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On Site: Virtuoso Symposium's General Session

April 16, 2010 By: Kirk Cassels

According to some locals we spoke with while attending the General Session of the 2010 Virtuoso Symposium Mexico, Mexico President Felipe Calderon rarely speaks for longer than 15 minutes when addressing a large crowd and he barely ever takes questions. And so they were a little stunned after the President spoke to Virtuoso travel advisors and suppliers for more than 40 minutes before answering five questions from the crowd.

President Calderon was indeed the highlight of the General Session as he shared some information that would interest anyone selling travel to Mexico. The news that received the most applause was a plan to allow those with U.S. visas to pass automatically through immigration and customs when visiting Mexico. Basically, a U.S. visa is as valid as a Mexico visa when traveling. Calderon also announced that his government is spending $50 billion per year to invest in the country's infrastructure, providing a stronger base for tourism.

"Tourism is key to Mexico," Calderon said. "We want to put our country in the hands of your clients. The government and our citizens are ready to serve with open arms as we say, 'This is where your home is.' "

Adding some incentive for luxury travel advisors to send their clients to Mexico, President Calderon cited the country's diversity, comparing a trip from Tijuana to Cancun to a journey to Moscow from Madrid. Reflecting on the country's eco-tourism, the President said travelers can find anything they want, from gray whales in the Sea of Cortez to monarch butterflies migrating in the forests of Culiacan. The most specific, and intriguing, topic President Caldeon addressed, however, was the ongoing efforts to open and discover what could be the burial tomb of one of the Aztecs' last leaders right in Mexico City.

The General Session at the Virtuoso Symposium also included exclusive interviews with executive who have expertise in travel trends and branding. The discussions were facilitated by Peter Bates, president of Strategic Vision.

First up was Jim Carrington, group executive of global consumer products for MasterCard Worldwide.

His message: Value is key, and more important than saving money. Carrington's emphasis on value over price came shortly after Bates shared some "think tank feedback" from Virtuoso members, which read, "More than ever before, clients expect a return on their investment in travel. Whether it be through experience (the value-added), the price (savings) or the service (response), the pressure on us is to deliver to their expectations. For the most part it is price."

Carrington responded to focus on pricing, reminding travel advisors to highlight experience. "Show the consumer how travel is a big part of becoming a part of a local community," Carrington told the audience during the interview. "They need help reshaing and expressing their self identities. Spend more time helping them get permission to continue doing things at the level they have been. Give them premission through meaning and planning."

Speaking of changes in trends he has seen in luxury travel, Carrington said that people want to be transparent about spending so that they feel an element of control and have a greater trust in their travel advisor.

Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester Research, followed Carrington's one-on-one with Bates, and spoke mostly of the role technology plays in selling luxury travel. "If you say your clients don't use technology, then you may not know them well enough," he said. "Don't let technology come between you and your client."

Harteveldt shared some datat to support his statements, reporting that only one-third of high-income travelers don't see a role for technology in planning travel and that 27 percent of online travelers, this year, said they would go offline with an agent they can find and trust if they had the opportunity. That's up from 23 percent just three years ago— slowly, but surely and steady. Another important fact shared by Harteveldt was that 54 percent of high-income travelers participate in social media. Although that number is below average, according to Harteveldt, he believes it will continue to grow with the next generation. "Clients are educating themselves on travel by using social media to become smarter customers," he said. "Advisors must use social media to engage these clients and build more business."

To become an social media expert, Harteveldt suggested travel professionals do more than engage their community through Twitter and Facebook, by taking trips to Apple and Best Buy stores, among others, to play with the latest gadgets and understand new technology. Complementing Carrington's earlier conversation about value, Harteveldt reminded the audience that their serivce and support adds value to any pricing.

Speaking about branding, Phil McAveety, executive vice president and chief brand officer for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, was the last of the three to converse with Bates. In the most basic terms he could provide, McAveety said luxury travel advisors must clearly think about the customer, be clear on what they stand for, remain diligent in defending it, and kee it simple. "The best brands deliver an emotional benefit," he said, "something over and above trust alone."

McAveety sees growing opportunities for professionals to get more attention to their brand, from the millions of Chinese travelers emerging as a powerful market to transition that Generation Y is making as they seek the luxury elements of business travel in their leisure vacations. "You are the product," he said. "You are the brand. Clients will deal with you because you are the one they want. You don't want to be the best kept secret in town."

During the General Session, the engaged audience took notes on pads provided by Virtuoso or tapping the information into their iPhone, Blackberry, Android or other PDA devices. After a long morning and afternoon filled with information and excitement, the General Session concluded before participants took a journey to the San Juan Tlacatecpan Ranch (owned by the family that owns Corona beer, and site of a recent meeting between President Calderon and France President Nicolas Sarkozy). Later that evening, the celebration and mingling continued at a cocktail reception and dinner at Vizcainas hosted by Regent Seven Seas. Click here for In the Spotlight photos.

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