Virtuoso Travel Week’s opening ceremony looks back at 30 years of travel week highlights. Cleverdis editor-in-chief Richard Barnes was present – reporting both for Cleverdis, and also as guest editor for Virtuoso.

Celebrating 30 amazing years, the opening ceremony for Travel Week 2018 was a message of optimism from start to finish, with a very fitting underlying theme: “You’ve gotta have faith” – the pop tune that was one of the world’s greatest “earworms” exactly three decades back.

The ceremony kicked off by flipping through a motley and amusing collection of highlights that have marked each of the past 30 years, capped off by a live rendition of George Michael’s Faith.

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David Hansen

Virtuoso’s senior vice president for Events, David Hansen was on hand to outline some key stats, including the fact that there are more than 1,300 first timers here this year at a totally sold-out event boasting 700 parties, lunches and dinners including an equally sold-out gala that will host 3,036 attendees. Diamond sponsors Barbados and Uniworld also received a warm round of thanks and applause along with the entire list of supporters of this year’s Travel Week.

Your World Awaits

It’s all about experiences. That’s the message nailed home by a stunning new video screened at the opening ceremony entitled Your World Awaits – of course also the slogan and underlying theme of the 2018 event.

News from Bellagio

Bellagio President & COO Randy Morton took the stage congratulating Virtuoso on 30 years of achievements, stating, “Having hosted you for so many years, I feel like rather than saying ‘welcome’, I should say ‘welcome back’, or more importantly ‘welcome home’.”

Morton underlined how thrilled his team has been this year to welcome Wolfgang Puck and his signature restaurant Spago: “After opening early this summer it has quickly become the next Vegas hot-spot”.

The Bellagio boss presented a short film showcasing MGM’s commitment to environmental leadership, including some new initiatives that have been introduced as part of Virtuoso Travel Week. The video covered MGM’s back-of-house sorting of trash for recycling. As part of this year’s sustainability program at Virtuoso Travel Week, Bellagio has introduced three new initiatives: single use plastics reduction (including phasing out of plastic straws, food donations and oyster shell recycling.

Upbeat Upchurch and sidekick Kolner announce production award winners

Virtuoso Chairman & CEO Matthew Upchurch, along with David Kolner, SVP of Global Member Partnerships hit the stage running, with Upchurch commenting, “It’s hard to imagine I was 26 years old when this started 30 years ago”, adding that it was pretty appropriate that back then the number one song was “Faith”.

Kolner joked that for many on the outside, Travel Week is otherwise known as “Summer camp for luxury travel”, adding “Be careful out there, campers”.

Virtuoso Winners.jpgKicking things off, Upchurch and Kolner acknowledged the agencies that have achieved tremendous success this year, naming the winners of the 2018 Production Awards. Here are the nine winners:

  • Most Engaged Agency: Cruises Etc.
  • Y/Y Percentage Growth Category: Savenio
  • Y/Y Revenue Growth Category: Direct Travel
  • Agency with Highest Overall Production Per Advisor: Churchill & Turen
  • Top Air Production: Travel Experts
  • Top APAC Production: Goldman Travel Corp.
  • Top LAC Production: Teresa Perez Tours
  • Top USA & Canada Production: Protravel International NYC

Looking back at the past year: both wonderful and profound

“Well, it’s been both a wonderful and very profound year for me”, began Upchurch, following the awards announcement. “Throughout this past year, I thought a lot about the final line of my talk last year, when I said, ‘Our future success would be grounded in the fact that Virtuoso offers what you cannot see, but what you’ll feel for ever. I believe if you put a stake in the ground and you make a commitment, validation shows up everywhere in all kinds of really interesting ways. And it’s been that way this whole past year, one thing after another.”

Upchurch described a profound moment he had last year just after Virtuoso Travel Week with his wife, Jessica: a Virgin Galactic experience called Camp Eclipse, commenting, “Never again will I say, ‘I saw a total eclipse’. I will say, ‘I felt it, in every cell of my body’.”

“It reminded me, seeing is not believing”, he asserted, adding, “Feeling is believing. And it’s what your clients FEEL when partnered with you. That is the difference.”

