Matthew Upchurch, CEO,
had plenty of good news for
Virtuoso agents at this year's
Travel Mart in Las Vegas.
Chat with Matthew Upchurch for any length of time, and you’re bound
to hear the word “relevant” come up quite frequently. That’s not
surprising, considering that Upchurch has made a career of
remaining relevant in the face of change. Just take a look at
Virtuoso, the luxury travel network that Upchurch heads as CEO. An
offshoot of the first agency co-op in the nation, Virtuoso has
become a global sales and marketing powerhouse by predicting
trends, welcoming change and refining its focus if necessary.
In sum, remaining relevant.
The invitation-only network is comprised of more than 300
independent agencies and over 6,000 travel specialists in 22
countries across North and South America, the Caribbean, Australia
and New Zealand, as well as 1,000 top travel providers and
destinations. Name a prestigious hotel, spa resort, lodge or cruise
line, and you’ll probably find them on the list of Virtuoso’s
preferred suppliers. Indeed, more than 300 hotels worldwide are
available only through Virtuoso.
Not only does the organization produce $4.2 billion in annual
sales, it does something even more impressive: capture
imaginations. With a name that conjures up luxury, service and
exclusivity, Virtuoso according to many observers is seemingly a
mutual benefit society. Member agencies receive a much-lauded array
of marketing tools, technological support, specialized training and
accreditation. Suppliers gain crucial access to a sophisticated,
upscale clientele to fill their luxury getaways. And consumers
benefit as well, in terms of specialized amenities and exclusive
access to products ranging from luxury hunting lodges to outer
space travel and elite MasterCard benefits.
“Virtuoso is the gold standard,” said Janet White, director of
travel and leisure sales at Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna Beach,
No where is the Virtuoso dazzle as much on display as it is at
Travel Mart, the organization’s annual trade show. This year’s
event at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas drew a record 2,800
attendees from more than 100 countries. As in past years, the
program generating the most buzz was the traditional session of
supplier-agent meetings. Likened to a marathon speed-dating
session, the event results in more than 260,000 one-on-one
appointments. For suppliers such as Jeff Johnson, the Montage
Laguna Beach’s vice president of marketing, Travel Mart’s meeting
sessions underscore Virtuoso’s emphasis on relationships.
“I’d say the true value of Virtuoso starts with the
relationships that tie each aspect of the network together.
Suppliers understand that the agents have extraordinary knowledge
as a result of intense and ongoing focused training. Agents also
have amazing relationships with their clients. It all meshes
together in one big circle,” said Johnson.
Wendy Burk, founder and CEO of Travel Dynamics in La Jolla,
Calif., brought 16 of her agents to this year’s Travel Mart.
“It’s invaluable, in terms of the education, networking and
motivational sessions that they offer. There’s really nothing else
like it in the industry. No other consortia operates on their
level,” said Burk, who joined Virtuoso at the behest of key
suppliers. “I have thirty years experience in the travel business,
and my relationships with my clients are already well established.
But, Virtuoso gives them so much more. My clients clear wait-lists
and enjoy special shore excursions, cocktail parties and other
exclusive amenities. And the marketing pieces that Virtuoso sends
out are unbelievable.”
Burk’s enthusiasm for the organization is typical of the loyalty
Virtuoso inspires in its membership.
“You can’t beat the professionalism of Virtuoso. It’s the
difference between a Timex and a Cartier watch. They both tell
time. But, the level we’re playing at is much better for our client
base. Suppliers know our clients are the best of the best and they
treat us as such,” said Burk.
Without a doubt, the ebullient Upchurch is key to the Virtuoso
success story. One of the travel industry’s most high-profile
visionaries, Upchurch is known for his charisma, chattiness and
boundless enthusiasm, which he express unabashedly.
“I love my job. I love the industry and what it stands for. I
love the business model that we’ve created, the whole idea of
entrepreneurs coming together to create a global business entity,”
In order to understand where Virtuoso is heading, it’s important
to first know where it came from. That’s where Upchurch’s
background as the scion of an entrepreneurial family comes into
play. Upchurch’s father, Jesse, owned a series of travel companies.
One of the senior Upchurch’s businesses, Percival Tours, purchased
Allied Travel, the oldest agency co-op in the nation, in 1986. The
merger of the two companies created Allied Percival International,
later API Travel Consultants. Matthew Upchurch’s first major role
in the industry came at age 26, when his father put him in charge
of the new company.
“I had the good fortune of having been on both the agency side
and the supplier side,” said Upchurch.
Early on, Upchurch realized that the single biggest challenge of
the new company was in providing information to the consumer. So,
marketing became a key focus of API.
