The Virtues of Travel Mart

Ruthanne Terrero

 

Iattended Virtuoso’s Travel Mart at the Bellagio in Las Vegas last month, an event that broke records for attendance (there were 3,300 people there from 85 countries, including 1,500 member agents and 1,500 suppliers). The mood was incredibly upbeat; you could never tell from walking the hotel’s halls that the U.S. economy was still dragging along slowly.

One of the highlights was a panel hosted by Peter Bates of Strategic Vision. Bates prefaced the discussion by quoting some findings from a white paper he compiled following discussions at the Virtuoso Symposium in Mexico City earlier this year.

“Permission is the mission,” he said, quoting one of the paper’s edicts. It refers to the notion that travel advisors need to have a script that details why their clients should travel.

Other key findings: Travel advisors must have a technology plan and focus on having a website that delivers authentic content. They also must do their homework before jumping into social media. And, while they should use technology to build and enhance their client relationships, they must never overlook the value of one-to-one conversations. The three foundations of a great client relationship, said Peter, are trust, communication and partnership.

The panel itself was comprised of industry notables: Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO of Aqua Expeditions; Helen Smith, vice president of sales and marketing, The Dorchester Collection; Shanti Kohli, managing director of Amber Tours; and Malaka Hilton, CEO of Admiral Travel International.

Consumer trends was one topic that instantly came up. Hilton noted that affluent customers are still comparing what her agency offers them to what’s available online. Helen Smith from Dorchester agreed: “Customers’ expectations are so high,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘I know what I’m due and I demand it.’” It’s the same for Zugaro from Aqua Expeditions, who also noted that it’s all about time. “People have this one chance to get away, and they see this as a trip of a lifetime,” he said. “For many it is. People don’t go to the Galapagos Islands two or three times.”

As for planning these trips, Kohli of Amber Tours, which provides travel to India, said that those who do plan far out are not doing it a year ahead of time. “It’s now more like four to six months,” she said.

One of the highlights of the discussion was Hilton’s response to a question on how to keep customers from going out and comparing pricing, then returning again and again to the agency for a lower quote. “Our team has incentives to be sure they book right away, like in 24 hours,” she said. “To do this, I ask suppliers for something a little more, maybe a food and beverage credit or an upgrade.”

In the end, there was good news from Dorchester’s Smith. “People are very comfortable booking corporate travel online; it’s very simple,” she said. “But for more complicated travel, they want a travel agent; they don’t dare do it on their own.”

After a day of meetings, I had the pleasure of attending a special media dinner at Aria, where I’m shown at left with our host, Gail Fitzgerald, the hotel’s vice president of sales and markeing. We dined in Sky Villa #18, an enormous three-bedroom duplex. During our meal, which was comprised of courses prepared by each of the top chefs of Aria, Fitzgerald regaled us with fascinating stories of how Las Vegas has evolved over the 30 years she’s lived here. What I liked best about her comments was the fact that she loves it here and wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else. Now that’s an endorsement!

I love the contemporary style of Aria; it’s a great complement to its sister resort, the more traditional Bellagio. While I was in Las Vegas, I only began to explore the impact CityCenter, where Aria is located, has had on Las Vegas. I know I’ll be back again and I know I’ll find out more. Stay tuned!