THE SPECIALIST IN ME

Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Matthew D. Upchurch on what it takes to be a great travel advisor

Cleverdis editor-in-chief Richard Barnes caught up with the head of Virtuoso – the industry’s leading luxury travel network – at December’s ILTM show in Cannes. Chatting about recent TV appearances across Europe, it was made clear that the role of the travel advisor still needs some demystifying. Upchurch dots the i’s.

There was some confusion about whether our network was made up of generalists or specialists. Actually, great Virtuoso travel advisors are both. They have a broad knowledge base and worldwide relationships that make them generalists. More importantly, though, they are specialists: specialists in the client. So the follow-on question is often, “Wait a minute, how can a specialist in me, who I think is a generalist, compete when it comes to both knowledge and buying power with a ‘true specialist’?” This is the interesting part of why our profession is doing so well now.

If I’m a Virtuoso advisor, I really know you; I know your family, and I know what you like. Imagine a UK- based Virtuoso advisor wants to send someone to Mexico. This is where the global Virtuoso network comes into place, because we have curated Virtuoso on-site operators all over the world. So now the UK advisor can say, “Oh, you want to go to Mexico and do something really interesting like the Copper Canyon, or something like that? Then let’s get together in a three-way Skype call directly with our Virtuoso partners in Mexico.” Any well-educated, well-travelled person knows it’s impossible for an advisor to be an expert at everything. So there’s a kind of transparency with the advisor who says, “Of course I don’t know everything, but I am judged by how well I interact with you, by my knowledge and my network and my contacts.”

ONCE YOU GET TO A CERTAIN LEVEL OF LUXURY, YOU LITERALLY CAN FEEL A PROPERTY BASED ON THE PERSONALITY OF NOT ONLY THE GM, BUT EVEN MORE SO THE OWNER

What about millennials? How do you work with them?
The fastest growing group of new clients for us right now – a generation I was told was going to be the end of us – are the millennials. Millennials are the rst digital native generation: the first generation that was born into a world where the de facto way of booking travel was DIY online. So for them, luxury is not having to do it themselves, and more importantly in a world of social media and less brand loyalty, they don’t believe brands, they believe friends and influencers. They’ve come back to the fact that it’s not what you know, but who you know.

What’s changed over time for the advisors and the way they work? Ten or fteen years ago, if you became a travel advisor, you’d be given a cubicle and a GDS and maybe you would take a couple of fam trips a year. Today, however, travel advisors are at the forefront of being digital nomads. One agency owner came to our symposium in Cape Town, and went to check out one of the Singita properties. She posted a photo of herself and her number two in an in nity pool with elephants in the background and her laptop, saying, “Here we are checking out Singita and helping our clients all over the world.” I saw that photo and I went crazy. I said, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve seen!” Facebook went crazy with it as well. The next time she did a retreat with her staff members, this* was the photo she posted on social media – at Eden Roc in St Barth. I showed this photo at Cornell to all the hotel management school kids, and I can tell you there’s a lot of people interested in being travel advisors now.

IF I’M A VIRTUOSO ADVISOR, I REALLY KNOW YOU; I KNOW YOUR FAMILY, AND I KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE.

How important is it to include owners and GMs in the picture?
It’s very important, because there is a transmission of human connection. Many years ago, the GM of Sheen Falls was standing there at Virtuoso Travel Week, and at that time I had really started to notice the number of GMs that were coming to our meeting. I said to him, “I’m really curious. You’re a GM, and I am honoured that you are here, and I thank you for that… But I want to ask you a question from your perspective. Why did you, as a GM, bother to come?” He looked at me like I was an idiot, in a very nice way, and said, “Don’t you know?”… And I responded, “What do you mean?”… Then he said, “It is common knowledge among the hotels in Virtuoso that those hotels where the GM is personally involved in the relationships get a disproportionate amount of business from the network than those that aren’t.” It was the same way back then for Antonio Sersale from Le Sirenuse in Italy… These days, I hold a brunch meeting before the opening session at the Bellagio just for owners. The phenomenon that began ten or fteen years ago is gaining momentum. Now, at the brunch, I’ll be introducing the owner of the Brando, Richard Bailey, to other owners like Luke Bailes from Singita, and so on, and it keeps growing and growing. Now we have hotel owners walking around building relationships, because once you get to a certain level of luxury, you literally can feel a property based on the personality of not only the GM, but even more so the owner. It becomes very personal.