Before introducing author and personal development speaker Simon Sinek, Upchurch flashed back to the first time Sinek had been a speaker for a Virtuoso event – back at Travel Mart 2010 (just after the recession, when times were still tough), at which time he had read Sinek’s book “Start with Why” three times, highlighting key passages in yellow, meaning in fact most of the book. This drew him deeper into a contemplation of purpose, culminating several days later in what he first thought to be a heart attack, but which, once at the hospital, turned out to be a panic attack… the only one he’s had to date. As time passed, Upchurch says he reflected on this episode, and began to see what had really happened: “I had lost my ‘why’. Fear had distracted us from our true value, away from the connections, and away from what mattered most. The drive to find our ‘why’ brought us to a pivotal moment. It helped us define out greater purpose: not the way we make money, but why we believe we are a value to society – to enrich lives through human connection. We happen to do it through travel.”

Upchurch pondered on just what IS human connection: “Is it a touchy-feely sentiment, or is it serious business? And if it’s serious business, how do we really deliver on this? Not just to survive… I mean who wants to do that? Certainly not me. We aim to continue to thrive.”

Long ago, Virtuoso put immense effort behind shifting from “agent” to “advisor”, and at that time, fears were already rife that technology would take over. Today, it’s not just Expedia aiming to take over the world, said Upchurch, it’s also Amazon and other aggregators, but he added the proviso, “The world will grow and so will we”.

Today’s world is one where processor speed, storage and artificial intelligence will grow exponentially, with the likes of Siri and Alexa, and yet, said Upchurch, it’s a world “where your why can rule the day… because this is not just about getting more bookings… it’s about getting more of the best clients who generate the best business, based on value and based on values, not just price…”

“It’s not what people see, it’s about what they feel on every trip, before, during and after. It’s about how they want to spend their life’s energy. And everything we are doing… everything… is guided by the spirit of collaboration – all focused on supporting powerful emotions and creating lasting memories. And YOU will be the experts in delivering the why. Your own why: the reason this work matters to you… and the why of your clients – what they most truly care about and the travel that most deeply serves their purpose. Fear paralyses us, but focusing on your why gives you the freedom to create your own future. And it moves us toward the world we most desire. Simon Sinek says, ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. Our digital systems will be designed to enhance the connection between you and your clients… to strengthen that sweet spot that makes everyone who hears what you do say ‘I want that in my life’.”

Rolling out a new platform bringing advisors even closer to their clients

“Our membership’s diversity has grown to match the diversity of affluent clients around the world, which is what makes it so powerful”, said Upchurch, adding, “It also means the way in which you create value is also evermore enhanced. We want to continue to evolve the consumer experience and I know that’s a big one. We are rolling out a new marketing platform this fall. We believe the discovery phase of a consumer experience is where we should innovate again. We will provide members and their advisors with greater transparency and control, combining Virtuoso’s award-winning marketing with the power of your clients’ insights.”

“The platform will provide real-time data to refine client messaging. We see an exciting opportunity to use relationship-driven data to compete with DIY players because we have relationship insights they simply don’t have, like the aspirations captured by something will be hearing a lot more about: Virtuoso Orchestrator. Orchestrator insights the natural curiosity of the traveler and strengthens great advisor relationships. It makes planning seamless. One of our core values is a drive for win-win-win, and Orchestrator is a great example of that. A win for the client looking for the best experiences to build their dreams, a win for the advisor who gets better clients and better lifetime value and a win for our partners with higher yields and more repeat business.”

“Orchestrator has been beta tested by 20 advisors and the results will be shared at our US forum in January. Another great example of win-win-win are our virtuoso communities. In 2019, we are adding Virtuoso Culinary Travel and Ultraluxe. Advisors in communities are selling on average 70% more than their peers creating an effective channel for our partners to focus on that 80:20 rule.  To build on this successful collaboration we are going to create new program benefits and training, first focusing on two types of advisors within those communities. Those who want to grow the specialty but are just getting started and those who are top producers and our passionate about the category. This naturally segues to the power of constant learning.”

Knowledge is the key

Upchurch stated that he was amazed with the latest stats from the virtuoso Academy, “and frankly so proud to serve such a curious and dedicated set of professionals.”

