Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, at the opening session. // © 2014 Virtuoso
Feature image (above): At Virtuoso’s Travel Week, the organization rolled out a new plan to the nearly 4,500 attendees. // © 2014 Virtuoso
It’s probably not surprising that Virtuoso’s annual Travel Week results in plenty of newsworthy stories. With nearly 4,500 attendees and more than 350,000 one-on-one appointments over the course of four days, the conference center at Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas is pretty much a hive of activity — all based around travel. One announcement in particular this year, however, was especially intriguing.
Called the Return on Life, this innovative program outlines an entirely new approach for travel advisors working with clients. The idea is that in addition to current trip-planning services, advisors will now work on multi-year travel planning to create a personalized strategy that meets the client’s future travel goals. For instance, if a client has certain bucket list destinations or experiences in mind, the advisor will help the client develop a plan for how he or she can make those trips a reality in the future.
“This is a complete mind-shift in the way that we think of travel advising,” said David Kolner, Virtuoso's senior vice president, consumer. “One of our members said that one day he might have his corporate division, his leisure division and a third division for his Return on Life consulting group.”
The Return on Life program, which was initiated by Virtuoso advisors in one of the organization’s innovation committees, is partly based on real-life experiences with clients who tend to book two types of trips. There are those last-minute, opportunistic getaways and then there are those major vacations that have been planned months, or even years, in advance. This second type of trip is often the result of a travel desire that the client has had in mind as a life goal.
The sales approach is based on the model used by financial planners, who help their clients plan now for retirement in the future. Like financial planners, travel advisors will use a holistic approach that takes into account a variety of life factors to create a multi-year travel strategy in order to meet the client’s life-experience goals.
In fact, Bill Hunter, director of personal retirement strategy and solutions at Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, was one of the keynote speakers at Travel Week’s opening session, and a partnership between Merrill Lynch and Virtuoso appears to be in the works.
Another related aspect of the Return on Life initiative is called the Journey to Global Citizenship. This program is essentially the family travel version of Return on Life, with travel advisors assisting parents who want to create a long-term strategy to make sure their children get the most out of their travel experiences. As Hunter from Merrill Lynch/Bank of America put it, just as families plan for their young kids to hit certain educational goals in order to graduate college with a well-rounded education, travel advisors can assist parents to make sure their children’s travels have helped them become well-rounded, responsible global citizens.
“One of the smartest things you can do, if you have the means, is to take your kids to China, India or Brazil,” said Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso. “These countries will influence much of the business being done now and in the future, and kids who have insight into these cultures — who learn to adapt in unfamiliar surroundings early on and who gain an understanding of the world around them — will have a certain advantage when it’s time to enter the workforce.”
Currently, the program is being rolled out to a pilot group of about 20 owners and managers, with the first training session taking place just before Travel Week began. In addition to training, the advisors receive consulting assistance, technology tools and a portfolio that can be delivered to clients upon completion of a travel plan.
“We’re going to move slowly on this to make sure we get it right,” said Kolner. “But we’re really proud of this. It’s really about raising the bar and reinventing the industry to some degree, and deepening that relationship between the advisor and the client.”