Virtuoso in Vegas

A first-hand report from the luxury consortium’s highly publicized Travel Mart at the Bellagio hotel

By: Ana Figueroa

“Evolve. Reinvent. Execute.”
Three words to live by in any profession. But, they’re especially relevant to the unique challenges and rewards of the luxury travel segment. It’s not surprising, then, that Virtuoso chose the dynamic three-part slogan as its theme for Virtuoso Travel Mart 2006, which took place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas Aug. 20-24. The event attracted 1,100 agents, and a total of 2,500 participants overall.
Virtuoso, of course, prides itself on its networking power, and by the looks of things, agents and suppliers really made the most of it. Elegantly attired agents from across the globe mixed and mingled throughout the day, grabbing lattes and exchanging business cards before dashing into training seminars and meetings.
“It’s all about the contacts, there’s no doubt about that,” said Don Cromwell, manager of Gayle Gillies Travel in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. “It’s extremely valuable to be able to say to a supplier, ‘we met at the Travel Mart.’”
“Meeting” was clearly a buzz word resonating through the Bellagio’s gilded hallways. Virtuoso has perfected the art of the intense (some might say grueling) 4-minute meet and greet. Agents and suppliers famously came together over four days of mini “appointments” resulting in more than a quarter of a million meetings.
“Over the years, they’ve really gotten it down to a science. I don’t think there’s any more efficient way to make those personal contacts,” said Cromwell.
Tony Adler, president of Cruise and Resort, Inc., in Sherman Oaks, California, found this year’s Travel Mart “invigorating.” Said Adler, “I think Virtuoso has reinvented itself in a good way. There’s more of an emphasis on agents now, rather than merely the suppliers.”
Those suppliers, notes Adler, “treated us like we really matter. They sent their GMs, the presidents of properties, their top people. One hotel GM told me this was the only conference he goes to all year.”
In addition to the sterling roster of luxury hotel and resort properties, exotic tour operators and cruise lines, a few suppliers were a bit more over the top than others-literally. Virgin Galactic showcased a trip for the client who’s done everything else on earth: a $200,000 space flight on specially constructed spacecraft. Virtuoso network will be the exclusive North American sales outlet for the space ventures, expected to “launch” within the next two years.
This being a Virtuoso endeavor, Travel Mart was definitely not all work and no play. Some mornings began with Yoga sessions, to help participants get in the zone. And there was always something special to look forward to at the end of a packed daily schedule. Cocktail parties, private dinners, a golf tournament and more, not to mention loads of giveaways. One party even featured entertainment by musician David Sanbourn.
“We want everyone to have a good time, as well as enhance themselves professionally at this event,” said Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch, as he greeted guests at a sumptuous VIP Cocktail Reception at his Bellagio Villa.
The next day, Upchurch drew upon the “Evolve. Reinvent. Execute” message during a press briefing. To begin with, Virtuoso has evolved and reinvented itself recently, with a reorganization that includes an impressive new executive team. Several Virtuoso suppliers also took the opportunity at Travel Mart to make major announcements about “evolving and reinventing” themselves. Windstar Cruises, for example, announced an ambitious new expansion of its “Degrees of Difference” program that will see major enhancements to the line’s three ship fleet. Royal Caribbean International announced that it has reinvented the concept of “ship’s godmother.” It’s next Freedom-class vessel, Liberty of the Seas, will be christened by a travel agent to be selected by a nomination process.
And dynamic speakers, such as keynoter Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., gave enthusiastic attendees plenty of inspiration to evolve and reinvent themselves as true “lifestyle consultants.” Dychtwald emphasized the power of the 55- to 64-year-old age group. Not only are they the fastest-growing set in the country, they’re huge consumers of the luxury experience. And they’re eager for individualized attention from their travel agent to deliver that experience.
Virtuoso has lead by example, by giving individualized attention to its members, analyzing each agency’s particular strengths and weaknesses. This “Strategy for Growth” is just one of the new initiatives designed to help members grow their business, said Mark Belles, executive vice president, global sales and service.
Not that Virtuoso business has been anything but stellar thus far. Sales for 2005 were up nearly 19 percent from 2004, to $3.8 billion. Virtuoso predicts 2006 figures will reach the $4.2 billion mark. But, it’s still important to keep evolving, reinventing, and executing those changes to stay ahead of the game, noted Upchurch. Agency business models may differ dramatically, which is why it’s so important to highlight a core set of principles.
Upchurch added, “There are two types of agencies, those that sell travel as a commodity, and those that sell customized experiences. We do the latter.”