at Virtuoso Travel Week: Travel advisors are “the hottest new thing that never went away.”
Last week Virtuoso held its annual Virtuoso Travel Week hosting a record of nearly 5,300 attendees, over half of whom were travel advisors. It’s a time when Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch takes stock of the state of luxury travel and the state of the travel agency business. TMR asked Upchurch for his thoughts about how travel advisors are seen by the public, what challenges they still face and what a travel agency is today.
What’s the state of travel advisors today? And have we turned a corner in terms of public awareness of what advisors do?
Well, it’s never good enough for me, but I absolutely do think there’s been a corner turned. For me, the hallmark moment came earlier this year in our Virtuoso Symposium in Cape Town, when I talked about travel advisors as “the hottest new thing that never went away.” If you look at the quantitative data, there are several research reports out there that actually do show an increase in usage of travel advisors. Of course, the one that everyone has been talking about is the use of travel advisors by Millennials.
How have you and Virtuoso been working to raise the image of travel advisors?
The thing that I’m most proud of is that in February 2001 we made it our mission statement to use the Virtuoso network to improve the compensation and personal fulfillment of frontline travel advisors. I had some agencies that said: wait a minute, you’re a consortium so what business is it of yours? But what I was saying is if we don’t make this a profession that is attractive to career switchers and young people, that is the single point of failure. Four years ago we invited Cornell students here to Virtuoso Travel Week. After they were here for four days, I had a meeting with them and I could not have scripted it better. One of the students said, “You know what, after being here I now know the difference between what I thought a travel agent was and what a travel advisor is. Another one said, “I had never thought about this before, but what a cool career for my generation.” This year we had six hospitality students from Ole Miss and three out of the six who are graduating in a year said they were originally going to work in a hotel, but now they are considering being a travel advisor.
How has technology helped the travel advisor profession?
Look at how the business has changed. Everybody talks about how technology is wiping people out. Well, there are two technologies that have completely revitalized our profession: mobility and social media. One of our members from Atlanta recently posted a photo on Facebook that I thought was the ultimate recruitment tool. She and one of her top people were sitting in an infinity pool in Africa with the savannah and elephants in the background. And they were there on their laptops servicing their clients. Now having said that, every time I hear people say they want to be a travel advisor because they like to travel, I always say a lot of people want to do that. You have to ask yourself: Do you love to care for people? Do you have a service heart and a service ethos?
What are the main challenge today facing travel advisors and how can they overcome them?
I think one of the challenges is definitely what I call collateral damage, where our supplier partners may be engaged in a pretty rough and tumble battle with online travel agencies for direct bookings or where they are marketing to consumers with their loyalty programs. We get stuck in the middle of that. We recently had a meeting at a Virtuoso preferred property that hundreds of our advisors attended, and after that we were all getting emails every week from the hotel company asking us to book direct and join their loyalty program. But that’s a simple fix.
But aren’t direct bookings a threat to the profession?
I’ve always been of the mind that I don’t care about direct bookings. In fact I began dealing with this in 1991 when we started what is now our VAST (Virtuoso Adventure & Specialty Travel) program. With many of the companies that have been part of that program, 80% of all their business was direct. A lot of our members asked why we were bringing anti-travel agent companies in, and my response was if these very specialized companies had relied on travel agents, they wouldn’t be in business today. We don’t care whether or not they do direct business, but we do care if they are willing to be really good multi-channel partners. One of the issues that I have really urged suppliers to constantly drive home to their technology and digital strategy people is to build systems that allow direct bookings but also have predisposed in them the idea of multi-channel distribution to allow value-added channels to be fully integrated in that strategy. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as these suppliers just say “or contact your travel professional.” We’re secure in our customers, but don’t do something that makes us look like we’re incompetent or don’t know what is going on.
What is a travel agency today? Given the ever-increasing number of travel-selling models, how do you define an agency?
We started with a lot of carriage trade agents back in the 1980s. When we started bringing on the cruise-focused agencies, we got a lot of “who are they” from our members. Then we brought in big corporate agencies and then host agencies. If you look at it, there are all these different models, but we believe that diversity has been good for us. We also have some non-negotiable things: One is the advisor must be available on every transaction. We have members that have some sort of online booking system—though it doesn’t mean on every transaction. But the advisor must be available. With OTAs, you’ve got a business model where the entire intent is to have as few people call you as possible. Our model is we want everybody to call us or be in contact. What we care about is driving experiential travel, taking care of the client, being proactive, and learning from each other. If you look at the macro-realities of travel over the next 10 to 15 years, travel is outpacing GDP and there’s still a lot of room for a lot of new business.