Not long ago, it seemed that DIY online bookings would make travel agents a thing of the past. Instead, the sector is rebounding. Enter Virtuoso, a luxury travel advising service that goes far beyond taking your reservation. “The hottest new thing that never went away,” states Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso Luxury Travel, “is the travel adviser.” Virtuoso is an elite consortium of travel agencies and travel providers bound together for maximum clout.
There are just over 380 agencies belonging to Virtuoso, employing 11,400 advisers, turning $15.5-billion (U.S.) in sales last year. The fact that agents are more in demand than ever is in part a case of information overload, says Upchurch. Luxury travel advisers, he notes, not only curate for customers, but also help fulfill needs clients didn’t even know they had. “Never in the history of this industry, have we seen travellers within four generations,” notes Upchurch, adding: “Welcome to the longevity revolution.” Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers, and Matures—travel and tourism makes up 10 per cent of the world’s GDP.
When travel magazines and trade industry publications print their Best of the Best lists, many are members of Virtuoso. In addition to the fact that Virtuoso recruits and supports the very best travel agents in the business—Canada’s superstar Virtuoso member agencies include Vision Travel and Travel Professionals International with offices across the country, Vancouver’s Renshaw Travel, and Toronto’s TTI Travel and Zebrano Travel—they band together to get “more” from their travel partners, including airlines, cruise lines, and a who’s who of the world’s great luxury hotels, luxury tour operators like Abercrombie & Kent, and best in class heavyweights like Butterfield & Robinson for biking, and Micato for safaris. The Virtuoso Best of the Best awards for 2015? Hotel of the year: Ashford Castle, Ireland. Best Spa: Dolder Grand Spa, The Dolder Grand, Zurich, Switzerland. Sustainable Tourism Leadership: The Brando, French Polynesia.
Tapping into its proprietary data, Virtuoso sets the pace in forecasting luxury travel trends, and with the recent unveiling of its 2016 Virtuoso Luxe Report, travellers seeking something off the beaten path will roam to Cuba (undoubtedly the result of warming relations between the United States and the island nation), with Bhutan and Myanmar also ranking high. Adventure travellers are off to South Africa, followed by Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, and New Zealand. Vietnam has seen the biggest jump in year-over-year bookings while Italy remains a tried-and-true favourite.
Travel agents have moved from being “bookers” to “advisers,” modelling their approach along the lines of financial planners. The key, states Upchurch, is finding a Virtuoso travel adviser that is right for you. Luxury travel advisers have three roles, he points out: as a consultant before, and a support system during a trip—but even more importantly, as a person with whom to share and review details after the trip is over. Advice, access, and accountability—the three prongs that make up the Virtuoso triangle.