Skift Take

Virtuoso is repositioning the role of travel agents from information providers to long-term travel consultants.

Matthew Upchurch will speak about how the right kind of travel agent survived the digital change at the Skift Global Forum on October 14 and 15 in Brooklyn, New York. See the complete list of amazing speakers and topics at this year’s event.

The most important phase of the sales process for travel agents comes after the travel experience is over says Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, a network of over 9,000 luxury travel agents in 26 countries.

Virtuoso reported $14 billion in network member sales in 2014, up from $12.5 billion in 2013.

Upchurch explains that the most valuable thing agents are doing today to boost their business volume is indepth follow-up phone calls, because that’s when the travel agent (or travel advisor) can learn more about their client’s particular travel preferences. That’s a shift in the traditional value proposition for agents, who have typically positioned themselves foremost as expert sources of travel destination knowledge.

However, because consumers can access such a large amount of up-to-date travel destination information online, Virtuoso is positioning agents as a kind of travel psychoanalyst. The thinking goes, the better the agent knows the customer’s wishes and whims down to the smallest detail, the more likely the customer will return to the agent for future travel advice and services. So Virtuoso is placing more of a priority on educating member agents about the value of building long term relationships, as much as learning about the newest travel trends and products.

If the agent can develop a certain level of what Upchurch calls “attunement” into the client’s travel mindset, that can create a degree of trust where the customer will more likely use the agent to book future business, even if the agent has never been to the intended destination. That’s because good travel agents are aggressively networking with other agents who are experts on destinations they’re unfamiliar with. In effect, the best individual travel agents today are acting as their own individual travel agencies.

In the past, promoting agents as a service was downplayed because booking travel online is so easy. At best, consumers saw booking travel through an agent as an unwarranted cost. At worst, says Upchurch, it was a service deemed appropriate for only the uninitiated and uniformed. But now with more and more working professionals overwhelmed with post-recession life in America, the idea of a personal travel consultant is coming back in vogue because there’s an ever increasing demand for more customized travel experiences.

Following is our talk with Upchurch last week about how Virtuoso is helping its member agents develop as “the right kind of travel agents,” evolving from transient information providers to lifelong travel consultants.

Skift: What is the right kind of travel agent in today’s digital word?

Matthew Upchurch: Our keynote speaker at the upcoming Virtuoso Travel Week next month is Daniel Pink, who wrote a book called To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, which has been translated into more than 30 languages. What he talks about is the whole idea that, if you get past the traditional idea of selling, it’s more about how people move other people. How people inspire people and help them solve their problems.

Because what’s happened is, in a highly competitive world where you have technology, efficiency and pressure on margins, it’s actually the people who can present something with impact and clarity, and who can customize something to the individual buyer, who have a much greater value today. So, it’s about who can attune to the needs of clients who are actually the ones that maintain the value in the equation. It’s that human element of attunement. It’s the nuances in that, that makes a difference.

Skift: So is that the most significant difference between an agent today and five years ago?

Upchurch: To me, the single biggest difference between what travel agents were and what travel agents are today, and particularly obviously the ones that have continued to thrive and the new ones coming in from the get-go, they start by knowing the customer has more information than they do, right? There used to be that caveat: “Buyer beware.” Now, it’s seller beware. Our clients have so much access to information. I think what’s interesting is we’ve moved away from a profession that was really more about information providing, to one that is much more about attunement and understanding nuances about creativity and trust. It’s a case of the agent being there in all the different stages of what we call the collaborative life cycle of travel.

Skift: How important is it for today’s next generation of travel advisors to specialize in specific travel niches?

Upchurch: Yeah, I love that question. I’ll tell you something that I learned the hard way. Many years ago we focused in the late 1990’s on the OTAs when the travel agency distribution system was going through its heaviest upheaval. Within my network, we had a lot of tremendous travel advisors who had a basic specialty. They had specialties because of several factors. They were Russian specialists because they grew up in Russia. They were a specialist on art history because they had a bachelor’s degree in art history. They had life experiences so many of our advisors had these specialties.

Travel advisors are not these monolithic, one dimensional people, right? They were something else before they were travel advisors, whether it was in school, life experience, whatever. The natural genesis of any travel advisor’s specialization comes from life experiences. That’s the first way it naturally happens. So in the late 1990’s, when people were not exactly getting up in the morning and saying, “Gee, I need to go find me a travel agent,” we started really promoting the value of travel advisors through specialization. Specialization is important.

Here is what I found that was very interesting. When it comes to travel advising, there is a psychographic among a set of consumers who actually do want to change the travel agent they interact with every single time they go to a new destination. They don’t mind going from an African specialist to a Paris specialist to an Antarctica specialist, and so on. So when we launched into specialization as a primary way of promoting the value of travel agents, we were saying, “Come use a travel advisor who is an amazing southern Botswana expert.”

