Luxury Travel Advisors Remember Virtuoso Co-Founder Jesse Upchurch


On February 26, the former chairman and co-founder of Virtuoso, Jesse Upchurch, passed away. Mr. Upchurch, 93, enjoyed a career in travel that spanned more than 50 years.

“My father was a pioneer in this business, and I am forever grateful that he introduced me to the world and this industry at such an early age,” said Matthew Upchurch. “He had a nose for knowing what the luxury traveler wanted, and it wasn’t necessarily the traditional refinement found in five-star hotels or transatlantic cruise liners. He knew the world offered more than that. His insatiable curiosity about the unknown, his passion for other people and their cultures, and his tendency to question conventional wisdom with a simple ‘why not?’ opened the door for others to experience countries that were not considered tourism-friendly yet. He left his mark on this industry that he loved so much.”

The elder Upchurch’s entry into the travel industry began when he invested in Vagabond Cruises, a yacht-chartering company in the Caribbean’s West Indies islands. Realizing a market existed for both adventure and luxury travel, he turned his attention to Mexico, building the first timeshare resort in Acapulco and purchasing Turismo Antonio Perez and Hoteles S.A. de S.V., a travel company and international hotel representation group. 

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With the purchase of Percival Tours in 1962, Upchurch expanded operations into more exotic locales such as the South Pacific and Asia, quickly augmenting beyond more traditional European destinations. As chairman and CEO of Percival Tours, he opened up tourism in markets previously not often considered, such as Africa and India. Understanding the luxury consumer’s mindset, he introduced the first air-conditioned motor coaches so that his upscale guests could tour the areas in comfort.

A founding member of World Wildlife Fund’s 1001 Club, Upchurch was also a supporter of conservation. In an effort to help protect the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes, he bought land in Kenya and donated it to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife for what is now known as the grounds surrounding Giraffe Manor. Upchurch also was a co-founder of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, where he served as chairman, CEO and president. He also held the chairmanship of the African Travel Association. 

From the travel advisor community: 

“With the passing of Jesse Upchurch, the ‘Greatest Generation’ has sadly surrendered yet another member of its esteemed group. Jesse was an icon, a true pioneer and visionary in both the travel industry and the world.

“His groundbreaking travel pursuits, innovative thinking and success in the luxury travel market have elevated the overall professionalism, economic opportunities and general public’s awareness, utilization and respect of the industry as a whole. 

“In Country Western parlance, it could be said that Jesse was ‘luxury travel, before luxury travel was cool,’ and that he successfully paved the way for many future, aspiring advisors to enjoy rewarding, sustainable travel careers. 

“Jesse’s spirit, philanthropic efforts, quick smile and travel industry contributions will all be sadly missed, but his mission, life and professional legacy are alive and well under the leadership and commitment of his son Matthew Upchurch.”

– Paul Largay, CEO, Largay Travel, Inc.

“When I think of Jesse, I smile! He was warm, genuine and such a gentleman. I recall our many dinners together when I was on the Virtuoso Member Advisory Board and his wonderful stories about his early days. However, the one thing that has always stayed with me is how proud he was of Matthew!” 

– Mary Ann Ramsey, President, Betty Maclean Travel, Inc. 

Father and Son: Jesse Upchurch is shown here with his son, Matthew, CEO of Virtuoso. Over the years, the two have made major contributions to the luxury travel advisor community. It’s clear that Jesse Upchurch’s legacy will live on and on throughout the coming decades.

“My enduring memory of Jesse is the warm smile and twinkle in his eye as he talked with you.

“I am so thankful that he infused Matthew with a love for travel. Jesse’s greatest gift to us is the inspired leadership of his son who has helped us all make this an amazing career.”

– Troy Haas, President / CEO, Brownell Travel

“Jesse Upchurch was one of the founders of luxury travel. His legacy of warmth, truth, inspiration and creative business ideas are a gift to our luxury travel industry. I will forever miss his fabulous smile and the twinkle in his eyes.” 

– Valerie Wilson, Co-Owner, Valerie Wilson Travel

“Jesse Upchurch was a living legend — a man who never knew a stranger. My fondest memory of Jesse was a conversation we had in India: He asked me to share with him some of my favorite destinations. After mentioning China and India, I told him my real passion for travel was Botswana. He smiled, laughed, and told me he, too, loved Botswana, adding I was smart and on the right track, reminding me to follow my passions. Gotta love a man who smiles with his eyes!” 

– Barbara King, Co-President, Great Getaways Travel

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