“By the early nineties, we had become very good at marketing to
existing clients. But, the question was, how would we grow beyond
our core clientele? Because of the size of the market, we knew the
direct-marketing model wouldn’t be enough. We couldn’t afford to
contact every household. We didn’t know what to do, so we started
developing and testing consumer market research. We looked at the
databases of our members,” recalled Upchurch.
Realizing that he had to transform the agency model from
reactive to proactive in order to generate more sales, Upchurch
implemented a number of innovations. He introduced database and
direct-marketing programs targeting specific client segments. He
launched various consumer publications. And, in the late ’90s,
Virtuoso debuted the first intranet in the industry, called
API.Net, the precursor for today’s acclaimed Virtuoso.Net.
“Matthew took a lot of risk, especially by introducing so much
technology in the early days. A lot of agencies were used to doing
business a certain way. There was a resistance to logging on to the
intranet every day. But, Virtuoso has always realized where the
future is,” said Montage Laguna Beach’s White.
Right about that time, Upchurch was struck by one of many “aha,”
moments, as he describes them. Not surprisingly, it involved the
quest to remain relevant.
“As I was reviewing client databases, I realized what was going
to happen to the industry. The customer base was going to change
dramatically in terms of the baby-boomer generation. This wasn’t
just a lot of people with a lot of money. They were the
counter-culture, well educated and well traveled. Even if we could
get to them, how were travel agents going to be relevant to this
group?” Upchurch wondered.
With the Internet revolution in full force, and the beginning of
commission cuts for agents, Upchurch gave a now-famous corporate
presentation that he entitled “Back to the Future.”
“I told everyone that I had bad and good news. The bad news is
that without a doubt the percentage of travel booked by travel
agents in every segment is going to drop. The good news is that
travel in general is going to boom,” said Upchurch.
He was certainly right about the latter. The year 2000 was the
high watermark of travel according to a number of indicators.
That’s also the year Upchurch’s company decided to rebrand.
“When we talked about rebranding, we specifically didn’t want a
name with the word ‘travel’ in it. We saw our job as being in the
life experience business and travel as a conduit,” said
The name Virtuoso, with the tag line, “Specialists in the art of
travel,” seemed a perfect fit for a company poised to take the new
millennium by storm. Then came Sept. 11 and a crisis that many in
the travel industry never recovered from. But, Upchurch and
Virtuoso managed not only to survive but to thrive.
“I’d say that one effect of Sept. 11 was to elevate travel as a
core component of people’s lives. It actually made them want to
connect more with family and friends, and understand cultures in
different parts of the world,” said Upchurch.
That sentiment rang particularly true with the upscale clientele
Virtuoso was targeting. High-end travel has boomed in the past
several years. Many suppliers, such as Crystal Cruises, see
Virtuoso as a direct factor in that growth.
“Virtuoso is our largest revenue-producing consortium by a large
margin,” said Bill Smith, senior vice president, sales and
marketing for Crystal Cruises. “Our World Cruise itinerary is out
right now. Virtuoso sells more of that product than any other
organization. We’re seeing the world cruise market continue to grow
because it is attracting a new kind of passenger. It’s attracting
someone looking for adventure and life-enhancing experiences. The
average age is dropping. We’re seeing families taking world
cruises. Virtuoso travel agents have that clientele and the ability
to pitch this product to them.” Similarly, Virtuoso is also seen as
a valued strategic marketing partner at Silversea Cruises.
“The organization is a true innovator and trendsetter in the
selling of luxury travel,” said David Morris, Silversea’s executive
vice president of worldwide sales and marketing. “We share the same
high standards of excellence and personalized service that Virtuoso
travel consultants exhibit worldwide. We’re delighted to be
partnering with such an exceptional organization that shares our
commitment and passion to satisfying the needs of the most
discerning luxury travelers.”
Upchurch, meanwhile, continues to modify his vision of Virtuoso,
making sure it remains relevant. He described another big “aha”
moment in preparing for this year’s Travel Mart.
“I realized that I had made a slight miscalculation back in 1999
when I said there was good news and bad news. Back then, I was
still looking at the industry from a product-centric viewpoint.
But, instead of worrying about pieces of the pie, the reality is
that those slices of the pie became their own pie. It’s called the
advice industry,” said Upchurch.
