Collaborative Commerce



Marilyn Conroy and David Morris
Marilyn Conroy and David Morris of David Morris International stopped by to visit with Travel Agent during Travel Mart.


New ways for agents to remain relevant, cultivate client relationships and inspire consumers to travel were a major part of the agenda at the 23rd annual Virtuoso Travel Mart in Las Vegas last month. The six-day event also saw 300,000 individual appointments take place between 1,680 travel advisors and 1,605 suppliers. The luxury travel show, which took place at the Bellagio for the 12th time, has drawn participants from 90 countries across the world.

Matthew Upchurch, the group’s CEO, noted that Virtuoso member agents, whose combined consumer database houses about 1 million affluent leisure travelers, brought in $9.6 billion in revenues in 2010. That figure is an increase from $5.1 billion—an amount that was revised when Virtuoso updated its back-office technology, which was able to add up the number of air, hotel, tour and all other ancillary sales from its entire network. Prior to this, Virtuoso depended on reports from its suppliers to determine its total annual sales volume.

Overall, the network, which comprises more than 300 independent travel agencies in 22 countries (with 650 locations including branches), has fared well in 2011, showing a 31.3 percent increase in annual sales over 2009. That figure is significant because 2009, a year in which the U.S. economy was on its way into a deep recession, saw a sharp 25 percent decline in sales from 2008, which is still seen as an excellent year in the annals of travel sales.

“Hotels are taking a bit longer to recover; they’re not at 2008 levels yet but they’re getting there,” Upchurch told a group of reporters at a press conference. “RevPAR figures are starting to come back,” he added.

Virtuoso can be credited with consistently striving to remain relevant in a world of changing consumer habits, such as buying products on flash-sale sites. Last year, it introduced a relationship with the private-sale website, Rue La La, to enable its travel advisors to take part in a sales process that provides “limited-time” sales offers in “Travel Boutiques” curated by Virtuoso advisors.

This year, it’s working hard to bring the consumer into the planning process in a much more focused way via a process dubbed “Collaborative Commerce.”

Part of this strategy included a recent recommendation to travel advisors that they alert their customers that they’re attending Travel Mart to meet with travel suppliers from around the world. As a result, advisors acted as personal shoppers for their clients, calling them to ask what they’d like to hunt for them while at their four days of meetings in Las Vegas. They also put out notifications on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, alerting their followers that they were in Las Vegas and ready to ask specific questions of travel representatives.

Plans are to pull the customer even more deeply into the planning process using feedback that Upchurch gathered from luxury travel advisors on Virtuoso’s advisory board, as well as its NextGen group of agents. Using the subject line “60-Second Favor,” Upchurch sent out an e-mail asking these select advisors what they felt the reasons were for consumers not using the services of a travel advisor to book their expensive travel itineraries.

Here’s what these advisors told Upchurch: “Travelers feel that doing their own travel planning is empowering and giving that up will diminish that experience. Their previous Internet use leads them to believe they have all the answers they need. They believe that using a travel advisor adds to the cost of the trip and they don’t know the value of what an advisor does and that a good travel advisor wouldn’t be readily available to them anyway.”

“Our job is to close that gap,” said Upchurch.

Kristi Jones, president of Virtuoso, detailed how the consortium intends to do it. “There is a perception in the populace that a travel advisor is passé because of the Internet,” said Jones, who pointed out that the use of OTAs (online travel agencies) has actually decreased over the past few years, most likely because consumers rarely get added value for what they purchase.

“If they’re paying $149 for a hotel room, they are probably just getting that in terms of value, not counting the fact that they searched an average of 21 websites over nine sessions before booking,” she said, referring to research that relates to online consumer habits.

This lack of online loyalty and unfulfilled customer satisfaction has led many to turn to social networking sites to get travel advice. Latest figures show that there are 750 million consumers on Facebook alone, and many of them are asking each other for travel information.

“People are trying to exchange information and get advice,” said Jones.

What’s important to note, however, is that great advice doesn’t necessarily motivate people to travel. It’s inspiration that gets them to travel, said Jones. “And you won’t get inspiration on the Internet.” In today’s trying times, people need inspiration to travel more than ever, perhaps, since the Great Depression, she added.

Part of the inspiration involves allowing clients to participate in the planning process. The consortium is currently working on providing a platform for them to go online and start planning their itineraries themselves, since they seem so intent on using those online skills that Upchurch stated above.

As the client works online, their advisor will go in and observe and, at the right moment, make suggestions, such as noting that a selected hotel might be undergoing a renovation in that chosen week; they’ll then suggest an alternative. The project, which is being run by Scott Ahlsmith, executive vice president of global technology for Virtuoso, is currently going through a variety of iterations and may be ready by the end of next year. In the meantime, Virtuoso is enabling clients to play a role in their trip planning by getting together early on in the process with both their travel advisor and their selected tour operator or hotel. Advisors will invite their clients to participate in webinars or other online venues so they can do their research firsthand.

In one experiment, Virtuoso ran a webinar for advisors and their clients with Oceania Cruises and renowned chef Jacques Pepin, who has a bistro on the cruise line’s newest ship, Marina. Pepin spoke of his own experiences aboard the new vessels and how he made certain decisions to participate in specific activities while sailing. There were no sales promotions or closing offers; still, those invited customers purchased $2.3 million worth of cruises.

In another experiment, Virtuoso ran a virtual Hawaii trade show, in which top executives of supplier companies participated. With 414 participants, it generated $1.1 million in sales.



Melissa Russo and Amanda Klimak
Also saying hello to us at Travel Mart were Largay Travel’s Melissa Russo, manager of host operations, and Amanda Klimak, vice president.



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