Valerie Wilson Travel: A Family, a Business and a Family Business

(ChiChi Ubina) Keeping Valerie Wilson Travel going strong after nearly 40 years are owners Kimberly Wilson-Wetty (co-president), Valerie Wilson (founder and CEO) and Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg (co-president).

Few luxury travel agencies can boast the history and reputation of Valerie Wilson Travel. The New York City-based agency, founded in 1981 and led by matriarch Valerie Ann Wilson, has been built from a staff of three to over 375 advisors, associates and staff with an annual volume of business of $315 million in 2019. At Wilson’s sides for much of the agency’s history have been her daughters, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, both of whom became co-owners and co-presidents in 2006. But it’s much more than the numbers when it comes to Valerie Wilson Travel.

Back when Wilson launched the business, the “luxury travel” market didn’t exist in the way it does now: The Ritz-Carlton didn’t exist as a brand, Four Seasons only had two properties and Silversea and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, like many others, weren’t around yet. This means that the agency had a big hand in shaping the industry as we know it today. Of note, Sir Rocco Forte sought Wilson’s opinion when he launched RF Hotels and Virtuoso CEO Matthew D. Upchurch conferred with her when making the change from API Travel Consultants to the current Virtuoso name and logo. 

“It’s so important to have integrity,” Wilson tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “When I started in business, it really was about finding people that I would trust, and that making sure our word was our word. And I still firmly believe in that today.”

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Wilson-Buttigieg adds, “To watch and see over the better part of the last 38 years how this luxury space has evolved, and to know that Val — as our chairman, our CEO, our founder, our leader, our North Star — very much has been part of what these luxury brands are, is amazing.”

It’s not a responsibility that Valerie Wilson Travel takes lightly. “We’re incredibly fortunate with the relationships that we have developed with our supplier partners,” Wilson Wetty says. “I think one of the things that really sets us apart is there’s just been an element of respect from the beginning.”

“It very much boils down to people, relationships and the trust between each other,” Wilson tells us.

But you don’t become a powerhouse agency with such a high status by offering “cookie-cutter” product — “it is the ability to deliver high-quality customer service,” as Wilson-Buttigieg says.

Valerie Wilson Travel has always considered itself a travel consulting firm rather than an agency. “The passion that our people have for travel, and the passion for doing it the right way and the passion for customer service is foremost in our minds,” says Wilson. She jokes that the word “no” doesn’t really exist in her vocabulary. “Let me find another way to solve that problem instead of saying ‘no,’” she says.

The luxury industry “isn’t just brick and mortar; it’s experiences and memories, and you want people to be able to share those stories and memories,” says Valerie Wilson.

Wilson has also always been an advocate of planning trips for special occasions well in advance. Wilson Wetty says her mom would map out on yellow legal pads high school and college graduation trips, wedding anniversaries, or the right time to visit London and take your first safari. “You’ve got a lifetime of memories to think about,” Wilson tells us.

It’s the type of detailing required to put together a trip such as a 50th birthday celebration over the course of six months that included private planes, hotels, excursions and such. The multigeneration family traveled with a tutor and assistant (a total of six people) with other extended family members “swooping in and out” throughout the trip. In addition, Wilson-Buttigieg, who worked on the trip, adds that the itinerary was constantly changing on the fly. “Oh, you want a longer time in the Great Barrier Reef? You want less time in Queensland? Oh, you want more time in South Africa? You want less time in Zimbabwe?” she recalls.

Alongside Wilson-Buttigieg, Valerie Wilson Travel had two advisors working around the clock to be available for the clients should they need anything. Notable elements of the trip beyond the “usual VIP amenities” were building a well in Cambodia in the family’s name, providing roughly 100 turkey dinners in Hawaii for Thanksgiving and visiting a school in Africa so the kids could interact. The morning the family left, Wilson-Buttigieg met them at the airport with balloons, cake and bagels. “It was definitely challenging, definitely rewarding — the largest trip I’ve ever worked on,” she says.

