During the 2021 Virtuoso Travel Week, held August 8-13 in Las Vegas, Aspire Associates Group was nominated for one the “Luminaries, Legends, and Leaders” awards; these awards celebrate member agencies, advisors and preferred partners “who have inspired Virtuoso with bold new ways of thinking that lead the way forward, whether through leadership, business practices or other innovative efforts." Aspire Associates, an alliance of travel agencies formed less than a year ago, was nominated in the “Innovation” category.
“As we gather here for Virtuoso Travel Week with the theme ‘Imagine What Can Be,’ we are proud that Aspire’s founding concept of ‘Being Independent Together’ and our mission of providing a community for like-minded agencies has resonated with our peers,” said Aspire partner Helen Papa of TBH Travel in New York in a written announcement.
Following Virtuoso Travel Week, Luxury Travel Advisor caught up with Papa to get the latest on Aspire’s plans.
When first launched in November 2020, Aspire Associates Group, LLC comprised six independently owned travel agencies, each an independent member of Virtuoso (several of which hold or have held regional and national board positions with Virtuoso). Since Aspire’s launch, six additional agencies have joined as affiliate members, although Papa tells us more than that have inquired about joining the affiliation. In the end, either the agencies were not the right fit for Aspire or Aspire was not what the agencies were looking for.
“It was a great thing to have people outside of work organization, recognizing what we were doing and wanting to be a part of it,” Papa says. “We came up with a process of evaluating what agencies would benefit from aligning with us and who would make Aspire stronger at the same time. And we took in six affiliated agencies.”
The group’s mission, it says, is to focus on shared resources, customized training opportunities, streamlined marketing, expanded geographical reach, and utilizing collective expertise in travel and business.
Pooling resources to create better marketing, opening the door to new suppliers via existing relationships and the like gives the small to mid-size agencies the benefit of a bigger platform, while allowing them to maintain “who they are,” as Papa explains. “We've created a space that allows small to mid-size agencies to continue to exist,” she adds. “They want to maintain their agency and we're giving them a path to create a legacy, keep their dignity that they're a small business owner, [while still being able] to have support without having to sell, close or become an independent contractor for a larger entity, where they lose that entrepreneurial feeling.”
Currently, Aspire is working on new marketing and is creating programs that are white labeled, which all of its member agencies are welcome to use. Individually, they might not have the manpower to take on such tasks.
Papa adds that there is no set cost for Aspire at the moment but determining a cost structure is high on its list. For the time being, she says, the group is making sure that an agency’s “affiliation with Aspire brings you more benefits than the cost.”
At Virtuoso Week, Aspire held a small social event, with attendees including the agency members, Virtuoso staff and supplier partners. “I found it was a really nice way to say, thank you for being there for us and it's great to see you again. And that was very well received,” Papa adds noting that small events like this will be something the group continues to do every year.
When Aspire isn’t meeting in person at events such as Virtuoso Travel Week, it’s hosting training sessions for all its advisors once or twice a week. The 12 agency owners will meet monthly to discuss the group on a management level, while all members are invited to partake in a quarterly meeting, where everyone is free to give their input on the direction of Aspire.
And as for those “Luminaries, Legends, and Leaders” awards. Papa says Virtuoso received over 500 nominations across all the categories, with multiple sources nominating Aspire. It was one of the finalists but Sarah Groen of Bell & Bly Travel Design, an independent affiliate of Brownell Travel, took home the prize.
“We were really honored, especially in less than a year, to be recognized by our peers and by Virtuoso; that made us very proud,” Papa says.