What we have found since is people would connect with that specialist. They’d have an amazing experience, and more and more, people would come back and say, “Man that was one of my best trips ever. I so enjoyed dealing with you.” Let’s say you’re a France specialist, you can do Paris, right? A lot of agents can do Paris. What we had found is there is another level of specialization, which is actually a much larger specialization beyond destination product. That is the specialization in the customers based on who they are and how they want to travel.

Skift: So there’s a shift from specializing in Paris to specializing in client personalities?

Upchurch: Right, it’s about varying levels of importance. So, say the first time you call me and you want some travel advice, and you come to me because I’m a specialist for Africa. You’re going to make up your mind whether I’m legit or not, probably within, and I’m not exaggerating, probably within about 2-3 minutes of our discussion, right? What ends up happening is the chemistry between us, the way I ask questions, the way we interpret things, the way I find nuances, etc., starts to become more and more biased and personalized.

If our chemistry really clicks, then the value proposition about why you value me as an advisor becomes less and less about the specific destination or product, and more and more about how well I know you. How well I anticipate your needs. How well I was there for you when something went wrong. There is a whole lot of other things that become more important. In fact, the really great advisor today will say yes, I’m a specialist, but in many cases they don’t sell themselves as a destination expert. They sell themselves as an expert collaborator with an amazing network.

Skift: So let’s say I use a travel advisor to go to Amsterdam because that person specializes in Amsterdam, and we develop a great relationship and I now trust that advisor. But then what if I want to go to Buenos Aires and this travel advisor has never been to Buenos Aires, but I really like working with this agent. You’re saying that if this agent has a really good network, he or she will know people who do know Buenos Aires? Does that really work?

Upchurch: Not only do they know people, one of two things. Depending on the complexity of what you want to do in Buenos Aires, first of all they’ll say I haven’t been there, but I’ve got a really good hotel, or I’ve got a really good hotel program. But no, you’re saying I really want indepth advice. Great, I say, I have an amazing network of specialists, including a few in BA, and this is where organizations like Virtuoso, as well as what the individual advisors do, this is why they spend so much time networking. This is why they go to events like Virtuoso Travel Week and do all of that networking. It’s about the people they know.

A new common technique utilized by our advisors is they will get people either on the phone or on Skype and do three-way calls. So the advisor says, “I’ve got somebody in BA. Let’s get on a three-way call. Now, there’s this thing where you’ve also maybe got a person on the ground, and they’re talking about who they are and what they know etc., etc., and it’s the beginning of a big collaborative process.

Skift: How is Virtuoso educating its member agents about this in 2015?

Upchurch: Basically there are two kinds of training that we do at Virtuoso. One is really about product, right? Learning about destinations. We do that through networking. We do it online. We have a full blown Virtuoso Travel Academy, which is a learning management system that we established years ago. We have a lot of live webinars done from the destination, from South Africa, from Europe, from wherever, with the actual product people on there. We are very big on product training.

The other side is professional development. It’s about how to ask better questions, how to adapt to different styles of consumers to be more effective. We actually have a framework. It’s called the Collaborative Travel Planning Process that gets into what are the most valuable deliverables within each phase of the process—the ideation process, the itinerary creation process, the reservation process

The single more important thing, which our consumer research has proven year after year after year, is that the difference between a transactional travel agent and trusted travel advisor is the conversation after the trip. If the advisor and traveler do not talk to each other after the trip, then the likelihood of the customer dealing with the advisor beyond a mere transient relationship is not there. Whereas, the advisors who have a debrief say things like, “If you could do anything different on this trip, what would it be?” And they are masters at that. Then the advisor takes that insight and makes that effort, and then uses it to better curate and better recommend another travel booking in the future.

Skift: The last time we talked it seemed like there were potentially a few omissions on the Virtuoso website. Namely, there wasn’t really any mention about the value of booking travel with travel agents, in terms of how they offer personalized service and the role of pampering the luxury client. Seems you’ve made a few changes

Upchurch: Allow me a second to thank you. It was actually your interview when you came back and said, guys, aren’t you a bit about service as much as expert authority? We couldn’t see the forest through the trees. I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for that because you were the catalyst for improving our message.

Skift: And you added case studies too.

Upchurch: Yes, absolutely. As you notice what we did on the website, not only did we discuss the value of personalized service and VIP treatment, but we connected those to clients specifically talking about how their advisor actually delivered on those promises.

Greg Oates covers tourism and hospitality development.


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Tags: sgf2015, skift global forum, travel agents, Virtuoso

Photo credit: Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso. Skift

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