Valerie Wilson Travel is about 50/50 leisure and corporate travel, a ratio they maintain on purpose. Wilson says the diversity is to safeguard the business from being wedded to one industry and suffering too greatly should anything happen to either. With this model, the agency has survived both Gulf Wars, 9/11, SARS, the 2008 recession and more. In addition, air is about one-third of their business — 74 percent of which is international, and 70 percent is in the front of the plane, “a real sweet spot,” Wilson-Buttigieg says. 

The Power of Access 

What differentiates Valerie Wilson Travel from the other so-called mega-agencies? You might say it’s their “Power of Access.” The trademarked tagline is a collection of programs and tools for both the agency’s advisors and clients. It’s the agency’s “secret sauce.”

Wilson-Buttigieg explains, “Those years of relationships matter — that when you actually pick up the phone or e-mail a general manager, you’re never going to be able to build a suite, or a seat or a cabin but odds are we’re going to have first right of refusal. Odds are they’re going to confirm a flight; odds are they’re going to check their inventory and hands-down we’ll have an option.”

Valerie Wilson Travel also offers Insider Access, a program that was launched in 2019. Once a month, the agency brings in a senior executive, typically from a cruise line or airline, to participate in a panel with Wilson Wetty, giving 45 to 50 advisors the inside scoop on what’s going on.

Suite Access is another tool; it’s the agency’s own experience-driven hotel program, which also offers clients upgrades, access and special VIP amenities. The idea came from the realization that Valerie Wilson Travel’s clients would come to them to book a safari but wouldn’t bother them for a room in Chicago over Thanksgiving, for instance. This program has been in place for five years now, but, more recently, Valerie Wilson Travel expanded Suite Access to include cruise lines. Some experiences available on cruises range from a private bridge or galley tour to an invitation to an officer’s table for dinner. The agency currently has about 200 properties and cruises included in Suite Access, about half of which remain year over year, while the other half turns over.

Valerie Wilson Travel also has PRIVY (Personal Recommendation Index from VWT for You), an internal database for sharing insider tips, travel inspiration and ideas. “Firsthand knowledge is key,” Wilson-Buttigieg says. But since “no one can know everything,” it helps to have a tool like this for advisors to share ideas and experiences. 

There’s even a consumer-facing smartphone app. Clients will be able to pull up their itinerary, read descriptions about their hotels, see what type of room they have and their special amenities, and who the general manager is. “It’s educating the customer and being present where they want you to be present,” Wilson-Buttigieg says.

Virtuoso Travel Week is a must-attend for Wilson-Buttigieg, Wilson and Wilson Wetty, who often bring 50 or more of their advisors with them.

In all, tools and trainings were a big focus for Valerie Wilson Travel in 2019. “We’re refocusing on some of our back-of-the-house tools, making us more efficient,” Wilson Wetty says. “It’s not the sexy, pretty stuff everybody talks about but it’s really exciting to see some of the changes going on in technology, how we’re embracing them and how our advisors are actually starting to use them. We’re starting to see tangible results.”

In addition, the agency has created a series of 101-, 201-, 301-type classes to train, or retrain, advisors on common tools such as the Microsoft Office suite. “Not everybody’s on the same spectrum of how technological savvy are they … so, we’re really tailoring the training specifically to the advisors’ needs and skill level,” Wilson Wetty says.

Wilson still believes in the importance of having an office. “There are still many of us in this company that work better in an office than we would in our home, and it’s important that we are available for preferred partners to be able to show their new product and tell their story,” Wilson says. She adds that it’s also helpful to have an office environment where you can put faces to the names of people you work with. It also helps set the tone for the business.

Two years ago, Valerie Wilson Travel opened its new office in Manhattan, just a couple blocks from Grand Central Station. The first thing you notice is the Valerie Wilson Travel peach coloring, which adorns some of the walls (“life needs a little bit of color,” Wilson tells us). The agency spans the entire 19th floor, and it recently took over part of the 24th. Across the floors, you will find a mix of offices along the exterior of the building, offering views of Midtown (Wilson has views of the Empire State Building and Wall Street), and open workspace in the middle, where many of the 160 advisors and employees in the office sit. There are more conference rooms in this office than their previous location, and there’s even a dedicated training lab. But there are also oil paintings on the wall, antiques and items of special importance from across the globe, which gives the office the feel a home.

