Karen Upchurch: An Educator’s Odyssey

Karen Upchurch says, “[Being a Virtuoso agency] truly sets us apart from the average agency and the Internet.” // Photo by Mark Steighner

Karen Upchurch, president of Odyssey Travel in Ormond, FL, prides herself on being proactive with her business rather than reactive. For this reason, she switched to selling luxury travel from mass-market in the early days of her agency, which opened in 1985 outside of Daytona. When Upchurch recognized she preferred being out front working with clients, she brought in her son, John, to run the business end of things. To keep new advisors coming in to the business, she launched a travel school, where she mentors newbies and pulls the best of the best to become a part of Odyssey Travel, which has 13 employees and 27 independent contractors between its Ormond and Jacksonville, FL offices.

Upchurch has also kept apace of selling new destinations. A gifted crafter of FITs all over the world, she is now a South America specialist, a destination that provides her with an abundance of new experiences to serve up to her seasoned clients who have already been to Europe and Africa.

Odyssey Travel, which brings in an annual $15 million in revenue, is experiencing double-digit growth these days, in large part due to Upchurch’s focus on adding new advisors and training her existing independent contractors to increase their sales. She is a former teacher, hailing from Chicago, which gives her an inherent inclination to be an educator. 

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“Now, I find myself teaching the travel class to people who are new to the industry, so I have the best of both worlds,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Being free to work with clients, rather than being bogged down with office management and human resource issues, gives Upchurch the chance to make some magical memories.

“One trip that I just finished was really quite interesting with a lot of unique twists and turns, from Amman to Lithuania and many stops in between,” says Upchurch. “My clients had their own driver and stayed in unique luxury properties with all of the amenities. They had outstanding guides and dining in Michelin-star restaurants.” 

On an upcoming trip, she has a young couple traveling to Peru hiking the Inca Trail and visiting Machu Pichu. Upchurch encouraged them to stay on a bit longer and to spend time in the Amazon. “They really wouldn’t have thought to do both at the same trip, and are so excited about the added adventure,” she notes.

Upchurch says that South America is an untapped market for her clients and easily accessible from Florida, either via Atlanta or Miami.

“They’re really looking for something different,” says Upchurch. “In South America, they’ve such a variety. You go to the big cities — Buenos Aires and Lima and Rio — and you’ve got that metropolitan feel and it’s very unique. But then you go to Patagonia and they enjoy the changes to the explorer lodges. And it’s a very, very good value.”

Another positive for South America travel is that it’s a few hours within the time zone of Florida, so jet lag is not typically an issue. Upchurch says that when her clients come back from a trip there, they’re just thrilled and want to go back again.

“They’ve got vineyards down there, so people who love the California vineyards and who have been to France and the Loire Valley will be thrilled. We encourage them to see the vineyards of the world,” says Upchurch.

She says South America works well for a younger clientele that wants to hike and perhaps add on a few extra days to do something extremely different, like the couple that stayed on to visit the Amazon.

Suppliers are steadily improving their product to suit the U.S. traveler, she notes. 

“Some properties weren’t as luxurious as our clients would expect, but they’re evolving and their services are evolving, and private transfers, which is what I’m asking for, are getting better. There’s no question about it.”

She says that it’s all about managing expectations as you’re planning the trip. “You just need to let the client know that it’s not going to be that five-star Ritz-Carlton property, that it’s more of a local feel, that it will be clean but that it’s not that luxury level.”

Upchurch says that those luxury clients in search of an authentic experience are not willing to give up air conditioning. “You have to be cautious about who you’re offering that to,” she notes. “I have many clients who just wouldn’t be able to make the shift. But that’s okay, there are other places that they could go for that soft adventure experience. And in Buenos Aires or Lima, or some of those larger cities in South America, they do have five-star hotels.”

When people ask her if she’s afraid to send people to Buenos Aires, she responds, “If you’re staying in a very good hotel and a good part of town, it’s okay. There are some places in say, Daytona Beach or Ormond, that I wouldn’t go.”

She travels as much as she can, to South America and beyond, to scope out new offerings.

“I’m always trying to see where people are thinking about going, or what is the next hot destination, and I’m always making sure that there’s always something for that unique idea, available for them,” she says.

