|Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Valerie Wilson and Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg|
When we featured Valerie Wilson Travel on our January 2006 cover of Luxury Travel Advisor, Kimberly Wilson Wetty and Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg had just been made co-presidents and co-owners of the business their mother had founded in 1981. With Valerie remaining as chairman and CEO, the New York-based company has over the past nine years surged forward as a family affair, with annual revenue exceeding $350 million, culled from a blend of corporate travel business and its luxury leisure division.
"As a privately held company, VWT remains in a unique position – it's the smallest of the Manhattan mega-agencies, yet generates the highest yields for suppliers as its clients demand premium accommodations and seating on airplanes," says Kimberly Wilson Wetty. “This has put VWT in a unique and positive position within the industry.”
Here’s a timeline of what’s changed for this thriving business.
VWT now has 16 offices nationwide; new branch locations since 2006 include Clinton, NJ; Winnetka, IL; and Palo Alto, CA. An affiliate was added in Avondale, FL. The family aspect of the business has grown; Brian Buttigieg joined in 2007 as SVP of Operations, Finance and Legal. “That has been a huge asset to the company,” notes Wilson Wetty.
International sales now account for 80 percent of the company’s business; that’s up from 56 percent in 2006 and indicates a strategic decision “to focus on the high-touch discerning traveler, and showcase our expertise,” says Wilson Wetty.
Along those lines, in 2010, VWT, a long-time member of Virtuoso, introduced a first-time ever tagline to go with its name and logo entitled "The Power of Access," which “was well received because it speaks to what we do day in and day out, plus, it represents what we truly believe — delivering the power of access to our clients,” she notes. In 2012, Valerie published the second edition of “Valerie Wilson’s World...The Top Hotels & Resorts,” a coffee table book on her take on the world’s best accommodations.
That love and appreciation for great hotels was taken a step further recently when VWT launched “Suite Access™ by Valerie Wilson Travel;” that's a collection of preferred hotels and resorts that provides special benefits and experiences for VWT clients who book a suite reservation. There are more than 200 hotels in the program.
In its goal to remain relevant to its clients, VWT has embraced social media; those efforts include launching an interactive Facebook App called “Paint the World Peach,” where a consumer and/or advisor reviews a destination or hotel/resort where they have recently traveled. “Each time you post a review, you place a peach push pin on the world map,” says Wilson Wetty. “And, of course, the goal is to paint the world peach with travel reviews.”
Client events are big business at the company; some are larger “Travel Fests” where 25 suppliers mix with hundreds of its clients. At more intimate events, VWT hosts moderated panels with industry executives for its clients.
The agency recently booked a round-the world, four-month itinerary for a client celebrating a 50th birthday. The goal was to blend cultural sightseeing with relaxation in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru and the Galapagos. “Our role was one of pure logistics and travel consulting — from hotels and resort selection to all onsite activities and creating memorable moments,” says Wilson Wetty, who notes that this trip illustrated two major shifts in the business: “Through technology, pictures and Facebook posts were shared regularly. Requests for changes were made on the spot. Our advisors received immediate feedback from welcoming GMs and onsite guides — it was constantly collaborative in nature,” she says.
The second change was the type of “thank you” VWT gave these clients. Instead of welcoming gifts of fruit and champagne, charitable offerings were made instead, in this case to the A&K Glossy Black Cockatoo Recovery Program in Kangaroo Island, Australia as well as the A&K for LifeStart Foundation in Vietnam.
“The clients themselves donated funds to build a water well through the Cambodian Child’s Dream Fund, which was actually founded by one of VWT’s Associate Agents, Jenni Lipa, in 2007. The family sent us an e-mail, along with pictures of their visit to the village, where they interacted with the children and the families that have benefitted from the well.
“It’s all about immersion in the experience and culture, and making a difference, wherever you travel,” says Wilson Wetty.
Recent treks have taken Valerie, Jennifer and Kimberly throughout the world and added to their portfolios of new “favorite things.”
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg has fallen in love with the Maldives, “a beautiful, relaxing and still-emerging destination. The atolls are all different and a must experience is an overwater bungalow combined with a tropical island.” She loved Soneva Gili’s relaxed “no shoes, no news” vibe, while Soneva Fushi is “a lush island with white sand beaches in Robinson Crusoe style.”
She and her family enjoyed the new Tree House Suites at Rosewood Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands in April. “They were truly fantastic and allowed you to completely meld with nature, and almost float in the trees. They are just steps away from the beach, but the privacy and seclusion they offer is unique.”
Kimberly Wilson Wetty is now enamored by Tibet. “It was a magical and life-changing experience. The Shangri-la Lhasa is stunning and offers authentic Tibetan culture. My favorite experience of the trip was learning how to meditate. My view was overlooking the Himalayas at 13,800 feet. My least favorite part … I learned that I am not a lover of eating yak!”
The Mandarin Oriental Barcelona has a “fabulous location, which allows easy access to everything in the city,” she says. “The hotel décor has an elegant, contemporary feel. The sense of arrival is a little odd and underwhelming since there is no real entrance and you take a ramp from the street to the lobby. But the rooftop bar is a perfect setting to watch the sun set over Barcelona and enjoy a cocktail. Barcelona is all about its gin. I never knew there were so many versions of the classic G&T drink!”
Valerie Wilson meanwhile reports that she’s always preferred cruising as a vacation. She has recently fallen in love with river cruising, particularly with AMAWaterways, especially since she became the godmother of the AMAPrima in 2013. Two recent hotel visits impressed her: “The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto is a stunning contemporary Ryokan including Japanese gardens, bridges and design. Dining includes outstanding Japanese cuisine or modern Italian. The accommodations exude elegance and yet are informal with beautiful wood tones and gentle Japanese touches. It’s truly an authentic Kyoto experience.”
The Mandarin Oriental, Taipei “is one of the most magnificent hotels I have seen in years — no expense was spared. The palatial property sits on a wide green boulevard in the best Taipei residential neighborhood. Design elements are breathtaking, whether it is the contemporary art-deco style of furnishings, or the unique and beautiful light fixtures throughout, or the lush fabrics in pastel tones and even pearl embroidered sofas in the Jade Lounge. Tony Chi is responsible for all the design for the dining restaurants and bar. The spa entices you to want to spend the whole day pampering yourself.”
The common trait of both these hotels? “It’s their welcoming, caring, and helpful people. What a gift to feel a sense of connection in a world that often feels impersonal or unconnected,” she notes.
With all the changes over the years, this trio of luxury travel advisors agrees that they’re still completely excited by the industry and their craft.
“Time is flying by and we still love what we do. We are very fortunate!” they tell Luxury Travel Advisor.