What’s on your Wanderlist? That question was the overriding theme at this year’s Virtuoso Travel Week, referencing the consortium’s new Wanderlist travel planning platform and encouraging travel advisors to take on the role of “life experience guides.”
Billing itself as the travel industry’s answer to Fashion Week, Virtuoso’s 31st annual gathering drew a record-breaking 6,515 luxury-focused travel professionals from 107 countries to Las Vegas on Aug. 10–16. Estimated to generate $420 million in travel sales, Travel Week encompassed nearly 280,000 one-to-one meetings between advisors and suppliers and over 850 networking events.
Speaking at the opening session, Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Mathew Upchurch and Airbnb Strategic Advisor Chip Conley set the tone for the event, each maintaining that tech innovations complement but do not override the human element in business.
“Travel advisors have everything a machine does not — a machine will never be as good as your intellect,” Conley told the crowd. “Travel advisors have moved to a place where they are life experience guides. You guide people to have a better life.”
Upchurch, who emphasized the importance of “high-tech, high-touch and high-team,” said the travel business remains “human-centric” and that trust is why referrals are still the number-one source of business for travel agencies.
“It’s not just about being high-tech and high-touch, it’s about being high-team,” he said. “The only way to compete with algorithms is to be what they are not — more human — by showcasing personality and deepening communication.”
In his keynote address, Conley stressed the need to evolve with the times and how multiple generations in the workplace can learn from each other. He described his own 33-year travel career, one that began as the owner of the Phoenix, a funky San Francisco hotel catering to rock musicians. He went on to be founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and then took an unexpected turn as a mentor in the sharing economy.
Among Conley’s own mentors was LSD guru Timothy Leary, a frequent guest at the Phoenix, who taught him about the importance of addressing people’s unrecognized needs and of being in the “identity refreshment” business.
“Leary told me that my hotel made him feel self-actualized, which is the highest rung in the pyramid of human behavior,” Conley said. “You are where you sleep.”
Conley later employed the concept of addressing unrecognized needs when he created a rooftop yoga venue at San Francisco’s upscale Hotel Vitale.
“We found a market among women who want to stay healthy while traveling,” he said. “It was very successful.”
Conley found himself in unfamiliar territory when he sold Joie de Vivre at the age of 52 and was asked by Airbnb to play a mentorship role at the company. He compared the experience to the movie The Intern in which Robert De Niro plays an aging executive who joins a start-up.
“I’d never worked at a technology company, and I’d never heard of the sharing economy,” he said. “The average employee was half my age. I might have been the mentor, but I also had a lot to learn.”
Conley told the audience that travel agencies should encourage “mutual mentorships” where veterans and newcomers exchange ideas with each other. He referred to McCabe World Travel as a prime example of this, illustrating how a mutual mentorship between president Anne Sculley and director of development Beth Washington benefited both and enabled the agency to grow with new talent.
“Life is a glorious potluck, and we each have the recipe,” Conley said. “We now have five generations in the workplace. It’s an intergenerational feast like we’ve never seen before.”
Wanderlist Takes Off
In his opening remarks, Upchurch touched on Wanderlist, much in evidence with the conference branding on bags and signage. Introduced earlier this year, Wanderlist is designed to help advisors get deeper insight into their clients’ travel desires and therefore be better equipped to develop current and future travel plans.
Travel advisors who go through Wanderlist training can offer the service to their clients at a cost per family. Users are presented with online survey questions about their preferences on destinations and experiences, creating data points that advisors can draw on for customization.
During a press conference, Upchurch said that the first group of 120 travel advisors have gone through Wanderlist training, a six-week program that will be offered again this fall. Virtuoso also plans to introduce Wanderlist Guides, virtual assistants who will help travel advisors in managing and implementing the data.
“The benefit is that it creates conversations between travel advisors and clients,” Upchurch said. “It creates a real-time profile of the client and helps advisors know much more about their clients.”
When families or couples use Wanderlist together, another benefit is that they learn new things about each other’s preferences, he added.
“In one case, a little girl picked Thailand as her preferred destination, which totally surprised her parents as they thought she was only interested in Disney destinations,” he said. “In some cases, couples who have been married for many years are surprised at what the other one wants to do.”
While currently limited to travel advisors in the U.S. and Canada, Upchurch said Virtuoso plans to expand Wanderlist globally.
During the conference, Virtuoso also announced that its network currently encompasses over 1,000 agency locations with more than 20,000 advisors in 50 countries, accounting for over $26.4 billion in annual sales.
In 2019, travel sales among Virtuoso members are forecasted to grow by 10.9 percent. Cruise sales are particularly strong, led by forecasted growth of over 100 percent for Virtuoso members in Asia, Europe, and Australia.
Virtuoso’s Communities concept for niche markets is also growing, with a 35 percent increase this year to 3,295 advisors and 262 supplier partners. This year Culinary and Ultraluxe categories were added to Communities, which also include Adventure, Voyages, Wellness, and Family. New for next year will be Celebration Travel, covering destination weddings, honeymoons, and other milestone events.