An exclusive network of 740 independent travel agencies in 40 countries, Virtuoso members generate $15.5 billion annually in travel sales, making the group a powerhouse in luxury travel.
They’ve only recently penetrated the UK market, where they have a modest 16 members including Protravel International, Quintessentially and Colletts Travel. Chief executive Matthew Upchurch has grand designs on our shores though. “I’d like our members to own 20% of the luxury demographic [in the UK],” he says.
So how do you join the club? It’s strictly invitation-only, he explains. “We operate on referrals. We only accept agencies with a long history of success. Can they handle high-end experiential business?”
In fact he admits it can be hard to recruit because Virtuoso is targeting the best of the best. “They often say ‘I’ve been in this business a long time, I’m already the best, why do I need you?’ But eventually Virtuoso sells itself once they start to see the power of the network and what it does.”
Once accepted as a fee-paying member of this exclusive club, agents have access to 1,200 hotels around the world. They’re not barred from using existing suppliers, but Upchurch does point out that Virtuoso’s global reach and shared buying power does deliver attractive rates. They also have access to a range of tools to help grow their businesses, including marketing support, training, and networking events. UK members take part in webinars, for example, to share ideas. “I’m most proud of our ethos of sharing intellectual property,” says Upchurch.
Agent members are listed on virtuoso.com, which he describes as like a “dating site”. “We help match consumers with advisers. They can choose who they feel most comfortable with.”
Indeed it’s these personal relationships that are the foundation of Virtuoso’s raison d’etre. Which is why once a year, its members gather in Las Vegas for Virtuoso Travel Week, to conduct 400,000 appointments with suppliers across four days. It’s a speed dating format – appointments are either 4 or 10 minutes long – and the sole purpose is to introduce travel advisers to key contacts from the supplier world that can be used as leverage with future bookings. Upchurch insists that the high volume of repeaters (70%) ensures “the world’s largest conga line” keeps moving. “It’s like jumping in a white water river. You go with the flow, or you drown.”
This year 752 satellite events were scheduled in Vegas, cocktail parties and the like, creating “communities within the community.”
With the growth in online travel, he draws parallels between the travel and financial services industries. “We don’t need stockbrokers to make a transaction, we can do that ourselves,” he says. “But in the last 20 years there has been a massive explosion in the number of private wealth managers. You don’t see them as readily, but like the best travel advisers, they are specialists in knowing what their customer wants to do with their money.”
It’s impossible to be a specialist in every destination around the world, he says, but you don’t have to be when you have access to Virtuoso’s global network of specialist ground handlers, who can get your clients exclusive privileges such as early access to the Vatican or into notable private homes that are normally off-limits to the public.
However, you can be a specialist in your own clientele, he maintains. “The most important difference between a transactional travel agent and a trusted travel adviser is the conversation that takes place after the trip. When you ask your client ‘If you could change one thing about your holiday, what would it be?’ That conversation is so valuable because it engages you in a learning relationship. Only call and debrief 100% of the clients you want to keep.”