Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, takes the stage during Travel Week. // © 2015 Virtuoso
Feature image (above): Virtuoso’s Journey to Global Citizenship focuses on long-term family travel goals. // © 2015 Imgorthand
Twenty-five years ago, New York Fashion Week was a blip on the pop-culture radar. It was an event for those in the industry, a few fashion journalists and maybe some hipster hangers-on. Flash forward to today, and Fashion Week is a full-blown media circus, garnering so much attention that my 11-year-old can tell you who Jay-Z and Beyonce sat next to in the front row.
This is the model Virtuoso’s Travel Week hopes to follow. If Virtuoso gets its way, Travel Week will one day be the single most important travel event and, more importantly, the buzz it generates about travel advisors will benefit the entire industry.
Granted, Travel Week has a ways to go before it reaches that kind of success, but just the sheer boldness of the plan is indicative of the kind of big-picture, long-term thinking that is a hallmark of Virtuoso. In a time when other brands seem cautious and intensely focused on niche markets, Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, and the rest of the leadership team, have shown they are not afraid of big ideas and trailblazing concepts. And this model seems to have served them — and their travel advisors — very well so far.
While Travel Week is not nearly as well-known as Fashion Week, the numbers that the event produces are spectacular. At the most recent Travel Week, held in August in Las Vegas, 4,800-plus attendees from 90 countries participated in more than 450,000 one-on-one meetings. The event has now outgrown the conference center at Bellagio Resort & Casino and Vdara Hotel & Spa, and will be expanding to include a third venue, Aria Resort & Casino, next year.
The Virtuoso network itself recently expanded in Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Singapore, bringing its membership to 9,850 advisors in 30 countries. Virtuoso members generate $14 billion annually in travel sales.
While the effort needed to sustain such an organization must be enormous, what’s possibly most impressive about Virtuoso is that the group seems to keep at least one eye on the horizon to watch for the next opportunity. While these future-forward ideas sometimes fail, that doesn’t seem to deter the consortium from rolling out the next initiative. One such concept is its partnership with Merrill Lynch, which has the potential to revolutionize the travel advisor business model.
Saving for Travel
Last year, during the opening session of the 2014 Travel Week, Upchurch noted that “the prioritization of life experiences, especially travel, has become top of mind for many individuals.”
He went on to say that travel has exceeded material objects as the most coveted reward for the affluent.
Upchurch then announced a new partnership between Virtuoso and Merrill Lynch that would combine financial planning and travel planning, making travel not just a distant goal to aspire to, but something that’s attainable through smart strategizing. Virtuoso has dubbed this partnership the “Return on Life” program.
“Return on Life is the way we brand it for consumers who already value financial advisers,” Upchurch said. “Why would you have a financial adviser in your life and pay them to have a conscious strategy over your financial assets but not have somebody in your life to help you have a conscious strategy over your most valuable, nonrenewable asset — your free leisure time?”
In February of this year, Merrill Lynch announced its partnership with Virtuoso will officially be a part of the Merrill Lynch Clear program, which helps people navigate retirement and achieve their desired outcomes. As part of the partnership, Virtuoso provides Merrill Lynch clients with travel planning services through a dedicated Virtuoso Affiliated Advisor. These advisors are tasked with gaining an in-depth knowledge about each client’s preferences and needs in order to help them attain their travel goals.
“For many of our clients, traveling is the No. 1 activity they look forward to in retirement,” said David Tyrie, head of Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “This relationship gives our financial advisors and their clients a terrific resource to broaden the retirement-planning conversation and to help clients make the most of their free time.”
A test group of about 200 Virtuoso agents underwent training to better understand Merrill Lynch’s customers and corporate philosophy, while Virtuoso has introduced its benefits to a large number of financial planners.
“We’ve been introduced to about 7,000 financial advisors in the Merrill Lynch Clear network so far, and they have been matched with a local Virtuoso advisor,” said David Kolner, Virtuoso’s senior vice president of Global Member Partnerships. “And Merrill Lynch advisors are now receiving Virtuoso Life, our inspirational travel magazine.”
Linking travel planning to financial planning is an outside-the-box concept, but the partnership has the potential to be a big win for both parties. Merrill Lynch advisors will have an added benefit to offer their clients in the form of Virtuoso’s expertise and relationships with luxury travel suppliers, and Virtuoso’s agents will have a new pool of financially viable leads from which to draw.
“I think the significant thing is that this is the first alliance that we’ve done where the emphasis is not for the alliance partner to tell their end customer, ‘Here are people who can book your travel,’” Upchurch said. “Instead, the lead message is ‘Here are people with whom you can build an advisory relationship.’ While that might seem like a small nuance, it’s actually a big psychological shift.’”
Still in its infancy, the Merrill Lynch partnership has taken time to develop, with little immediate benefit apparent to most Virtuoso members.
But that doesn’t deter Upchurch.
“This isn’t like turning on a spigot, it’s really about making connections,” Upchurch said. “Personally, I’m much happier with a slow-build, person-by-person, advisor-by-advisor approach. That creates a long-term relationship.”
Future Global Citizens
Another intriguing aspect of Return on Life is focused on family travel.
As Upchurch explains it, busy, successful parents covet the precious little time they have to spend with their children before the kids grow up and move on with their own lives. Just as parents hope their kids will learn other life skills — playing the piano or learning a language or a sport, for example — mom and dad want their children to gain specific travel experiences. For instance, parents might think that exposure to Europe’s historic places or Asia’s cultural icons are important building blocks as their kids prepare for college and beyond.
Virtuoso advisors, in conjunction with Merrill Lynch financial planners, can create a personalized travel strategy in order to make those trips a reality. Virtuoso calls this part of the Return on Life program the Journey to Global Citizenship.
“It’s about having a more conscious strategy based on where are the appropriate places for kids at what ages, and how to identify the places you want to go to based on your own values and your own view of the world,” Upchurch said. “Instead of just looking at the next trip and the next trip, it’s about having a kind of map of whether two years from now is the right time to take them on a safari, etc.”
The Journey to Global Citizenship seems especially well suited for today’s helicopter parents, who are famously hyper-involved in their kids’ education and development. Many parents seem to share the idea that travel is no longer a luxury, but a necessary component of education. In addition, as the name suggests, the Journey to Global Citizenship emphasizes a moral component to creating more compassionate, knowledgeable world citizens.
“This Merrill Lynch family travel focus can only benefit our society as a whole,” said Marion Huiberts, a travel advisor at Worldview Travel in Santa Ana, Calif. “Anything that gets people interested in the rest of the world is important. When you travel and experience another country, you stay interested in learning more.”
For now, the Journey to Global Citizenship has taken a backseat to the larger Return on Life program. But once the partnership with Merrill Lynch is in full effect, the Journey to Global Citizenship will give Virtuoso advisors yet another opportunity to have a new and totally different conversation with clients.
This fits in with Upchurch’s philosophy that the key to a travel advisor’s worth is the human connection with his or her clients.
“True sales is no longer about being the custodian of information,” he said. “It’s about helping clients find clarity amongst the flood of information online. You can’t take the human out of humanity. As technology continues to spread into every facet of life, there is a desire — even a craving — for real human connection.”
It’s clear that the human touch will drive future innovative thinking at Virtuoso, and its growing army of advisors seems more than happy to go along for the ride. Ultimately, whether the Return on Life program succeeds or fails, at least the initiative attempts to give travel advisors a seat at the table when it comes to courting the important affluent retiree market — and that in itself is a win.
If Virtuoso continues its path to success, it won’t be long before it starts saving seats for Beyonce and Jay-Z at Travel Week.