When Virtuoso chose the Crystal Symphony as the venue for its annual Overseas Symposium held last month, it marked the first time the association had held such an event at sea. The result was four days of trade shows and meetings in an intimate, luxurious environment ideal for sharing between 202 Virtuoso travel consultants and 287 Virtuoso Preferred Suppliers. Luxury Travel Advisor was on board to witness the events first hand.
Julie Lemish of Rex Travel in Chicago admitted that she was “skeptical about being stuck at sea” for a four-day business meeting. “But, the format actually turned out to be excellent,” she says. “The best thing about the ship was that no one was distracted by their cell phones or BlackBerries, so it was a very good opportunity to reconnect with old suppliers and friends and to make new connections.”
Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch, CTC, in his keynote address at the Symposium, reported that member agencies were reporting that business is so strong, travel consultants are working to capacity to accommodate their clients’ needs.
“Last year we saw our numbers return to the 2000 level, and that was the high watermark; 2005 promises to be even stronger,” said Upchurch. “All of the predictions of baby boomers traveling at record rates are actually coming
In a sense, the strong demand for affluent travel creates a challenge for Virtuoso, the membership of 6,000 travel specialists in North and South America, the Caribbean, and Australia.
“The question is, will we have the number of agents needed to deal with the magnitudes of luxury travelers in the future?” Upchurch told Luxury Travel Advisor. In response to this anticipated need, Virtuoso is developing “the next generation” of travel consultants by implementing a program called Local Business Development (LBD), which provides training, tools, sales goals and marketing to potential “superstars” of the business. These individuals could include agents already working at Virtuoso locations, or even those who have never worked in the travel business before.
“When you are a Virtuoso travel agency owner, you are in the talent development business,” said Upchurch. “Ten years ago, when you were hiring an agent the question was always ‘Do you have five years of GDS experience?’ Now the question is, ‘How do you build a business to attract well-educated, well-spoken individuals?’”
Virtuoso is also continuing its branding initiatives that in part are aimed at escalating the role of travel consultants in the public eye.
“We want the Virtuoso brand to bring in people who would never dream of becoming a travel agent but want to become a Virtuoso travel consultant,” said Upchurch. Part of the message to those in the LBD program is also that being a successful travel consultant can be lucrative; Upchurch said that some of the best and brightest agent members of Virtuoso make six-figure annual salaries.
Upchurch also stressed to his audience during the Symposium that the unique, high quality relationships Virtuoso members share with their clientele is the backbone of
the consortia’s success.
“We believe the only long-term, sustainable competitive advantage we have over other forms of distribution is the quality of our relationships and interaction between the consultant and customer,” said Upchurch. “True salesmanship is the ability to get beyond the issues of dates, rates and space and fulfill the intrinsic needs of the customer.”
Close relationships with valued suppliers is also key to Virtuoso’s success, and cementing those relationships was a main activity at the Symposium, where agents bonded with hoteliers, tour operators and other providers of luxury service.
“The Symposium is a wonderful opportunity for travel agency owners and managers to get to know the top executives of the suppliers on a one-to-one basis,” Dede Pittman of Destinations Travel of Vero Beach (FL) told Luxury Travel Advisor. “I learned of the new programs at Canyon Ranch from their director of sales, Roxanne Housley [in a relaxed setting], and more about Tauck Tours’ new programs from its president, Robin Tauck.” Pittman enjoyed having the Symposium’s trade shows spread over two days rather than having them take place on a single day for longer hours. “I connected with many suppliers from companies I really didn’t know too well, as there were fewer people to see, giving me a chance to really spend time seeing what was new.”
Maxine Nohrr of Travelmax in Indialantic, FL, reports that this was her first Virtuoso international conference. “Meeting with the suppliers was extremely helpful to me. I was able to spend more time with them than I normally could at [Virtuoso’s] TravelMart and I was able to discuss specific issues I had and favors I needed. I have been trying to put together a post-cruise stay in Canada for a group I’m hosting in the fall, and I met with one of Virtuoso’s Canadian partners while at the meeting. Together we decided on an excellent hotel and tour package to offer my group.”
In the end, all agreed that time aboard the Crystal Symphony was well spent.
“The travel industry is truly a business where it pays to have the right connections and relationships and this meeting gathers the best agents and best suppliers,” said Lemish.
While the location for Virtuoso’s next Overseas Symposium will remain a closely guarded secret for some time, Luxury Travel Advisor is able to reveal that the annual TravelMart will be held in Las Vegas at the Bellagio August 14-19.