Valerie Wilson Travel hosts “open mic” lunches in the office where advisors can get together and talk about where they’ve traveled lately and what they’ve learned from supplier partners. This information is distilled, and the marketing team puts it in a newsletter.

The New York City headquarters also serves as the location for training new-to-industry advisors. “We have a wonderful program — both online and in person — but part of it is required to be in person to be presented with our culture, which is a little bit different than many companies,” Wilson says. “I want everybody to enjoy their job and their career.”

A Family, a Business and a Family Business

If you ask Wilson why she got into the industry, she will say it was an easy decision — “I couldn’t find a travel agent,” she tells us. Upon returning to New York after living in London in the late 70s, Wilson opened Valerie Wilson Travel in the Pan Am building on Park Avenue. She started the business with three people and “ideally” sales of $5 million. “I started small and grew a company with our people into a very substantial company today with wonderful value in it, but it’s all from what I would call my small Midwestern roots of doing it the right way from the beginning.”

And one of the “right” decisions Wilson made early on was to focus on luxury. 

Prior to joining the family business, both Wilson-Buttigieg and Wilson Wetty were on the hotel side — the former with The Westbury Hotel on 69th Street and Madison Avenue, the latter with CIGA hotels. First Wilson-Buttigieg joined in 1991; her original plan was to stay two years. Wilson Wetty, on the other hand, never planned on joining the agency, but in 1995 when she was looking to take her career in a different direction, her mother told her she would start the following Monday. Twenty-five-plus years later, neither has looked back. “I’ve learned to never say never,” Wilson Wetty tells us. “It was a great decision.”

While their roles have constantly evolved over their nearly three decades each in business together, not much has changed officially since 2006, when Wilson’s daughters became co-owners and co-presidents. “The great thing about the three of us is we all are very similarly minded in terms of customer service, excellence and luxury, and yet we all have very different strengths and weaknesses,” Wilson-Buttigieg says. “You learn to be a family, a business and a family business — and in that order.”

One change: The agency welcomed Brian J. Buttigieg, Wilson-Buttigieg’s husband. “With my background in corporate law, I joined Valerie Wilson Travel to help as it transitioned from an entrepreneur-led start-up to a more mature, large-scale enterprise,” he says. “Over my 12 years at the agency, my role has expanded from legal and finance to the present, where I am responsible for most aspects of our operations. Throughout my professional career, nothing has been more gratifying than to work in a family business with the people I love and to be able to create a positive change.”

Wilson Wetty adds, “We’re all incredibly passionate about the company that we’ve developed.” That passion, understandably, could create tension. Wilson adds, “We’re all fairly strong-willed women, and so there might have been occasionally differences of opinion, but not necessarily anything that you would call conflict.”

After stints in the hotel business, Wilson-Buttigieg (right) joined Valerie Wilson Travel in 1991, followed four years later by Wilson Wetty. Both call the agency’s work extremely fulfilling.

Some solutions to keeping personal and work conversations separate were instinctive. For instance, Wilson-Buttigieg and Wilson Wetty early on determined to text each other about personal matters and use e-mail for work-related topics. “That made a big difference for us,” Wilson-Buttigieg says. For other differences of opinion, they have sought family business advisors. One of the top tricks they use is relying on a “magic word” that means that “everyone just has to de-escalate.”

“But at the end of the day because there is such a shared common value — of service excellence and integrity — it’s how we continue to evolve,” Wilson-Buttigieg says.

The family also prides itself on making its agency, which has branches nationwide and more than 150 independent contractors (or, associates, as Wilson prefers to call them), feel like a small company. “Part of it is making sure that you have an open-door policy — that we’re there for everyone because, collectively, we created the company that we are today,” Wilson says. “But it’s that you really do care about people and that you care about their lives, their families and their children.”

A simple gesture that shows that they care? The women handwrite letters for every employee and associate of Valerie Wilson Travel for their work anniversaries. “I am so proud of our people and the longevity of our people,” she tells us. About half of the agency’s employees have been with the company between five and 30 years, while the other half is all newer.

In 2019, Wilson Wetty says, the agency created a paid volunteer day, “so every employee can take a day off from work to go give back to the community at a charity that’s important to them. Those little touches really help to make it feel like a very personal company despite that we keep growing.”

