Skift Take

The number of travel agents has decreased dramatically in the last two decades, and the ones that remain have focused on providing a suite of specialty services, rather than banking on the random trip that's better handled in a DIY fashion.

According to the latest survey by the American Society of Travel Agents in March, 55% of U.S. travel agencies polled reported an increase in both revenue and clients in 2013 over 2012.

The travel agent community continues to be a convenient punching bag for many travel consumers and travel industry media, dating back to the 1990s when online booking engines first began encroaching on traditional brick-and-mortar agency sales. However, denying the impact of travel advisors—as they insist on being called now—on global tourism sales today is naive, considering they’re selling billions of dollars of travel worldwide.

Last week, there was considerable optimism at the Virtuoso Travel Week conference taking place at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Virtuoso is a global luxury travel network consisting of 340 travel agencies, with over 8,900 travel advisors from 20 countries, along with another 1,700 global travel suppliers and vendors. At this year’s event, over 4,420 people attended from 92 countries, participating in 354,000 one-on-one buyer/supplier appointments resulting in $450 million in travel sales contracts.

Overall, Virtuoso reports that its member agencies generate over $12.5 billion in travel sales annually.

The network’s client demographics are: Median age is 56 years (53% are age 35-64) and 70% are married or partnered. They earn $200,000 median household income; they have a net worth of $1.75 million; over 95% own a passport; and 47% are prepared to take 4-7 trips this year.

The big push at Virtuoso Travel Week—themed around “Enriching Lives Through Human Connection”—was to communicate the value of booking luxury travel through a luxury travel advisor. Virtuoso is driving that message home by highlighting its advisors’ in-depth understanding of specific destinations and travel niches.

During his keynote, Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch asserted that the greatest return on investment that travel advisors offer is the relationship they develop over time with their clients. By understanding the specific travel needs and desires of their clients, he says, advisors can customize experiences for travelers who might never anticipate many interesting travel options available in any given destination.

That relationship building and travel knowledge is what separates a travel advisor from a travel agent.

“If a travel advisor is seen as just another way of booking travel, we’ve probably lost before we’ve even got started,” said Upchurch. “Our real value lies in the totality of the relationship between the advisor and client throughout the entire travel lifecycle.”

The challenge is communicating that value to the traveling public who believe that the services of the advisor community are solely for less experienced and cautious travelers.

Acknowledging that there’s obviously “a lot of DIY people” booking travel on their own, Upchurch said, “If we get a chance to have a meaningful conversation with somebody, selling them on what a great travel advisor does is actually pretty easy. It’s just that people have so much information today and preconceived notions about what a travel advisor does.”

During Virtuoso Travel Week, many advisors discussed exactly what it is they do. A sample of those include: Travel advisors can secure a room in a hotel that’s seemingly fully booked online; they provide backup assistance if something goes sideways; they know their preferred destinations better than anybody; they make transportation more seamless; and they have preferred suppliers who can provide better rates and more personalized local itineraries.

Jay Johnson, owner of Coastline Travel Advisors in Los Angeles, said he knows those times of day to best visit Machu Picchu, for example, between the massive influx of tourists arriving via train and coach.

Likewise, Stephanie Anevich, owner of Vision Travel Solutions in Toronto, discussed the potential improvement of the traveler’s overall return on experience when booking with an advisor.

“Siem Reap [Cambodia] for example, you go in with a private guide and you won’t see a soul,” she said. “You walk over a couple temples and there’s 550 people all waiting for the sun to rise.”

Of course, the subject of additional pricing is a significant barrier for many travelers considering booking travel through an advisor. But Upchurch flatly denies the validity of that, calling it a common misperception.

“A lot of people think that using a travel advisor adds to the cost of a trip, when in fact, in many, many, many cases, a great travel advisor not only delivers great value, but will actually save you money,” he said. “Because that’s what they do all day.”

What About Customer Service & Cost?

Surprisingly during Virtuoso Travel Week, there didn’t seem to be a concerted effort to promote the value of travel advisors within the context of heightened customer service. In the luxury travel space, one would think that advisors can play the role of someone who makes a busy business or leisure traveler’s life much easier.

