Matthew Upchurch on a "Virtual Virtuoso," COVID-19 and More

(No) “Make no mistake; this is a sales event and we view this as a way to jumpstart the sales cycle and hopefully end this months’-long quiet period.” -Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso CEO

For the first time in the event’s 32-year history, Virtuoso Travel Week will not be held in its traditional format in Las Vegas (19 of those years taking place at Bellagio and then the surrounding resorts). Instead, the luxury travel network is pivoting and turning the event virtual. Don’t worry: According to Virtuoso CEO Matthew D. Upchurch, the new Travel Week will still capture “the quality you expect from us, as well as many of the aspects we all love about this week.” 

“For 31 consecutive years, Virtuoso Travel Week has been the physical manifestation of Virtuoso’s greater purpose: To enrich lives through human connection,” Upchurch said in a letter to the network’s members announcing the new format. “And, as most of us endure lockdowns, we’ve never been more grateful for the depth and breadth of relationships forged at this unique, global event — relationships that have enriched our lives as professionals and enhanced the experiences of our mutual clients — resulting in enduring friendships.”

A New Way to Meet

Upchurch tells Luxury Travel Advisor that moving to a virtual format “was not anyone’s first choice.” Not only does the in-person event lead to better business, he says, Virtuoso Travel Week also functions as “the world’s biggest family reunion.”

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Not being in Las Vegas this summer will feel weird, Upchurch tells us; however, a physical event would just not be feasible in 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

So, what can participating luxury travel advisors expect from the virtual Virtuoso Travel Week? Scheduled for August 10-13, there will be an opening session to kick things off, and, of course, the one-to-one appointments — “the overwhelming favorite” among surveyed advisors when it came to which aspects of Travel Week they did not want to lose. The good news: The virtual one-to-one appointments will give advisors and suppliers more time to catch up, as these will last eight minutes compared to the usual four. Upchurch says an “Under One Sky” sustainability seminar, as well as a professional development session are in the works — “two other areas that rated highly.”

Upchurch adds, “Make no mistake, though, this is a sales event and we view this as a way to jumpstart the sales cycle and, hopefully, end this months’ long quiet period.”

Crisis Toolkit

The online Travel Week is not the only way Virtuoso has evolved to help its advisors in this unique landscape. Early on, Virtuoso, following the principles of “communicate, educate and help relieve stress,” compiled a “Crisis Toolkit” — something Virtuoso does any time there is an incident that disrupts travel. Included with the toolkit were videos on how to talk to clients and the media, partner updates and links to government websites. Over time, the toolkit has been updated and expanded, becoming a “significant recourse” for Virtuoso’s members, according to Upchurch. 

Speaker Lineup

Virtuoso also brought in experts, like Dr. Bob Joselyn, who specializes in business evaluation and strategic planning, and Rose Haché, a travel industry legal specialist, to speak to advisors on everything from pivoting business to fee-based models (“which, I think, we can all agree is the way forward,” Upchurch says) to legal liability. Helen Nodland, Virtuoso’s director of professional development and training, also led a five-part series on “Disruption Eruption,” tackling how agencies can get through the COVID-19 crisis today and where to focus efforts for rebuilding business for tomorrow. 

“One of the best things we did,” Upchurch says was to organize 16 “Member Collaboration Teams” around the world. While Virtuoso continued to hold regular network calls with each region, these teams brought members together with their peers and gave them a platform to share ideas, experiences and best practices. “I’ve always said that Virtuoso’s success is based on the fundamental belief that we are stronger together than we are as individuals, and that if you aren’t willing to share what you know for the benefit of others, this probably isn’t the right place for you,” he tells us. 

Upchurch adds that the Virtuoso Travel Academy has seen record engagement in the past several months, signifying that advisors and agency owners and managers are using this time to build their knowledge. And, to help ease the financial burden of its members, Virtuoso suspended fees and accelerated payments on overrides. 

And while the time at home has led to some positives — like being able to be with your family (“Having family dinner almost every night and talking with our boys has been a real highlight,” Upchurch says) — many are eager to get back on the road. But when will that happen?

A View of the Future

Virtuoso advisors are cautiously optimistic about the future, according to Upchurch — “though the level of optimism largely depends on what part of the world you’re looking at.” Countries and regions with strong government support, like Canada and Europe, he says, are more upbeat than their counterparts in the U.S. With that said, many agencies have made cutbacks like staffing adjustments to keep their businesses viable until travel can fully recover. One hurdle they still may have to face: Consumer confidence, which Upchurch describes as “shaky” for the time being. 

The good news: Advisors showed their worth when they scrambled to bring clients home in March before negotiating cancellations or rebookings for travel throughout summer 2020. Travelers who were frustrated with their direct booking experience could be looking to find a travel advisor to book future travel with. 

Increase in Calls

And despite the “shaky” consumer confidence, Virtuoso sees some “green shoots” of optimism. In fact, Virtuoso advisors are reporting an increase in call volumes, “We feel like people are ready to think about travel again,” Upchurch adds. To that end, Virtuoso will be picking up its consumer marketing with more consistency, hoping to “provide inspiration and remind people why they travel.” It is even continuing to update Virtuoso Wanderlist as a means of client engagement and management (but more about this is to be revealed at the Virtuoso Travel Week virtual event).

As for where clients are willing to travel, domestic trips, closest to home, are the safest bet, as there are so many unknowns with regard to travel restrictions. This caused Virtuoso to look at its product mix and ensure it had the right partners in place to help its members sell travel now, which led to new relationships. Example: Virtuoso just signed with Abercrombie & Kent U.S. 

“I am so incredibly proud of this network and of all the travel agencies and advisors who are fighting through the toughest times they’ve ever faced,” says Upchurch. 

“I defy any other industry to say they’ve felt this crisis as acutely as travel and tourism and, yet, these professionals have risen to the occasion by ensuring their clients are always the number-one priority. It’s because of that commitment to the client that travel advisors will come out stronger on the other side,” Upchurch tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

“Their value to travelers is only matched by their importance to suppliers, who have seen firsthand how they kept business on the books by turning cancellations into postponements. Those that can hang on will be rewarded by the pent-up demand and travel will come back, led first by the luxury sector, just as it did after 9/11 and the 2008 recession,” he adds.

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