A gifted crafter of FITs, Karen Upchurch travels as much as she can, to scope out new offerings. She is here seen in Oingt, France.

Family Business

She’s able to travel because her son, John, is now the agency’s CEO. One of her three sons, he is a former eminent domain attorney who did extremely well working for the state and then with his own practice for a total of 17 years. With his legal expertise and an undergraduate business degree, John has brought new energy to Odyssey Travel. 

“He’s a natural entrepreneur, so he’s looking to grow the business,” says Upchurch. “It’s freed me up. I don’t do any HR, I don’t do any accounting, I don’t do any of that anymore, which is wonderful because it frees me up to sell, which I love. I probably would’ve burned out at this point if I had to deal with all of those other issues that are now facing agencies. It’s given us the ability to grow.”

Another positive factor? 

“It’s amazing because once John came in, our advisors felt much more secure because they saw a future and they weren’t ready to retire. They felt the new energy that came in and they knew that we were looking to the future and that we’re really in a growth pattern,” says Upchurch.

She is a former school teacher and taught travel classes at a local university, as well, which gave her the idea of hosting travel classes twice a year. It’s a strategy that helps her fuel the agency with new advisors.

It’s a three-month program for independent contractors that meets once a week. Upchurch charges a fee and mandates that students are new to the industry. Classes are followed by a mentoring program and Odyssey Travel selects four students at a time to join the business.

“We start at ground zero with a little bit of geography and we go through all of the components of the travel business,” says Upchurch, “Such as how we’re paid, A to Z. We also take them onto a marketing plan for their business.” Because it’s strictly for ICs, classes instruct students on how to set up their own business and her son John works with them on the legal side of incorporating.

“It’s really a full-circle program,” says Upchurch.

Because she selects just four students at a time to affiliate with her agency, Upchurch can engage with them in depth. She gives them her cell phone number so they can call her on the weekend if they need advice on a supplier.

Her next class is set to start right after Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. Students sometimes drive over from nearby Orlando to Ormond for the classes, which are alternately held in Jacksonville, where Odyssey Travel has a second office. They tend to be in their late 30s to mid 40s; another student is getting ready to retire from the hotel industry and wants to hit the ground running as a travel advisor when the time comes.

To ensure they will be successful as advisors, Upchurch has students bring to class a list of people they think they can sell travel to. “We’re very realistic and we want them to understand [this business] is not just because you like to travel,” she says.

She also steers them toward specializing what they’re passionate about; for example, those with small children are encouraged to focus on family travel because that’s where they are in their lives.

Karen Upchurch with her son, John, at Orlando airport. She says, as the CEO, John has brought new energy to Odyssey Travel.

How it Began

Odyssey Travel was founded in 1985 when Upchurch opened shop with another advisor. She was educated as a teacher but always had a desire to travel. 

After a career in teaching, she stayed home with her three sons and kept busy as the president of the Junior League and volunteering at the hospital. After working at a very small travel agency, organizing its mailing list, she decided to go out on her own with one other advisor. She worked out a business plan with her husband to get things going.

She says the “mom and pop”-sized agency evolved into an American Express office but then joined Virtuoso as she observed what Virtuoso president & CEO Matthew Upchurch (no relation) was doing in the luxury space. “We felt that was much more where we were going than as a major mass-market, mid-range agency,” she says. They went through the rigors of applying and getting approved as a Virtuoso agency and haven’t looked back since.

“To be honest, it was the best thing we’ve ever done. With all the training and the engagement with all the suppliers and the other agency owners, it’s been marvelous. It really has,” she says.

“The rest is history. It’s kept growing and growing,” says Upchurch. “It’s just blossomed ever since. There obviously have been better years than others, but by and large it’s been a slow, steady growth. It’s been a very controlled growth, very consistent through the years.”

Developing a luxury clientele in her geographical region of the world took some doing. The Daytona area, which is fairly close to Orlando, tends to be more tourist-focused, so, at first, it was natural to sell mid-range travel products. The area has since become more affluent, but Upchurch has also helped her clients grow in to luxury.

