While the luxury travel network Virtuoso continues to expand, its role as a key global lobbyist is underpinned by its close relationship with the World Travel and Tourism Council. At ILTM Cannes, Cleverdis editor-in-chief Richard Barnes was again thrilled to have a chat with Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch, beginning with a question about his organization’s relations with the WTTC…

Whenever I have a chance to speak in front of anybody, I always try to mention the WTTC. I will give you an example: when I spoke in front of all the Cornell hospitality students, the first thing I said was, “If you don’t remember anything out of the speech I want you to remember one thing. When you leave this university as hospitality graduates I want you to start your conversations that you are first and foremost a member of the global tourism and travel industry… and then say you are in hospitality. Because we all need to unite around the idea that the importance of this industry economically, socially and in all ways.” One of our industry’s key issues today is that sometimes we just don’t get taken seriously, or we get taken for granted. Look at the number of incredible countries that don’t even have a tourism policy or a Tourism Minister. Hence the importance of the charter of the WTTC. We are proud members of it, being able to quantify the importance of travel and working hand in hand on facilitating travel. The other thing is sustainability. The reality is that tourism can be a force for good or it can be destructive. So, leading the idea about responsibility and responsible tourism is important.

Since Gloria Guevara Manzo took over from David Scowsill, what has changed at the WTTC to your mind?

I have seen a really nice evolution. One of David’s legacies was that he had started to expand the membership, and the diversity of their message had improved. I think Gloria, with her background having been with Sabre in Latin America – so very strong in the private sector – and then also her position as a Minister of Tourism, not forgetting her time at Harvard… she has brought-in something very valuable, which is this combination of academia, government and private enterprise. With Gloria, I feel like we are reaching into more sectors, and are having elevated conversations amongst different people. I also believe we are working very well on the evolution of the membership, because WTTC really started off as a kind of “big boys club”, and while that’s great, and it still does have the big boys, I think that creating the regional memberships is helping with the expansion of the organization’s influence. Quite frankly, the sharing of those resources helps everybody in the travel sector obtain a set of figures and a quantitative baseline upon which they can build their narrative.

What is your longer-term vision for Virtuoso?

It will be fully Global. As Virtuoso has grown bigger, my biggest challenge and yet it is a fun opportunity is “How does Virtuoso continue to grow and become bigger while at the same time still being able to feel small and deliver results of high value for ever-smaller groups with highly specific needs?”

Today we have a series of “communities” that have to do primarily with themes, like “family” or “cruising” and so on. We already have people who specialize in destinations, working on psychographic groups or generational groups, so basically, Virtuoso in a continuing 20 years is going to go further along those lines. One of the analogies I like to use is that our job at Virtuoso is a little bit like Apple in that our job is to create an OS – an operating system. But our operating system is a human-based one, made-up of the members of our network, who have a set of values and tools and methodologies that allow them to interact with each other to create opportunities in a literally an ad infinitum way. We are going from being an organization where 90% of what we provided our network was a fully-baked products or services. Now we are developing infrastructure to provide ingredients. So you need a story? You need content? You need figures? We are moving a lot of our technology into the cloud and creating micro-services, so that members who have very unique needs and very unique expressions of how they go to market are able to take elements of what we provide and embed them in their own unique way of going to market. For example, instead of providing them with a fully-baked magazine, we have photography, we have articles, we have data, that they’re able to then embed in their own materials.

On the subject of sustainability, when do you think we will get to the stage that rather than Virtuoso having to create a push effect with clients, which is what you are really doing now, we will have more of a pull effect?

The pull effect is already starting to happen. One of the biggest challenges is from a promotional and marketing point of view, and that is why I love Jessica’s thing about “start where you are*”. One of the biggest problems in the environmental movement has been a little bit of “blame and shame”, because on the one hand, there is urgency, but on the other hand, human psychology is such that you will not motivate people to change their habits for the long term through fear.