“Last year, we set records for webinar and course completion”, he explained. “This year you have completed 71,000 courses as of August 1; a 59% increase over last year. And to add to that, last week, we launched a new personalized user experience for advisors with numerous new features such as enhanced search, save for later, playlist — just like on Spotify — and AI-driven course recommendations: pretty cool stuff. But I want to go even deeper. Last year at the Accor Hotels leadership breakfast here at Virtuoso week, consumer research from You Gov showed us data on affluent consumers in 14 countries and the customers moved towards what You Gov called ‘the era of meaning’: a deeper concern for impact, for themselves and for the world, and as we said, it’s not just what you see is what you feel. Now we notice it intuitively and our own research has validated this. Last year, we held our first sustainability summit, and we just held our second edition yesterday. We are energized by the progress and collaboration taking place. Sustainability is not something new for us. We have been reporting on and rewarding the basic work of our partners for nearly a decade, but we knew it was time to wrap it up because frankly it’s what we believe is right and because it connects us deeper to our clients, those who want to see their travel investment benefit not only themselves but the world – through the protection and enhancement of cultural and natural heritage, global economies and the planet; and these expressions of our values help to tell your story, as well as the stories of your clients, better.”

The Virtuoso Advisor as an antidote

“We are not an intermediary standing between you and the client”, said Upchurch, speaking of the onset of AI. “We are the antidote to a model that strives to remove as many humans as possible. When we asked Simon what he thought about this year’s theme ‘Your World Awaits’, he said, ‘I really like that it’s not the world awaits but it’s your world awaits. It’s the fact that there is a world that we imagine, and that we can make that world a reality’. In fact, we are here today because we did imagine our own world collaboratively and we made it a reality and that’s why it’s my honor to serve you, thank you.

Simon Sinek back at VTW with a renewed dose of wit and wisdom

With Sinek’s latest work all about the “infinite game”, Matthew Upchurch invited the author to join him in a “sit and chat” on the stage, and asked him how one can win a game that never ends…

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Simon Sinek on stage with Matthew Upchurch

Sinek explained: “A finite game is something with known players, fixed rules and an agreed-upon objective. Baseball and football has a beginning middle and end. And there’s something called an infinite game, where there are known and unknown players, the rules are changeable and the objective is to keep playing. What’s interesting is that we are completely surrounded by infinite games. There is no such thing as winning at marriage, there is no such thing as winning therapy, there is no such thing as winning life. If you make more money than all your friends, you don’t win. And there is definitely no such thing as winning business. They are infinite games and there are many other infinite games at which we are players every single day of our lives. The problem is too many people play at these games as if they were finite. If you think about it, when many CEOs talk about their business, they talk about being number one, being the best, beating the competition. Based on what metrics? Based on what time frame? And no one else has agreed to those things which means there is no such thing, and so what I learned is that when we play infinite games with finite rules, eventually we run out of the will and the resources to play.”

Upchurch underscored a previous statement by Sinek, which was that the goal “is not to do business with everybody that can use what you have, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe”, stating “I love that, so believe me the emotional part of me loves that, but the practical part says what about when people say well that’s nice but good I really be that picky? Is business that easy that I can just work with people who believe what I believe?”

Sinek: “Yes.”

Upchurch: “Why? How?”

Sinek: “I do believe that actually it’s the goal of my game that we should work very hard to do business with people who believe what we believe and reject business with people who don’t believe what we believe. I am sometimes accused of being naïve, and the answer is that I’ve been doing this since the beginning. Even when I didn’t even have two pennies to rub together, I would turn down business. And the reason is – and don’t get me wrong… it’s hard – and sometimes you do have to take business because you have bills to pay. I had a real experience, a true story of somebody who had heard about my work back in the early days of Start with Why. He called me up and he said he had heard good things about me from somebody, and these were the exact words he said: he said ‘Convince me why I should hire you…’ and my answer was “Don’t”. And the reason is simple. Anybody who’s needs convincing is not somebody who believes what I believe, and the ones who I would say yes to are people who would get up and say, ‘You know, your stuff is interesting. I don’t think it’s all right. I think you’ve got some things wrong but I think it’s really, really interesting and we can do something together’. Those are the people I want to work with. There was an old Zen Buddhist saying which is, ‘How you do anything is how you do everything’, so if somebody’s going to force me to convince them why I should work with them, then every piece of advice I give them, they are going to force me to convince them why I making this recommendation. Where does trust come in? Where are the shared values and beliefs?”