“We’ve always kidded that we made lemonade out of lemons because, through the years, we’ve taken those people who have been on the larger ships and found specials or promotions to help move them up to the luxury end of travel.”

It doesn’t happen overnight, she says. “At first, we’ll introduce that private transfer or that private shore excursion. They really like that and many people don’t even know what’s out there. And that’s the key. They can afford it, there’s no question about it. They just don’t even know that it’s there.”

As an example, she says she just finished booking a greeter at the airport at Heathrow to assist a couple upon arrival.  

“That is something that they will greatly appreciate and I dare say that from now on they’ll probably ask for that,” says Upchurch. “I always encourage clients to have a private transfer upon arrival, that way we can prepay it, you don’t have to worry about currency. Someone’s waiting for you, they take you to your hotel. Going back to the airport I’m not too worried because the concierge will get you a taxi or the bellman. It’s that initial [instance], that’s when they begin to see the difference of working with somebody because they would never have thought about that.”

Upchurch says that she’s eased clients into expecting the private transfer or private shore excursion when they’re on a cruise. Private guided tours have also become de facto for many of her clients.

She relies on the Virtuoso network of suppliers to provide these opportunities.

“In our office, it all boils down to that relationship you have with your clients, and then, on the other side, with your supplier, because it comes through to them. Your supplier wants to do a very good job for your client because you’re going to send them more business if everyone is happy. It’s a very good circle.”

Upchurch joined Virtuoso in 1999 to be able to give her clients the special amenities that are offered through the network. “We are able to offer our clients those special experiences or tours that they can’t find online. It truly sets us apart from the average agency and the Internet. Virtuoso also encourages the building of relationships through our engagement [with suppliers and other agency owners] at meetings and all of the functions that are sponsored by Virtuoso. It offers a special opportunity to build our vendor relationships at a much deeper level than most consortia,” says Upchurch.

Odyssey Travel has expanded its reach of clients through referrals, its website and social networking on Facebook. Upchurch finds that referrals make the best clients because friends of clients are likely to travel in similar ways. They might overhear someone at a cocktail party talking about having a private transfer or enjoying an experience that Odyssey Travel has created for them. “All of a sudden, their friends are listening, so this is what they’ve come to expect.”

She also takes walk-in business. “We welcome them because they are seriously looking for help if they are willing to visit our office,” says Upchurch. “Once they book a trip with us, we usually have them for many years to come because of the engagement with our advisors.”

She has employees who have been with the agency for 25 years; one woman even retired but came back two weeks later. She was welcomed back with open arms.

Traveling is one of the benefits of owning a travel business, but it’s working with people that gives Upchurch joy. 

“Nothing makes me happier than having my clients come home and talk about their trip with that glow. That, to me, is just wonderful,” she says.

Not every day is happy, but it’s all in the recovery. “Some days are really rough — when the weather is terrible and things are canceled or somebody falls or gets sick overseas. But, you know, it’s all about being there to take care of the issues. It’s about being there at just the other end of the phone, to say, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll take it from here.’ That’s who we are.” 

She loves opening up people’s minds to try new things and she has a list of new things of her own that she’d like to try. She’s slated to go to Mongolia in September, a destination she thinks her clients will be very interested in hearing about.

Upchurch says that many of her clients who have visited Europe extensively are interested in going to China and Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. She’s not afraid to have suppliers interact directly with her agency’s customers; in fact, she plans events where vendors come and spend time with her advisors for a lunch and learn at noon, then follow up with client presentations in the afternoon.

“All of a sudden, the office and the advisors seem to become the experts because they were able to bring in a representative from Royal Caribbean or Silversea, [and a rep] might bring one of his guides from the Antarctic with him. It really brings it home to our clients.

“The clients get to ask questions and we’re still in that loop because we provided the opportunity for them to talk with suppliers.”

As business continues to grow by double-digits, Upchurch plans to continue with her travel class and to mentor new advisors to ensure their business is thriving. “If they grow, we grow,” she says. “We’re investing a tremendous amount of time and energy in them, which is well worth every minute. We’d also like to increase our advisors but we’re doing it in a very methodical way.” 