The agency leads by example, too. Valerie Wilson Travel has built maternity wards in Zambia that had 100 healthy births in 2019. They’re in the process of replicating this in Uganda, Wilson-Buttigieg says.

Keeping in Touch With Clients

You might think when running such a large business, that the Wilsons wouldn’t have time to work directly with clients anymore. And you would think wrong. All three still work with clients and, even more, take on new clients (95 percent of these come via referral or word of mouth). Should a potential client reach out to any of the three, they will gladly take the call, vet them and work with them on the “higher-level stuff” before handing them off to the appropriate leisure, cruise or corporate advisor who can work on the finer details.

It’s a combination that works, Wilson Wetty says, because the client receives the expertise and relationships that she, her sister or mother have from their decades in the industry, but with the day-to-day contact offered by the other advisor. The Wilsons will “close the deal” and follow up with all of the suppliers to ensure the clients will be treated like VIPs. “My clients — new clients and existing clients — respect that I’m honest about it and they also know that they’re getting the best of both worlds because they have access to me, but they also have access to our advisors,” Wilson Wetty says.

Valerie Wilson Travel has also been servicing the same clients for generations. Several times in 2019, Wilson worked on a 25th or 35th wedding anniversary for clients who she booked a honeymoon for when she first opened her doors. She also works with her personal clients’ children and grandchildren, as they get older. Wilson Wetty adds that many of her clients have grown up together, with their children being similar ages. “Those experiences evolve over time, so my customers love the fact that I often speak the same language that they do,” she says.

“It’s about long-term relationships,” Wilson-Buttigieg notes. 

When taking on a new client, Wilson says one of her first questions is always, “What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever done when you were traveling?” She also likes to ask about their favorite place and why.

It’s also important to keep the entire family involved when planning a vacation, Wilson Wetty tells us. This way, she ensures that everyone in the family has a day or activity dedicated just to them. “It’s a great way for family members to get to know their other family members through their interests, and it might take some family members out of their comfort zone a little bit because they’re going to be doing something that they really don’t have any interest in,” she says.

One way the luxury traveler has changed in nearly 40 years of operation is that they now book much closer to their travel dates than ever before. “It’s the speed of sound today,” Wilson says. Another way they’ve changed is that they are more open to new destinations. “There’s no part of the world that seems too far away or too remote,” Wilson Wetty tells us. In one way, travelers are still the same: They still love Italy. “It’s a destination that never gets old,” she adds.

Regarding working with clients, Wilson Wetty says, “It’s one of the things that I think makes it real for us because if you’re not talking to the customer, and you’re not actually booking travel, I think you lose touch as to what’s really going on out in the marketplace.”

It’s not always about the planning, though; you also need to be flexible. Wilson Wetty brings up the hurricanes that devastated parts of the Caribbean in 2017. “When you’ve got somebody who’s so invested in their vacation time, and then you have to go tell them that we need to make a change in their plans — how do you show empathy, but also authority, and leadership, and advice, and have a backup plan for them?” she says. “Those are challenging moments, but if you do it right, they also become some of your greatest successes.”

To hear more from Kimberly Wilson Wetty about what it’s like to sell in the luxury space, based on her extensive experience in the industry, check out our recent podcast where she featured as a guest:

In addition to meeting with supplier partners in the office, Valerie Wilson Travel makes a point of attending Virtuoso Travel Week each year, often with upwards of 50 advisors in tow. In fact, Wilson still loves sitting at her table and taking appointments. The three also meet with Matthew Upchurch and other Virtuoso executives on multiple advisory boards. “We’re very much tied at the hip,” Wilson Wetty says. “It’s been an incredibly strong partnership, and one that we’re exceptionally proud of.”

One tool by Virtuoso that Valerie Wilson Travel is excited about is Wanderlist, a program that helps advisors and clients map out a long-term travel plan. In fact, the agency was one of the program’s beta testers. Wilson-Buttigieg says it’s very useful for new clients because it facilitates learning about where they want to go and what to do.

Regarding Wilson’s personal “wish list,” as she calls it, she was able to cross one item off the list in 2019. “I have always wanted to take the whole family to Kenya on a safari,” she says. “To see my grandchildren, who are young adults, have that same kind of excitement that I had the first time I went on an Abercrombie & Kent safari in 1988 ... It still exists, the same feeling and the same wonder.” 

