It’s only 7 a.m. on an already warm August Monday, but the expansive hallways of Las Vegas’ massive Bellagio hotel are already awash with people — an estimated 5,600 — attending an uber-glitzy annual event called Virtuoso Travel Week. Sponsored by Virtuoso, one of America’s top travel networks, the eponymous, invitation-only event is widely regarded as the industry’s “Fashion Week” equivalent. The hordes are here to connect 850-or-so provider partners (luxury hotels, resorts, cruise lines, airlines, tour companies and premier destinations, among others) with Virtuoso’s 47-country network of 16,000 travel agents or “advisers.”
Wait — travel agents? Didn’t the intergoogle send them the way of the dodo?
Well, yes — sort of. When introducing Expedia, Bill Gates supposedly said, “Throw away your travel agent’s phone number.” By offering everyone the opportunity to become his or her own travel expert, the company boomed, as have other online travel agencies, or OTAs. With 2016 revenues of $8.77 billion, Expedia is a behemoth and now owns Hotels.com, Hotwire, Trivago, Travelocity, Orbitz and HomeAway.
While that’s quite respectable, Virtuoso, arguably the leader in what might be called “curated luxury travel design,” booked an astonishing $21.2 billion in sales last year — more than twice Expedia’s.
Not too shabby for the biggest little travel company you may have never heard of.
Travel Agents Versus Advisers
Virtuoso advisers confidently think of themselves as world-class designers of bespoke travel experiences. They stride purposefully through the Bellagio, stylishly outfitted, on their way to the event’s kickoff gathering.
In his keynote address, Virtuoso’s enthusiastic CEO Matthew Upchurch (who never tires of telling the Gates story), brings the assembled faithful to their well-heeled feet in ecstasy as he gleefully points to the gigantic numbers, then cheerfully sends them on their way to myriad presentations that will fill their frantic week.
Upchurch, it should be noted, also agrees with those who say that the era of the travel agent is over. “If you’re talking about agents who just pass along information that clients can find online themselves, then yes, it’s over,” he says. “Our clients come to us not because they need information — they’re already knowledgeable travelers with great contacts. They come to us because, with our network of advisers and providers, we can collaboratively orchestrate exceptional experiences, help them make arrangements they couldn’t possibly make on their own and be available to assist should concerns arise.”
He compares what’s happening in tourism with the financial industry, where account-churning stockbrokers have given way to wealth management advisers who work with clients to plan their financial goals. Similarly, travel advisers charge professional fees that vary depending on the level of service you expect/require/demand.
Is paying a fee worth it? Upchurch points out that well-trained advisers can often negotiate better rates than you could get on your own and step in when the unforeseen happens, like when an air traffic controller strike in Spain disrupts flight schedules, or sudden bad weather brings your island-hopping party to a screeching halt. Simply put, they’ve got more clout to pull off alternate arrangements faster and better than you.
Virtuoso — with corporate offices in New York, Seattle and yes, Fort Worth — isn’t the only dog in the hunt for a chunk of the $683 billion leisure travel market (as estimated by the U.S. Travel Association). Competitors include networks such as Ensemble, Signature, Affluent Traveler Collection, Travel Leaders, TravelSavers and Traveller Made, among others.
But with its singular focus on bespoke luxury travel and personalized service before, during and after the sale, Virtuoso is definitely one of the splashiest and best-connected.
Concierge-level Travel for Discriminating Clients
Tired of flying with the hoi polloi? Virtuoso can help you charter the Crystal Skye from Crystal Cruises, an 88-passenger 777 fitted with a cozy bar, dining tables and game room, 24-inch screens for each passenger in front of enormous leather seats that open into comfy beds, butler service and a huge galley kitchen run by a Michelin-trained chef. It’s only $55,000 an hour and no, you can’t charter it for just one hour.
But do the math. Presuming you can find 87 like-minded friends, you could charter the Crystal Skye from New York to Paris for about $440,000 or $5,000 per head. That’s about the same price as most domestic first-class tickets on the same route. And you can keep the jammies and slippers!
Want to avoid the same old villa experience? Join the growing trend of chartering a luxury private yacht for you and 20, 30 or 40 of your friends to sail the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, or wherever, really. Average cost: $215,000. And lest you think that’s outrageous, consider this — bookings are up 29 percent for the year.
These are extreme examples for the one percent of the one-percenters, of course. But they point to new travel trends for the rest of us, which is all about the singular experience.
Today’s Curated Travel Trends
While there’s nothing wrong with booking a beachfront resort through an OTA and just hanging out, Virtuoso and other networks differentiate themselves by combining destinations with authentic experiences that go far beyond price-driven, point-and-click tours.
Want to read medieval German manuscripts in the austere environs of an ancient monastery? Explore the rainforest ecology of Central America? Bring your pail to an Egyptian archaeological dig? And then dine on five-star cuisine in the evenings and be waited on hand and foot? With time, effort and lots of coffee, you could maybe arrange things like this yourself. But why, when advisers can get deals you won’t find on your own and do it faster and better?
Another trend — multi-generational travel. Boomers are healthier than in past generations, living well (in every sense) into their 80s and 90s. Plus, they’ve got lots of dough and are happy to spend it. So there’s a growing trend for grandparents, parents and kids to travel together to locales where education and adventure are prime attractions. In some cases, PawPaw and Grammie shuffle off with the kids, leaving behind the oh-so-busy parents who keep up on the fun through their ever-present smartphones.
Wellness is also a thing now. Travel advisers are absolutely giddy about Aman Resorts, for example, which has built its business by promising restful yet luxuriously invigorating, culturally rich experiences at 31 destinations in 20 countries (two in the U.S.). (“Aman” means “peace, security, safety, shelter, protection” in the Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Arabic, Urdu and Persian languages.)
With no reception desks, front lobbies or bellhops, yet with a staff to guest ratio of 4:1, the Aman experience is more like visiting your rich uncle’s home than a hotel. And spa treatments are more than afterthoughts — they are the raison d’être. What’s better than being aromatically oiled and boiled into tranquil oblivion all day long?
The Couture Fit
So how can it get any better? It’s in the details. Travel advisers can not only arrange these already enhancement-laden experiences but also set up private side tours for exclusive shopping, environmental explorations and stellar dining experiences.
Travel advisers take the risk out of planning once-in-a-lifetime experiences like weddings, anniversaries, or multi-generational visits to exotic or remote destinations, and effortlessly elevate you from tourist to traveler in the process.
So go ahead — ignore Bill Gates (Steve Jobs did). This new generation of shiny, sparkling, well-informed, customer service-oriented travel advisers could very well be the best traveling companions you’ve ever had.
Travel writer Brian Melton is proud to misquote Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz by saying, “Tourism is diplomacy by other means.”