A New Frontier

Good news about the luxury travel industry makes a positive impression

By: By Janeen Christoff

Virtuoso By the Numbers

Attendees: 2,155
Countries: 102
Frontline Travel Agents: 1,350
New Member Agencies: 25
Training Sessions: 63
Travel Advisors: 2,000
Individual One-on-One
Appointments: 305,000


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Click here read Managing Editor Janeen Christoff's blog about Travel Mart.

The halls of the exhibition center at the Bellagio hotel were buzzing with excitement when I arrived at this year’s Virtuoso Travel Mart in Las Vegas. Even before the opening session began, there was electricity in the air as agents and suppliers anticipated the Travel Mart’s signature event, the “speed-dating” supplier sessions. And there was a lot to be excited about.

Travel Mart’s 'speed dating' appointments are legendary. // (c) Virtuoso
Travel Mart’s 'speed dating' appointments
are legendary. (c) Virtuoso

Much of the excitement stemmed from three very positive things happening with Virtuoso and the industry as a whole: surprisingly positive economic numbers in the luxury travel market; new programs to recruit agents into the industry; and the final frontier, Virgin Galactic.

In an address to members of the media, David Hansen, executive vice president, operations and finance at Virtuoso, mentioned a Unity Marketing Luxury Consumption Index that addressed specific statistics having to do with luxury goods and services. The survey revealed that while interest in purchasing luxury goods was on a decline, people are still interested in obtaining luxury experiences.

“What we have seen [in the U.S. economy] is that luxury travel and travel experiences in general have been able to weather the storm better than the stock market itself,” said Hansen. “The idea of buying products and goods is no longer satisfying, while luxury experiences are more so.”

Also, according to Hansen, a poll of Virtuoso agents revealed that 70 percent of respondents saw their advance 2009 bookings were at least as good as or better than 2008. And 72 percent of agents saw an increase in revenue, as well.

“While we are not out of the woods from an economic standpoint, we do see that travelers will not compromise on their experience,” said Hansen.

Whereas in previous years, a lot of talk at conferences and in the industry as a whole has been focused on industry chatter that the Internet was doing away with the need for travel agents, this year, recruiting new talent into the industry was focused on with joyous enthusiasm. There appears to be growing recognition throughout the industry of an increasing demand for new agents. At Travel Mart, Virtuoso spent time emphasizing how they plan to find and train the next generation of travel agents.

Virtuoso recognized early on that, with the influx of boomers coming into the marketplace, one of the biggest problems was going to be serving that increased demand, said Kristi Jones, president of Virtuoso.

Jones went on to say that back in 2001, many people thought that this demand would be met by the Internet; Virtuoso, however, didn’t think this would be the case. Convinced that the industry would swing back in favor of agents, Virtuoso worked to help agents become successful.

“We asked, ‘How can we make this industry a good lifestyle choice for people?’” said Jones.

And that lead to Virtuoso’s first foray into growing its agents’ productivity — the Local Business Development (LBD) program, a one-on-one sales mentoring and education program. At the end of its first year, LBD agents were outperforming non-LBD agents 9 to 1, according to Jones.

Now, the LBD has been expanded and professional development training and the LBD has been encompassed into one entity, the Virtuoso Trust, designed to educate and retain the next generation of travel agents.

While excitement was building with the announcement of conquering new frontiers in the recruitment field, another new frontier was generating its own enthusiasm at Travel Mart — Virgin Galactic.

The Friday before the start of the show, 45 Accredited Space Agents, or ASAs, and a select group of VIPs were welcomed at the Scaled Composites facility in Mojave, Calif., to view Virgin Galactic’s WhiteknightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft. The WK2 aircraft will ferry SpaceShip Two and thousands of private astronauts on the first stage of the Virgin Galactic sub-orbital space experience.

The recent rollout represents another major milestone in Virgin Galactic’s quest to launch the world’s first private, environmentally benign, “space access system” for people, payload and science. The rollout was also a reminder of how real space travel is, and how close to becoming a reality Virgin Galactic and the ASAs are to making it happen. Virtuoso ASAs now account for nearly 40 percent of Virgin Galactic’s worldwide sales.

At the event, Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s CEO and a founder of Virgin Galactic, said he was honored to be a part of a pioneering, industry leader like Virgin Galactic.

“A product as unique as space travel could have easily decided to keep an inside salesforce,” said Upchurch. “The fact that Galactic selected Virtuoso members to become their exclusive sales representatives indicates the trust Virgin has in the Virtuoso network. It not only benefits our advisors, but it elevates the entire travel agency profession to an entirely new level.”

Whether new frontiers in space, the recruitment of new agents or the resiliency of the luxury market, Virtuoso’s Travel Mart served as a reminder that the travel industry is relevant and growing at a time when a lot of people, especially agents, needed to hear some positive news.