She’s extremely optimistic about the future of luxury travel, particularly because Baby Boomers are retiring at a record rate. “Baby Boomers are leading the way and showing Gen X how they should travel,” says Upchurch. “This gives us in the travel business the ability to help them have the unique experiences that they are looking for.”

After being in the industry all these years, Upchurch is still excited for each new day. 

“I love working with my clients and being able to make their dreams come true by showing them the world,” she says. “Every day is different and seeing people grow through travel is so gratifying. Travel is a topic everyone loves to talk about, and I feel like an ambassador for the travel industry.” 

Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is the only hotel located at the entrance to Machu Picchu.

Karen Upchurch: My South American Favorites

Machu Picchu: When staying in , the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge gives one the ability to enjoy private time after the day-trippers have left to explore history like no other destination. The luxury of the Hiram Bingham train from Cusco, hiking the trails and terraces among the Inca ruins and merely contemplating this beautiful World Heritage site make for a transformational experience like no other. 

Amazon Jungle: This is for the experiential traveler who wants to really see the world. Being on the Aria Amazon cruise, traveling down the river gives one the sense of an early explorer to the region. There is a definite difference; you are enjoying the beautiful stateroom, with fine dining and guides that are second-to-none, with fascinating shore excursions on small eight-passenger launch boats.

Ecuador/Galapagos: Never to be missed and so unreal, this is an experience that every family should enjoy together. Upon arrival, you are so enamored with the blue footed boobies that you take countless pictures, but you soon learn that you are living with the animals, whether on the islands or while snorkeling with them. The Silver Galapagos gives one the opportunity to be there and enjoy the islands and the wildlife, yet return to luxurious accommodations for nightly discussions and explanations by knowledgeable guides of what you have just experienced.

Buenos Aries: The Alvear Palace Hotel is a luxurious step back in time in a wonderfully modern city. Favorite experiences range from the Rojo Tango show at the edgy Faena Hotel, to being out in the Pampas the next day having a glorious experience with Maita from Mai 10 on a ridiculously large Argentinian Estancia, being entertained by Gauchos playing their traditional team games on horseback. 

Wine Regions: From the Mendoza Area in Argentina to the Colchagua region in Chile, there are so many opportunities to stay in wine lodges while visiting a variety of vineyards — that it is a wine lover’s dream come true. It is my recommendation that when in one of the areas, do take time to visit a local wine-tasting festival. It is an experience that you will never forget.

Lake Titicaca is a unique destination, featuring floating islands made of bales of reeds lashed together by the natives, who live and work from these fascinating structures. 

Patagonia and, of course, the glaciers provide endless opportunities to explore and are a photographer’s dream.

Outside South America

Very near and dear to my heart is Germany. Many times, we incorporate it with other countries, but it is indeed a destination in and of itself and would take a lifetime to enjoy completely. From being in Berlin at the Adlon Kempinski Hotel and enjoying the historical tours of the area with Abercrombie & Kent, to being in Cologne and climbing the iconic Cathedral, or being in Munich, zip-lining across the Olympic Stadium, Germany offers truly amazing experiences. In contrast, enjoying the smaller towns like Regensburg can’t be beat for a relaxing cultural experience.  

Italy is a favorite of so many. For a change of pace, I would suggest experiencing Puglia, located in the “heel of the boot” in the southeast section of the country. For a unique destination in Puglia, try the Borgo Egnazia, which is stunning in every way. Just the perfect place to relax and recharge.

Vietnam is a must for those who wish to step off the beaten path. Using Trails of Indochina assures the guest the opportunity to stay in the finest hotels, even in remote regions. Their ability to make your experience exceptional is guaranteed, and their experienced guides make the country come alive.

Odyssey Travel

Offices: Ormond Beach, FL and Jacksonville, FL
President: Karen Upchurch
CEO: John Upchurch
Number of advisors: 13 employees, 27 independent contractors
Annual volume of business: $15 million-plus
Business Mix: 70 percent leisure luxury; 30 percent corporate
Affiliations: Virtuoso
Advisory board positions: Member Advisory Board for Virtuoso for six years and Member of the Advisory Board for the German National
Tourist Office
Agency website: www.odysseytravel.com

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