Sinek says it’s all about trust: “I work with fantastic people because I chose to work with fantastic people. I don’t have any clients that suck the life out of me, because I said no right from the beginning of the game.” (To this, Sinek received a major round of applause!)

“You don’t have to do this”, he went on. “I am not telling you everybody has to do this. It’s simply a choice. If you want to say yes to everybody, be my guest. It’s not my business; it’s your business. You can do what you want with it, but this is how I’ve chosen to live my life.”

The rules of the infinite game

Yes, the infinite game does, according to Sinek, have rules. All of which Matthew Upchurch had memorised. The first is a kind of mission statement, or having what Sinek terms a “just cause”.

Upchurch and Sinek.jpg“There’s too much debate about what is the difference between vision and mission”, said Sinek. “There’s no standardized definition of these things. Some people have one of them some people have both of them. No one is sure which one goes first. And I’m not willing to step into that space. I think it’s silly. I believe in ‘just cause’, which is an affirmative statement. A just cause is what your company stands for, and it’s bigger than the product or service you offer.”

The just cause, says Sinek, must be resilient, inclusive, and service oriented.

So, what is Sinek’s just cause? “I imagine a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single morning inspired, feel safe at work, and return home fulfilled at the end of the day.”

Other rules were discussed at length on the stage, including “Building trusting and vulnerable teams, having a worthy rival or adversary, having a flexible playbook – or existential flexibility, and finally, courageous leadership.

“It takes unbelievable courage sometimes to do the right thing”, stated Sinek. “But how do you get courage? You’ve got to have people in your life who love you and believe in you.”

About loyalty

Sinek revealed a humorous but pertinent anecdote about a time he was invited to speak at a conference specialising in Loyalty Programs – covering points programs for credit cards and hotels, and miles programs for airlines. “Talk about biting the hand that feeds you,” he said. “I walked out on the stage and my opening line was ‘You do realise if they were really loyal, you wouldn’t have to give them any points’. It’s like kick-back programs. I want people to recommending me for my work because they believe in my work, not recommending my work because they are going to get ten percent of the sale, because that’s not loyalty, that’s selfish.”

Sinek suggested that Points programs should not be called loyalty programs, but were better termed “rewards” programs.

“They’re not loyalty programs. It’s not loyalty. Think about the airlines. I know people who hate the airline with which they have a platinum or diamond card. The airline thinks they are loyal, but no, it’s just because they happen to live in a hub. It’s not loyalty! Loyalty comes from getting to know someone and maybe turning down a cheaper price or giving them a better product because they are loyal to you. That’s loyalty.”

On leadership

“Leadership and rank are not equivalent. I know many people in the highest levels in organizations who are not leaders. We do as they tell us, because they have authority over us, but we will never follow them. And I know people who sit at low levels of organizations who have little to no authority, and they have made a choice – the choice to look after the person to the left of them and the person to the right of them, and we will trust them and follow them anyway. Leadership is not about being in charge, leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.”

“It may be better to have a smaller but profitable business and have an impact on the world and the people who work with you than have the biggest business in the industry and have to take pills every day to function normally.”

A touching and powerful conclusion to the ceremony

To conclude the opening ceremony, Upchurch paid tribute to his late father, Jesse Upchurch. “Now we switch gears to honor a man who has played a major part in our history. The history of this industry, the history of Virtuoso, and of course my own personal history.”

A short but poignant film on the highlights of Jesse Upchurch’s life brought home just how important his contribution to the industry, and to the world, had been.

The show ended, as it started, on a musical note. This time however in such a way as to transport the audience across the Atlantic, through the incredible voices and dancing of the African Children’s Choir. And as the show began with “Faith”, so it ended, fittingly, as Virtuoso sets its sails for wonderful destinations for the NEXT 30 years.