On Site: Technology, Consumer Trends Drive Business


Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, Kristi Jones, president of Virtuoso, and Scott Ahlsmith, president of 23 Touch Points, Virtuoso's technology arm


I'm at Virtuoso's Travel Mart in Las Vegas this week, which is breaking records for attendance. There are 3,300 people here from 85 countries, including 1,500 member agents and 1,500 suppliers. The mood is incredibly upbeat. You could never tell from walking the halls of the Bellagio, where Travel Mart is being hosted, that the U.S. economy is dragging along, not quite righting itself out of its doldrums.

One of the highlights of Travel Mart so far has been a panel hosted by Peter Bates of Strategic Vision. Bates, who is one of the great panel moderators in the business, prefaced the discussion by quoting  some of the findings from a white paper he compiled following discussions at the Virtuoso Symposium that took place in Mexico City earlier this year.

“Permission is the mission,” is one of the edicts from the paper, he said referring to the fact that advisors need to have a script that details why their clients should travel. Suppliers also need to be a storytellers, he said, and deliver on that story.

Other key findings: Travel advisors must have a technology plan, just as they have a business plan for running their business. They need to focus on having a website that delivers authentic content and they must do their homework before jumping onto social media. And, while they should use technology to build and enhance their relationships with their clients, they must never overlook the value of one-to-one conversations. The three foundations of a great client relationship, said Bates, are trust, communication and partnership.

The panel itself was comprised of some well chosen participants: Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO Aqua Expeditions; Helen Smith, vice president, sales and marketing, The Dorchester Collection; Shanti Kohli, managing director, Amber Tours and Malaka Hilton, CEO Admirial Travel International.

Consumer trends is one topic that instantly came up. Hilton noted that affluent customers are still comparing what her agency offers them to what's available on line.

Helen Smith from Dorchester agreed. "Customers' expectations are so high and they feel they're paying a lo of money for this trip," she said. "They're saying, 'I'm know what I'm due and I demand it.' "

It's the same for Zugaro from Aqua Expeditions, who also noted that it's all about time. "People have this one chance to get away and they see this as a trip of a lifetime. And for many it is. People don't go to the Galapagos Island two or three times," he said.

As for planning these great trips of a lifetime, Kohli of Amber Tours, which provides travel to India, said that those who do plan far out are not doing it a year ahead of time. "It's now more like four to six months," she said.

One of the highlights of the discussion was Hilton's response to a question on how to keep customers from going out and comparing pricing, then returning again and again to the agency for a lower quote.
"Our team has incentives to be sure they book right away, like in 24 hours," she said. "To do this I ask suppliers for something a little more, maybe a food and beverage credit or an upgrade to close the sale right away. Sometimes that's all it takes."

In the end, there was good news from Dorchester's Smith. "People are very comfortable booking corporate travel on line, it's very simple," she said. "But for more complicated travel, they want a travel agent, they don't dare do it on their own, and they want recognition. For this reason, our relationship with travel agents is more important than ever before."

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