LAS VEGAS Lauding his group’s members for finding ways to thrive
amid a “vicious cycle of consolidation and commoditization” in the
industry, Matthew Upchurch, CEO of agency marketing group Virtuoso,
outlined current programs and upcoming initiatives at its annual
Travel Mart here last week.
Upchurch said the 267-agency group’s emphasis on customer
service over order-taking and the quality of a trip over its price
continues to resonate with clients, particularly with baby-boomers
who remain more concerned with the overall value of a vacation than
its price tag.
“Ultimately, people don’t travel because of price,” he said.
“They travel because of experience.”
Virtuoso’s conference, which drew 1,700 agents and suppliers,
came hot on the heels of stories in Conde Nast Traveler and Travel
& Leisure that tout the expertise and service levels of many
“This is something the boomers want,” Upchurch said, referring
to Virtuoso’s high-touch approach to travel sales. “The cover of
Conde Nast proves it.”
Upchurch and other Virtuoso executives spoke of the ongoing
challenges that come with creating a luxury-travel brand, including
a double-digit drop in international leisure travel among U.S.
travelers and a dwindling number of agency locations. But they also
pointed to recently launched initiatives designed to draw more
high-end leisure travelers to Virtuoso agents.
One such alliance is with the Neiman Marcus department store
chain, with which Virtuoso has developed a customer-loyalty program
that lets shoppers redeem points for trips through Virtuoso
suppliers and agents. Virtuoso launched the Neiman Marcus alliance
earlier this year, and it announced at the Travel Mart that
Silversea Cruises and Intrav will be the program’s official
supplier partners in 2003.
Kristi Jones, Virtuoso’s president, noted the similarities
between Neiman Marcus’ and Virtuoso’s respective clienteles,
pointing out that roughly two-thirds of Neiman Marcus
frequent-shoppers are females with a net worth of more than $2
million. The store also offers Virtuoso specialists gift cards to
give their top clients.
Jones offered tips on how agencies can proactively enhance their
profitability, such as identifying the agency’s most active
clients; assigning only one sales person to each client; and
tracking each client’s “profit contribution” to the agency.
Perry Lungmus, Virtuoso’s senior vice president of marketing,
demonstrated the group’s ability to customize brochures and other
collateral using its variable data printing technique. Virtuoso can
customize, say, the text and images in a Classic Custom Vacations
brochure on Hawaii based on a particular client’s interests.
Virtuoso will soon offer similarly tailored e-mail marketing in
its Great Escapes e-mail blasts, again based on the client
information agents enter into their databases.
On another tech development, the recently redesigned
Virtuoso.net agent site added a promotion-search tool that lets
agents zero in on destination- or supplier-specific specials, as
well as an online contact-database tool.
Lungmus added that Travel + Life, one of several publications
Virtuoso distributes directly to consumers, will soon be available
on a subscription basis to the general public, potentially bringing
new sales leads to Virtuoso specialists.
Jones revealed that this year Virtuoso changed its agency-volume
requirement for membership. In the past, the group required member
agencies to post at least $1.2 million in annual sales. The
requirement now is a per-agent minimum of $150,000 in sales and a
client list of at least 200 households for each agent.
The old method of qualification, Jones said, “rewarded the
consolidation of volume rather than the execution of knowledge”
among individual staffers, whereas the implementation of the new
requirement has “forced the agency to ask, ‘Who’s my talent?’”
Upchurch noted that industry consolidation has fueled a drop in
the number of membership applications Virtuoso has received this
year. But on the rise, particularly since Sept. 11, has been the
number of independent specialists joining Virtuoso agencies, along
with requests for Virtuoso’s help in matching independent
contractors with host agencies, he added.
Upchurch downplayed member complaints about Virtuoso.net, the
redesigned site for member agencies. The site, which was relaunched
in June, allows users to bundle itinerary information along with
hotel or cruise-ship photos and distribute the information to
Some agents said the site is now more cumbersome to navigate.
But Upchurch contended that the new site is “trying to do 10,000
more things” than the previous agent site and that agents will
gradually adjust to, and embrace, the more powerful trip-planning
Virtuoso also announced plans to launch a consumer advertising
campaign in 2003 that will target affluent travelers. The
promotions, to appear in upscale magazines, will feature specials
created by Virtuoso suppliers and the group’s Web site, as well as
a toll-free number.