Dr Brené Brown, who wrote a number of books, has an entire chapter about fear. She referenced a study on human beings that had had major cardiac arrest. They were literally told by their physicians, “If you don’t change this, this or this habit, you will literally die. You don’t get more black and white than that. 80% of the people died. They didn’t change their habits. And the study went into the psychology of why. It turns out human beings will change their behavior over the short term through fear. It will work, but the only way you change human beings’ behavior over the long term is to paint a picture of something better and then show them a potential path to get there that feels doable. So, when it comes to the environmental movement, when people say we should do better, act now, and it’s too slow, the flipside of that is I would rather see 95% of the world start where they are and take the next step in the right direction than trying to get 5% of the world to do it perfectly. Remember the term greenwashing? The problem is, we live in a political environment where everybody wants to see everything black-and-white. You cannot be this if you are that… It’s one of the other. Well the problem is that it’s not that simple. For example, if you say I am the perfect environmental place and then I find all kinds of stuff you’re not doing right, then I may label you a greenwasher, but if you’re humbler, and say, “I have taken the following steps and I know I am not perfect but I am attempting to head in the right direction”, that is a god start. If you’re an environmentalist, what level of perfection are you looking for? I would rather see 95% of the world take one step forward, because that will have a bigger effect than 5% of the world getting it perfect. And by the way, the problem is every time I get to a level of perfection that I thought was supposed to be perfect, someone else moves the goal posts, so it’s not very motivating!

It touched us greatly that you lost your dad this year, and we saw the tremendous film that was shown at Vegas during travel week depicting his life. What is the most important part of his legacy that drives you forward and guides you today?

His level of humanity. That man would treat a chambermaid the same way as he would treat a head of state. He loved life, and he loved people. When my wife and I gifted him for his 90th birthday the book we had written – and it’s what I said in my family ceremony for him – I said you know when I first saw the title of that book, which was “One thing led to another”, at first, I thought it made my dad sound like, “Well, whatever”. But then as I sat down in my joy and my grief of his departure, it really dawned on me that one thing really did just lead to another. He was a guy that went through World War II, he was orphaned at the age of 15, all these things happened to him… And for me, that definition became, “Do you know what? What it is is what it is right now.” So actually, it’s like, “Start where you are”, or “This is what I have in front of me, and I’m just going to make the best of it and see where it takes me”. He took every opportunity and never closed himself out. One of the things I talk about personally and in business is that it doesn’t take a lot of motivation to change what you do if you are failing, but if you are successful, it takes a lot more motivation to take risks.

So how that relates to me? I like to tell the story of the most important personal and professional development thing I’ve done for myself, that has re-energized my life. Obviously, I like to talk… I talk a lot… and three years ago, I was with a friend of mine, Dr Ken Dychwald, in San Francisco… he has done a PBS series and written 17 books. We finished our meeting and we were walking out of his office, and he puts his arm around me and says “You know, Matthew, I’ve been to your meetings and watched you talk, and I’ve watched your videos, and you do a really great job of talking, but you could be better.” I remember being a bit shocked, and then he waited just long enough, and he said, “But you know, a friend would never say that to you and leave you hanging”, and that’s when he introduced me to a guy by the name of Jay Golden who is a storytelling coach, who just wrote a book called Retellable ( I connected with him, and he has changed my life. I’ve been having so much more fun, because I’ve learned about the art and a science of writing a story. I thought I was good but I’ve gone deeper into it, and I think that this whole idea of connection, telling stories, and being able to get people to feel things, is so important. And my dad was a hell of a storyteller by the way so people joke that I never met a microphone I didn’t like… well you could sit with my dad and he would tell the most amazing stories. That is a significant part of his legacy.

*Jessica Hall Upchurch is now Virtuoso’s Sustainability Ambassador. At the 2018 Sustainability Summit in Las Vegas, Ms Upchurch stated Virtuoso was starting with a very simple message: ‘start where you are’: “We feel at Virtuoso that the way in which we can get our travellers and our guests and our clients to start and really think about sustainability is for them to start where they are… To start with very simple, basic ideas that can turn into something that is transformational. Some are starting very simply by turning the lights off and reusing towels. Others are far beyond that – they are into education and engaging in cultures, waste reduction, energy management and production, recycling… there are so many different ways. But the key is to just start where you are. That helps build the future of the travel industry and what we can do together.”