That argument in favor of working with travel advisors is not really triumphed on the Virtuoso website. Instead, the Traveler Benefits section details the network’s exclusive initiatives, like the VAST (Virtuoso’s Active & Specialty Travel) program, which “offers you the chance to immerse yourself in authentic, life-changing moments and unique experiences.”

Other traveler benefits touted include partnerships with Virgin Galactic and Saveur magazine, custom travel programs in Peru and New Zealand, and Virtuoso’s cruise-specific Voyager Club. There’s also: Five Reasons Why People Don’t Work With a Travel Advisor.

While all of those benefits are notable, nowhere is there a series of testimonials from luxury travelers expressing the quality of service an advisor provided. Or how an advisor anticipated a client’s needs due to the insight he or she had developed after booking multiple trips for them. Or how one advisor recommended another advisor who’s an expert in another destination the client is considering for a subsequent trip.

Especially for luxury consumers, that type of dialogue resonates deeply with them when time management and personalized experiences rank among the top issues facing wealthy consumers. It also helps cut through the marketing-speak.

Equally important, when Virtuoso says a great travel advisor can actually save you money by finding better deals than an individual could online, it would help to have some data to support that. Otherwise, it’s tough to really believe that applies on a widespread basis.

Would it be possible to have examples of travel-related costs as they appear online, with comparable figures that an advisor was able to deliver? Or, even if the cost ok booking through an advisor was slightly higher, there could be evidence of how the advisor delivered more value and a better overall travel experience.

During the show, Upchurch mentioned the fluctuating relativity of cost, value and ROI when hiring the services of travel advisors. He said sometimes working with an advisor might add 20% to the overall cost of a trip, but the experience could be 100% better.

That sounds good, but it would help to have concrete examples of that on the website to shift the general public’s views about the role of travel advisors in 2014.

The Rise of the Global Citizen

During a media session last week, Upchurch and Jim Bendt, owner of PIQUE Travel Design in Minneapolis, discussed the rise of multi-generational travel and what Virtuoso calls the “Journey to Global Citizenship.”

Stating that multi-gen travel is one of the megatrends today in tourism, Bendt suggests that’s partly because parents want to raise their children to be more globally attuned in a more globalized world.

“Parents are really in tune with the passage of time, and they want to make sure they’re giving their kids these lifelong experiences to help them become better global citizens,” said Bendt. “The world has just gotten a lot more open, so parents and grandparents want to share those types of experiences with the kids, and the grandparents themselves want to visit those major travel milestones…. So I think that’s what is really driving the increase in interest today.”

However, parents often come to him with too many bucket list requests, which he explains to them would take too many years to realistically accomplish, even through their children’s college years. So Bendt says that’s where he’s more and more mapping out multiple trips over the course of a child’s grade school education to create a well rounded yet executable travel program for the whole family.

Bendt and Upchurch added that more parents are making travel decisions based on the children’s language, history and geography classes they’re taking at school. Virtuoso calls it “purposeful planning” when advisors incorporate some kind of educational component into a travel booking, designed to deliver a more transformational experience and specific takeaways.

“People don’t want to just be observers anymore,” summed up Upchurch. “Global citizen travel is becoming a much more purposeful endeavor, versus traveling purely for escape and fun.”

Virtuoso provided the following two charts highlighting the top ten international travel destinations sold by member agencies in the first half of this year, and the top ten destinations showing the highest traffic growth:

Rank Top 10 Virtuoso Destinations 2014 Growth Y-to-Y
1 Italy 6%
2 United Kingdom 30%
3 France 23%
4 Canada 9%
5 Spain 20%
6 Germany 31%
7 Mexico 17%
8 South Africa -5%
9 Netherlands 18%
10 Greece 57%
Rank Highest Growth Destinations 2014 Growth Y-to-Y
1 New Zealand 196%
2 Chile 103%
3 Indonesia 103%
4 Hungary 86%
5 Hong Kong 72%
6 Croatia 68%
7 Australia 58%
8 Ecuador 57%
9 Greece 57%
10 Norway 54%

Greg Oates covers hotel/tourism development and travel brand media. email/twitter


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Tags: travel agents, Virtuoso

Photo credit: Virtuoso Chairman/CEO Matthew Upchurch during his keynote at Virtuoso Travel Week 2014 in Las Vegas. Virtuoso

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