Virtuoso has concluded its first event of the year, the annual U.S. and Canada Forum, February 2-4. The live virtual event was sold out with more than 350 attendees, according to the luxury travel network.
Business sessions included more than 2,745 one-to-one networking appointments, professional development courses, a live address from Virtuoso chairman and CEO Matthew D. Upchurch and presentations on the company’s forward plans from Virtuoso leaders. The event, which brought together the owners and managers from Virtuoso’s travel agency members in the U.S. and Canada, as well as its preferred partners from across the globe, was met with optimism for travel’s future as pent-up demand within the leisure travel sector becomes increasingly apparent.
Virtuoso senior vice president of global partnerships Albert Herrera led the Forum’s Opening Session by discussing the realities the industry is facing, along with the opportunity that lies ahead. While service spending in 2020 fell by $575 billion, an eight percent decline, it has been reported that Americans’ personal savings have increased 173 percent over 2019. In addition to the pent-up emotional demand to get away, travelers have more means than ever to do so. Herrera further explained the premium placed on Virtuoso’s luxury travelers, in particular, sharing that research conducted jointly with YouGov identified the average annual household income of the Virtuoso traveler is over $300,000, with 44 percent of clients within the top 5 percent income bracket.
Greater financial means, desire to get away and an uptick in appreciation for the benefits a professional travel advisor provides has led to a significant increase in consumers seeking out advisors via the network’s website. Inquiries doubled from June to September 2020, and January 2021 brought renewed optimism with a 50 percent increase over December in requests to be connected to an advisor. And that optimism wasn’t limited to consumers: According to a recent Virtuoso survey, when asked when its network anticipated feeling comfortable or confident about business returning, 80 percent of respondents said that it will be this year. A surprising 7 percent said they are already there. Virtuoso advisors added that almost half of their daily business is new bookings, with only 10 percent using travel credits and 38 percent being business with full revenue.
Virtuoso said that during the last quarter of 2020, bookings began to pick up across all partner categories: Cruises, hotels, on-sites and tour operators all booked more business in December than they did in October—some by as much as 40 percent. Additionally, those who booked also stayed longer—an increase of 13 percent in average length of stay. Even better, said Virtuoso: clients spent 2.8 times more on preferred bookings than on non-preferred hotels.
Virtuoso’s newly appointed senior vice president of marketing, Helen McCabe-Young, shared details on the network’s building the Virtuoso brand, new products for the benefit of the entire network and increased emphasis on global public relations efforts. McCabe-Young said 2021 marketing will focus on enhancing data and insights, segmentation, targeting and reporting to deliver marketing programs that support member and partner business goals. Virtuoso, she added, will aim to further optimize content that connects and resonates emotionally with consumers. At the same time, Virtuoso will evolve existing products, like its Best of the Best hotel guide, which will launch digitally in 2021.
According to Virtuoso Wanderlist, current top destinations include Italy, France, Japan, Australia, Greece, South Africa, Spain, the U.S., Iceland and the U.K. Travelers remain interested in experiences that are more isolated and off the beaten path, or that revolve around wellness and culture. Common themes among Virtuoso bookings are sustainability, ski travel, wellness, adventure, beach, golf and seclusion-oriented travel.
Virtuoso, during the event, also reported that during meetings with members and partners over the last year, a common theme was not just rebuilding businesses, but improving the travel industry. Among the top focal points was addressing diversity and inclusion in the Virtuoso network and in the travel industry at large. To that end, diversity and anti-bias professional development training with Tony Chatman was featured during Virtuoso Travel Week in August. Additionally, Virtuoso formed a working group of partners, members and staff; it was facilitated by the business coach, lecturer and motivational speaker Ellen J. Burton. The group identified three areas of focus:
- Committing to anti-racism as a core value and supporting diverse employment
- Education by promoting resources to help its network learn
- Empowerment through intentional networking and relationship-building
Another core value and strategic tenet within Virtuoso is sustainability. The three pillars Virtuoso identified in 2017 remain the guidepost: Travel that protects the planet, supports local economies and preserves cultural heritage. Virtuoso said it remains committed to its mission of making sustainability a greater factor in consumer choice, so that those driving and delivering sustainable experiences are financially successful, and to provide a leadership position for advisors who can make it easier for affluent consumers to give their money to brands that do good. Good to know: The desire to explore the planet in a way that protects these places is strong. Poll results showed that 75 percent of Virtuoso clients said the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in the future.