Virtuoso Symposium, Day 2: Bill Smith Joins Virtuoso

Jay Johnson of Coastline Travel Advisors is at the Virtuoso Symposium in Madrid. Here's what's happening at the meetings: 

I felt as if I was on the streets of New York and a huge story had just leaked to the press. I could see the little boy holding the New York Times, shouting, “Extra! Extra! Hear all about Bill Smith coming to Virtuoso!” Yes, the biggest surprise of the Virtuoso Symposium happened last night when Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, announced that Bill Smith is joining Virtuoso as the Vice President of Cruise Sales and Excusive Products. Upchurch made the announcement at the conclusion of dinner and received a lengthy applause from the audience.

News had leaked out an hour or so prior to the “official” announcement by Upchurch so the entire room was already teeming with conversations about the exciting news. Dinner conversations centered on what role Smith would play at Virtuoso, as well as who would replace him at Crystal Cruises. Plenty of names were discussed, yet no general consensus was found on who will follow Smith’s enormous and popular legacy at Crystal Cruises. However, based on the conversations from this evening, the agency members of Virtuoso are quite pleased he is joining the organization. Smith is highly regarded by the travel agent community and many feel as though he will bring a fresh approach to the leading consortia. Many feel as though Smith epitomizes Five-Star and his presence at Virtuoso is the perfect fit for the leading luxury consortia.

The second day of Virtuoso’s Symposium began with Kristi Jones giving the audience of 400 a brief recap of the previous day’s session, which was hosted by Nancy Giordano, founder of Play Big and one of the premiere Futurists in the industry. Ms. Giordano continued her dialogue with the audience regarding the future of the travel industry and how Social Media will play a growing role in how Travel Professionals will be able to communicate with their customers.

Giordano’s points were interesting and thought provoking. The center of this discussion was to ensure the agency community is able to get their message across with all the Social Media “noise.” With so many new voices at play (i.e. travel related websites, blogs and new tech companies entering the industry); the key word has to be trust. Who does the consumer trust and how can you relay that feeling of trust to your customers?

Giordano commented that the Social Medial phenomenon will take 50 years for us to fully understand how we can use this new source of communication. Although Social Media is only three years old; we have a long way to go before we can learn how we can harness the possibilities.

Rick Meadow, President of Seabourn Cruises, commented that with Social Media, there are no experts. “We are all learning. Taking small steps will make it easier to see the big picture.” Meadow suggested simple steps to get more involved with using Social Media to not only drive new business, but as a way to communicate with existing clients. One simple step he suggested was getting a Facebook link to your outgoing email. He also commented that suppliers can do a better job of helping agencies use Social Media to grow their business and this is something Seabourn is actively working on for the future.

“Travel has become an entitlement, and not just in the luxury market. However, in the luxury market, it’s even more relevant and more important. Travel is now considered a right, rather than just a privilege.”

Gerald Bellino, Vice President of Wagonlit Travel, commented that his company is looking at different marketing channels to drive new business, such as white label programs, which may or may not necessarily involve Social Media. Jennifer Fox, COO of Intercontinental Hotels, announced that the hotel brand has over 5,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook. Fox commented, “it’s important to understand your client’s values before you can sell or market to them.” One example she gave for using Social Media as a way to communicate with their customers is a new pilot program called Facetime. Coinciding with the release of the new iPad 2, the company has now updated their Concierge app and will now include the ability for consumers to have live chats with their hotel concierges before they arrive at the property. This exciting new program may become the model for the entire industry. The live chat offers a very personal interaction and this “face-to-face” time is at the push of a button. Judy Stein, Co-President of Ovation Vacations suggested that Travel Advisors try to become the filter. “There is a tremendous amount of information overload and the key for the advisor is to be able to decipher through all the information and sift through the noise to see what information would best fit their clients.” Stein feels that being the “filter” will be a major role that agents will play in the future.

Stein also commented that Ovation Vacations hires young, talent based on attitude and passion and allows them to develop their own style by empowering them to learn, but to also learn their own style. “Everyone is different. Some are better at research, while others are more comfortable speaking to clients on the phone.” Ovation tries to find what talent best fits their new hires.

Scott Ahlsmith, Virtuoso’s Executive Vice President of global technology and President of 23TouchPoints commented that within 90 days after a traveler returns from a cruise, consumers will spend on average $2,400. This translates to the best time to contact a customer is right after they have returned from their vacation. The general consensus has always been that travelers will refrain from spending money right after traveling. However, 23TouchPoints has debunked that myth and has discovered that travelers are not broke after returning home; rather they are travel inspired.


The remainder of the afternoon had the attendees touring Madrid’s Old Quarter and Royal Palace, as well as the world famous Prado Museum. Afternoon tours have been sponsored by Virtuoso On-Sites, Valesa Cultural Services and Made for Spain. This evening is the final Gala Dinner taking place at Quinta del Duque De Arco.

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