Gary Johnson of Woodside Travel and a staff member take a moment to smile for the camera, before returning their attention to their color-coded to do list at Virtuoso Travel Mart.
I’m sitting at a table with Gary Johnson, the owner/director of Woodside Travel in Seattle, Wash.
Gary is interacting with suppliers in mini, two-minute networking sessions, while simultaneously waving across the room at contacts he hasn’t seen in ages, coordinating staff schedules (Woodside Travel has three tables at Virtuoso), and talking with me about the benefits of being a Virtuoso preferred advisor.
He’s moving so quickly that he kind of resembles the “Bugs Bunny” cartoons, where Bugs appears in several places at the same time. All that’s missing is the rifle shot signifying Gary’s hasty exit from one scene to the next.
What’s most amazing is the efficiency with which he handles all his threads. He has a firm sense of what needs to happen over the course of the next four days and he’s making sure it gets done.
We are mid-way through the second day of five at Virtuoso Travel Mart, in the midst of what many consider the crux of the show, the Travel Mart Appointments. Here, travel advisors set up shop at small tables and suppliers come to them with just two minutes to convince them why the advisor should be selling their products.
The suppliers come from a diverse range of luxury products, both domestically and internationally, representing such brands as Mandarin Oriental, Fairmont, Raffles, Linblad ad Taj, to name a very few.
The schedule must be a grueling one for travel advisors — my brain is about to explode, and I’ve only sat through a dozen or so presentations, mostly from luxury hotels based in the southern U.S.
Gary, however, is gleeful about the whole process. In fact, he has brought enough of his team to cover three tables, in order to connect with the maximum number of suppliers. Each staff member is carrying a complicated excel sheet/flow chart with color coordinated threads.
Soon, the purpose of the color coordinated threads becomes obvious. As a hotelier from Miami sits down at our table, one of Gary’s staff members from another table pops over.
“I wanted to make sure to hear this presentation,” she said. “I have a client who I think would be prefect for them.”
The hotelier looks visibly relieved to have a friendly ear for what must surely be his 30th “elevator speech” of the day.
When speaking of the Travel Mart Appointments, Virtuoso execs jokingly say that they invented speed dating. And while that may not be exactly true, there is definitely a love connection starting between Woodside Travel and the hotelier.
The five-day Travel Mart is about so much more than just the speed dating, however.
Travel Mart’s first official day opens with a series of educational sessions. Topics such as time managements, legal issues and the art of selling are all on the agenda. When speaking with travel advisors, the hands-on favorite session seems to have been a course on social media, run by Virtuoso’s own Peter Runn. Runn, who covered many facets of social media, focused largely on how travel advisors could use YouTube to help promote their businesses.
For me, however, the top educational session was “Seeding Cultural Change,” presented by Patricia Martin, a researcher of culture and commerce, who mostly studies the Millennial Generation. She spoke largely of the cultural shifts that are being driven by this young, active generation and steps travel advisors could take to stay relevant.
The advisors in attendance were visibly (and audibly) surprised to hear that the Millennial Generation, known to be hooked-up and plugged-in, considers their vacation time a precious opportunity to disconnect and spend quality time with their loved ones. More than a few agents left this seminar discussing plans on how they could engage this largely untapped market.
By the time the general session rolls around on day one, I’m exhausted, inspired and have already filled half of my Virtuoso notebook with random scribblings.
Despite my newfound fan-girl worship of Virtuoso, when execs announce the general speaker to be Brené Brown, a “researcher of vulnerability,” I admit I was somewhat puzzled by her relevance to the audience at hand.
It turns out that relevance was a large part of her conversation with the audience.
What particularly had the audience sitting up and taking notice was the notion that the consumer’s own vulnerability may come into play when they consider utilizing the services of a travel advisor. If a consumer must travel on a budget, for example, or they aren’t quite sure how to pronounce the name of the destination where they are traveling, that they might be reluctant to call an advisor and have to admit to what they consider shortcomings
By the end of her seminar, Brené earned herself a standing ovation from everyone in attendance. Except for me, I was still scribbling last-minute notes.
Although Virtuoso has outdone itself in creating a well-organized, informative Travel Mart, however, where Travel Mart’s true success comes from is its attendees.
It is rare to see such a large quantity of senior staff from the world’s top luxury products.
What is even rarer is to see such a large gathering of what are clearly the world’s leading travel advisors.
In my whole 20 year career in the travel industry, I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many conversations start out with “I have a client....”
And these conversations mean business. Virtuoso’s travel advisors collectively booked $9.6 billion dollars in business last year.
It's small wonder Gary is so happy to be here.