The Virtues of Virtuoso Travel Mart

In journalist circles, too many times whispers are bandied about "so-and-so" events and shows and how they compare. Invariably, the words "crazy," "hectic" and "tiring" pass through lips when the discussion relates to trade shows (those marketing extravaganzas where supplier booths are erected and thousands of business cards are passed to and fro).

The sense I got going into Virtuoso Travel Mart at Bellagio in Las Vegas teetered somewhere between awing and fatiguing. Virtuoso Travel Mart is now 20 years old, the first taking place at the Brazilian Court in Palm Beach with only 93 participants, which is a far cry from the more than 3,000 travel advisors and suppliers that gathered in Las Vegas for the week-long event last month.

Unlike trade shows where suppliers set up elaborate booths promulgating the virtues of their product, Travel Mart dispenses with the showiness: This is purely a networking dream come true with four days of face-to-face meetings between agents and suppliers. Did I mention that each meeting lasts all of four minutes?

I was fortunate enough to shadow the good folks from Largay Travel in Waterbury, CT: Amanda Klimak, who is the vice president and someone I have communicated with, until now, solely via phone or e-mail; Paul Largay, the president of the company, who, as I found within seconds, could have a second career as a comedian if the whole travel thing doesn’t work out; and the patriarch, chairman and founder of Largay Travel, Roland Largay, whose advanced age belies his extraordinary enthusiasm and earnest love of  the travel industry.

Allow me to set the scene. On the morning when appointments began, I was given the table number where I was to meet the Largay group and I set out to locate them. Well, what I didn’t know was that it took about four large Bellagio ballrooms to handle the sea of advisors and suppliers. Of course, my destination had to be the farthest ballroom possible as I navigated through the crush of humanity to find the Largay table.

By 10:30 a.m., I finally made it and sat down to watch the ballet that is the Travel Mart appointments. Looking over the crowd, my first thought was it looked like registration day at a large public university before computers existed. Then the voice: “Please move to your next appointment.” I looked up and there it was: a huge video screen that kept track of each appointment number and displayed a running countdown from four minutes. At the 20-second mark, a small shrill was made noting that it was almost time to rotate.

My feeling was such: Either I was at the largest bakery in the world waiting for my number to be called, or I was at a football game waiting for the two-minute warning every four minutes. It went on like this for the two hours I sat with Largay.

This is how it went down. A contingent or individual from a certain property, cruise line or tour company comes to the table and literally has to pitch their commodity in under four minutes (usually shorter because who really follows the time rules?) before they are shooed away by the omnipresent computer voice telling you it’s time to move along.

It’s the truest sense of organized chaos. Although four minutes doesn’t sound like a lot of time, it actually works. Of course, no suppliers were able to get through their spiel without Paul Largay interrupting with a short quip. It made the time pass.

That’s not to say that the group wasn’t engaged. They all probed each supplier, wanting to know inside information about the products, pricing, accommodations, etc. I was impressed by the amount of instances where the people from Largay knew the travel supplier. Hugs and kisses were extended. It was like they were old friends, which melted any awkwardness that might arise from pitching a product to strangers. No doubt, both the agents and the suppliers got a lot out of each brief encounter.

This is why Travel Mart is so successful and anticipated. Not only is valuable information passed out, old friendships are rekindled between agents and suppliers. As we all know, this business is built on familiarity and friendships. It’s passed on to clients who receive that special recognition because their travel advisor is so plugged in. It’s what keeps them coming back, too.

I will say this— suppliers get the short end of the stick at Travel Mart. The amount of walking they have to do from table to table is mind-boggling. On the other hand, agents have it made. They get to remain at their table throughout the sessions.

The elaborate parties of Travel Mart, the educational sessions, they are all great. But the true purpose of Travel Mart is the appointments. This is the device that helps agents succeed, sell and make money in the long run. After two-hours of listening to an indeterminable amount of southern Africa luxury resort/game properties present, I felt like an expert. It’s that personalized attention that gives Travel Mart its edge as one of the best travel events today.

I’d like to thank my friends at Largay for allowing me the opportunity to watch them in action. Their dedication, professionalism and precision are, no doubt, a reflection of all of Virtuoso’s travel partners.