Professional and Personal Growth

“We’ve had unprecedented years of growth,” Wilson tells us. She adds that Valerie Wilson Travel has been averaging between eight and 10 percent growth “for a number of years, and if we can continue to do that in an election year, I’ll be very proud of the company and what we’ve done.” 

Family Safari: Wilson was able to cross one item off her personal “wish list” in 2019 as she and her entire family took a multigenerational Safari at Angama Mara in Kenya this past summer. Wilson loved seeing the “same wonder” in her grandchildren that she had on her first safari. 

While the agency has no plans to open new “little branches,” Wilson says they are expanding their associate program. Last year, a dozen new advisors joined Valerie Wilson Travel. 

“I love that there is so much energy and creativity coming in,” Wilson Wetty says. “Just seeing their growth and their excitement in getting into this business, and how they actually want to do it a little bit differently definitely gives me great encouragement.”

Many of the agency’s new advisors actively seek them out or are referred by word of mouth from existing advisors, Wilson tells us. And while she isn’t the one interviewing each prospective advisor, Wilson does meet with every new hire. Each new employee has to come into the New York office for a week to 10 days to learn about the business.

This month, Valerie Wilson Travel will be hosting the second iteration of its VWT Academy, a two-and-a-half-day training program. It’s attended by 100 advisors, as well as keynote speakers and suppliers. Events include a cocktail party, breakout sessions, trade shows and professional development seminars. Both versions of the VWT Academy have been located in New York, but Wilson Wetty says she wouldn’t be surprised if the agency takes the show on the road.

The agency encourages its employees to travel often and even hosts its own educational trips to hotels and destinations. It hosts a handful of small trips each year.

“I like to see growth in sales and even growth in people,” Wilson says. “We’ve been very fortunate to have young people graduate from college and, today, they’re very successful associates of our company, or they started by themselves and now they are hiring one or two assistants to work with them because they now have the business and warrant having extra people. And that, to me, is a sign of success.”

It’s a formula that’s been working. Next year, Valerie Wilson Travel will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. While nothing’s planned quite yet, there will certainly be something. “Honoring and celebrating your successes is something that’s really important,” Wilson Wetty says. “Our team loves it, our clients enjoy it and it’s a great way to thank our suppliers for their partnerships.”

What else is in the cards for the future? Well, they’re going to remain privately owned, something all three women are proud of. “If we ever stop having fun, enjoying what we do and knowing that we make a difference, then we need to take a pause, check in with ourselves and recalibrate,” Wilson Wetty says.

Wilson-Buttigieg adds, “There is definitely a need and a place for a company like Valerie Wilson Travel ... I think people are getting so tired of consolidation and lack of customer service in a world where we’re on all the time. And to have the luxury of having someone plan time with you is so important. I think there is always going to be a need for that, as long as we have fabulous advisors that want to learn and as long as we have tremendous relationships with our partners and our suppliers.”

It’s an extremely fulfilling business, each tells us. 

“I’m so proud of our people, and I’m really proud of the industry because I feel that Jennifer, Kimberly and I have very much been a part of developing what we call the luxury industry — and the luxury industry isn’t just brick and mortar; it’s experiences and memories, and you want people to be able to share those stories and memories,” Wilson tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “And that still excites me.”

Valerie Wilson Travel, Inc.

Headquarter Location: New York, NY
Founder, CEO & Owner: Valerie Ann Wilson
Co-President & Owner: Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg
Co-President & Owner: Kimberly Wilson Wetty
CFO & Owner: Brian J. Buttigieg
Number of advisors: 375-plus Advisors, associates and staff (195 Associates)
Annual volume of business: $315 million
Consortia: Virtuoso Advisory Boards: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Abercrombie & Kent, Marriott International Luxury Brands, Virtuoso, American Society of Travel Advisors, AccorHotels, Aman Resorts Hotels & Residences, The Chatwal Hotel, Collette, Global CommUnity, Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces, Tourism Cares, Celebrity Cruises, Young Presidents’ Organization, Women’s Forum, Inc. and more.
Website: www.valeriewilsontravel.com

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