Citing studies indicating that today’s most successful
entrepreneurs are those providing advice in an increasingly complex
world, Upchurch said the very nature of the Virtuoso product has
“The product isn’t the agent or the consultant, but the unique
process that each engages in to help the customer fulfill a travel
experience. The real products are ideas and advocacy,” said
Upchurch. “What came out of Travel Mart for me is that we now have
the advice industry and if it is going to grow within the travel
industry, we need a different framework. The traditional one is
founded on a transactional way of thinking. We need to get and
attract people who will chose us as a channel, then pick the
Going forward, Virtuoso will devote a great deal of resources
including five regional directors to help agencies create
advice-centered business plans. It is also addressing one of
Upchurch’s biggest concerns recruiting, developing and retaining
what he calls “Type A” talent. The network has launched numerous
programs in that regard, including a new Web site,
BecomeaVirtuoso.com, as well as an ongoing series of Luxury Travel
Seminars aimed at career recruitment.
All that new talent is necessary if the industry is to remain
relevant. And Upchurch, no doubt, will strive to remain at the head
of the pack. “What’s happening now is almost like the birth of a
whole new industry with a whole new framework. Our primary role is
to manage the network and create a new framework in which amazing
results happen,” said Upchurch. “We live in interesting times,
those of us in the advice industry. Our tag line is ‘specialists in
the art of travel.’ Virtuoso’s members are creating
|THE TEAM AT THE TOP|Kristi Jones, President
From left to right: Gonchar, Upchurch,
Jones and Hansen.
Virtuoso’s president, Kristi Jones, is credited with helping propel
the network to the top of the luxury travel industry. Along with a
national team of executive vice presidents, Jones manages
Virtuoso’s corporate offices in Fort Worth, Seattle and New York,
and directs Virtuoso’s consumer marketing, member travel agency
sales and services and preferred supplier divisions, both within
the U.S. and internationally.
Prior to her appointment as president, Jones helped develop
Virtuoso’s consumer publications, direct-mail campaigns, Web site
and Internet marketing. She also helped create Virtuoso’s
international division, which now encompasses 22 countries in North
and South America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand.
In 2000, Jones handled the rebranding of API Travel Consultants
Tony Gonchar, Executive Vice President, Sales and
Executive vice president sales and marketing Tony Gonchar came to
Virtuoso with 25 years of experience in sales, marketing and
customer recognition programs. His most recent position was vice
president, distribution for Expedia, Inc., where he handled
Expedia’s private label business and branded affiliate
relationships. Gonchar overseas Virtuoso’s member sales and
support; preferred supplier sales; consumer marketing, branding and
public relations; global expansion; and the development of new
David Hansen, Executive Vice President, Finance and
Hansen joined Virtuoso in 2000 and is responsible for several
critical departments within the company including Accounting and
Finance, Risk Management, Voyager Club and Meetings & Events,
which includes Virtuoso’s two trademark meetings, Travel Mart and
Overseas Symposium. During his tenure with the company, Hansen has
been involved with many major initiatives, including the
establishments of a progressive finance group, initial development
of the human resources department and expansion of Virtuoso’s
international presence in Australia and New Zealand. He has worked
closely with both Upchurch and Jones in guiding the company through
it’s strong growth since his arrival at Virtuoso.
Virtuoso Hosts West Coast Career Seminar
In light of the ongoing demand for luxury travel advisors,
Virtuoso will host its second Travel Career Seminar on October 20.
The goal of the event is to find travel consultants interested in
working with the network.
Virtuoso has developed these recruitment events as part of its
continuing efforts to support existing members, while seeking out
knowledgeable travel consultants who are looking for the benefits
that come from affiliating with a Virtuoso member agency.
In response to the positive feedback received after the first
Virtuoso seminar in August, the new event will take place on Oct.
20 from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., at The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey,
The Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey is a Virtuoso preferred
property, making it an ideal venue for hosting luxury-minded
consultants. Several of Virtuoso’s high-end travel providers,
including Crystal Cruises are attending the event and will be on
hand to help recruit new travel advisors. Current member travel
consultants will also participate, lending their firsthand
experience as a means of endorsement and support.
“One of the biggest challenges we all face in the luxury travel
industry is finding good and talented travel counselors,” said Bill
Smith, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Crystal
Cruises. “Virtuoso’s dedication to finding new talent through
luxury career seminars combined with the network’s additional
efforts makes Crystal Cruises a proud supporter of Virtuoso’s
According to Ann van Leeuwen, Vice President of North American
member sales for Virtuoso, luxury travel continues to expand.
“As savvy consumers seek out experiences that redefine ‘trip of
a lifetime,’ they are turning to knowledgeable travel consultants
to plan every last detail. Recruiting trained and experienced
travel consultants, especially those who are familiar with the
intricacies that come from organizing customized, luxury travel
itineraries, has become a central focus for Virtuoso at the request
of our membership,” said van Leeuwen.
Interested attendees should e-mail the following address:
email@example.com by Oct. 18. Due to limited capacity,
interested attendees should respond as soon as possible; a $15 per
person admission fee will apply.