Virtuoso CEO: What makes travel agents priceless?

Virtuoso, a global network of travel designers, has existed for more than 30 years – way before the Internet forced travel agents to stop acting as order takers and start being real advisors. Founder Matthew Upchurch never stops exhorting that message to agents. The CEO of Virtuoso talks about how to get more Asian travel experts into its fold.

Matthew Upchurch

You’ve just appointed an Asia regional director, Evan Pierce, based in Singapore. What’s your intent for Asia?
We want to grow relative to the growth of the market. But we will only grow as large as our values allow us to (i.e. having only members that share those values).

We’re an organisation that helps entrepreneurs come together to exchange information and share ideas. At our two-day APAC forum here (in Singapore, coinciding with ILTM Asia Pacific in May), it’s energising to see an exchange of ideas among members, be it about staff recruitment, marketing, service levels and other issues. If you don’t believe that sharing is actually more powerful than keeping something to yourself, then we’re probably not the right organisation for you.

We’re also an organisation with a greater purpose, which is, enriching lives through human connections. The centre of our value proposition is the power of relationships.

What excites you about the Asian market?
In Asia, we’re seeing a lot of boutique independent players and this is why I’m excited. We’re the perfect solution for them. There are two things that drove me to build this organisation. One is my love for travel. The other is because there are these amazing boutique agencies and I wanted for there to be an opportunity to bring these entrepreneurs together to compete with the giant multinational organisations.

Today, the number one competitor to our members is not other agencies. It is the customers doing it themselves.

Do travel agents get that by now?
Let’s look at an industry that evolved the way we’re evolving but 20 years earlier – the stockbrokers. Some people use them for transactions and a little advice; others have stockbrokers who give really good advice while the transaction is almost secondary.

The online revolution split the market. The market looked like it all went online, because there were these huge online players that became big consumer brands. A big chunk of business went there, because it was cheaper, this and that. But what gets lost is the fact that during the same period of time, there was this massive growth in true private wealth advisors, people who really were not trying to get you to transact, but whom you were paying based on the value of having an overall plan, strategy, making you feel comfortable, helping you and family identify your life’s priorities connected to your finances.

Well, the same thing has happened in travel. You’ve got this massive amount that’s about booking, but there’s also a huge growth in real trusted advisors.

Whenever I talk to advisors, I say if you tell people that you are in the business of booking travel, you’ve literally lost the game before you even start. Because booking travel is not the problem; there are hundreds of ways of booking travel and hundreds of new ways being invented everyday on how to book.

Your take on the difference between transactional and trusted advisor?
Our job is not booking travel. It is to help well-educated, savvy consumers, who want to focus on value rather than price, to optimise their life experiences through travel.

Trusted advisors do that by having a larger conversation with the client. Consumer research all around the world has validated that the single most important thing that differentiates a transactional agent from trusted advisor is having a conversation with the client after they return from their trip. If you don’t have a conversation, or some sort of exchange with your client to learn from that previous trip – what did you like, what would you change? – then you are transactional.

Every trip becomes a learning opportunity that grows the value of that relationship and makes it stickier.

In Asia, a refrain I hear is everyone now wants to be a luxury agent, or claim they are but are not. How do you qualify your members?
Our general philosophy around the world has been to go in and find the people who already have the best reputation, the best production.

So while we do help people improve their game, there is an element – a play-off of our name, Virtuoso (a person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit) – which is, if you put a Stradivarius violin in the hands of somebody who’s never played the violin, he would not tell the difference, right?

And why would the best want to join us if they are already the best? But why wouldn’t they want to be in a club with other people that are as accomplished as they are?

We look at two specific things: you have to have a certain amount of real luxury volume to be eligible. But it’s also the kind of volume, and your reputation. To be frank, we check the reputations of people who are joining us through our partners. We ask our partners, what do you think of these people, of their practices? It is an extensive process and the reality is by the time you get in, the other members and suppliers have already given you their endorsement, we know you’re a cultural fit and we know we’re not starting at zero.

We see the rise of new, younger entrepreneurs. Often they are a very small team. They see Virtuoso as being too big.
There are really two kinds of Virtuoso members. We have members that run ‘serious’ (in the sense of big or established) businesses, and members that own practices. We have boutiques all over the world, some where there are may be just five people, but they are well-designed and exclusive practices.

It’s the same with our hotel partners. We have 1,300 hotels worldwide. Forty-eight per cent are 100 rooms or less; 25 per cent are 50 rooms or less. We even have properties like the Minaret Station (Alpine Lodge) in New Zealand, which you can do only by helicopter, and it’s only four chalets. It’s not size; it’s quality and standards.

What’s an innovation or R&D that Virtuoso is working on to support members?
One project we’re doing is a digital tool that supports the interaction between an advisor and a client on longterm travel planning.

So instead of planning one trip at a time, we’ve developed this tool that curates for every person in the family their travel wishes, in a fun way, and has a backend system that will show all their travel dreams. So instead of the client thinking of one trip at a time, the advisor could lay out a strategy for the couple or family on how to optimise their free leisure time for the next five years – next year we’ll be here; three years from now will be the right time to take our kids to Africa, and so on.

The idea is, why would you go to a financial advisor and spend time and effort to have a conscious plan to optimise your financial assets, and not sit down with a Virtuoso advisor who can help optimise your most valuable non-renewal asset, which is your free leisure time? If you lose money, you can make it back. If you lose time, it never comes back.

What to you is a great travel advisor and do you champion him to consumers?
We do consumer PR. We explain what a real travel advisor does.

We tell them, a great travel advisor is a specialist. But they say, wait a minute, they can’t possibly know everything. Well, a really great advisor does not pretend to know everything. They are a specialist in YOU. Their job is to get to know you, who you are, what you like, what you don’t like. They may not know everything but that’s why they have this entry point to a global Virtuoso network that has the incredible connections that provide them with the knowledge and buying power.

If you think of how Asia will develop for Virtuoso in the next few years, what would you like to see?
That we have grown to a significant, relevant player relative to the overall size of the market, that we continue our philosophy of authentic, personalised, human-centric travel, rather than travel that focuses on price or deals, that we actually help members and suppliers in this market as we have in other markets.

If we could help Theng Hwee (founder, Country Holidays, which won Virtuoso Asia-Pacific Luxury Award, Hotels & Resorts Growth 2017) grow his business, just as we helped Valerie Wilson in America, that would mean we’ve done a great job for the industry and for the consumers in the market. The ultimate goal for us is to get up everyday and do something that has a positive impact on someone’s life.

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