“Luxury is having someone really listen to you and making sure you get what you want”: Virtuoso’s Upchurch
David Kolner, Virtuoso's Senior VP, Global Member Partnerships and Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch

“Luxury is having someone really listen to you and making sure you get what you want”

TORONTO — The number of Virtuoso members in Canada has climbed to 185, part of a vast and growing network of more than 1,000 locations worldwide (a 25% jump) generating some US$23.7 billion in annual sales. Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch presented the latest stats at a Virtuoso Forum in Toronto this morning.

The luxury network is growing in leaps and bounds, emblamatic of a thriving retail travel industry that is succeeding despite all odds – and despite, as Upchurch notes, Bill Gates telling consumers they could ‘throw away their travel agent’s phone number’ when Expedia launched as a division of Microsoft back in 1997.

Speaking at Toronto’s Adelaide Hotel today, Upchurch said: “Back then everyone said Expedia was going to take over the world. In some ways Expedia did take over the world. But the world also grew.”

Luxury is one of the most over-used buzzwords but it’s not all about the gold bling, especially when it comes to travel, he adds. “Luxury is having someone really listen to you and making sure you get what you want.”

Upchurch says people “are craving authentic human interaction”, and that’s even more so, not less, in these tech-driven times. “As tech has become more DIY there is this absolution desire for authentic human connection.” Travel agents have used that to their advantage and the retail travel industry is stronger for it.

The fact that digitally-savvy Millennials are now among the most likely to use a travel agent has been a big talking point at travel industry conferences in the past few years.

Their migration to travel agents seems to defy logic but Upchurch has a theory: “Millennials are the first real digital-native generation. Millennials are so used to doing everything online, so of course they know they can book travel online themselves.” There’s no novelty for a Millennial to book a trip online, he adds. They do everything online. So who do Millennials turn to for fresh insights, knowledge and expertise? Travel agents.

Meanwhile travel agents have embraced social media and that’s kept the retail travel industry forward-thinking and at the forefront. Agents are also used to setting up (virtual) shop and connecting with clients from pretty much around the world, wherever their travels take them. “The profession of being a travel agent is at the forefront of the digital nomad group,” says Upchurch. “And social media has helped level the playing field.”

Virtuoso’s vast amounts of travel booking data help the network create its Top 10 and Hot 10 lists every year.

For the Canadian market, here’s what’s trending for 2018…

VIRTUOSO’S TOP 10

  1. Italy
  2. UK
  3. S.
  4. France
  5. Greece
  6. Netherlands
  7. Germany
  8. Portugal
  9. South Africa
  10. Ireland

VIRTUOSO’S HOT 10

  1. Ireland
  2. Tanzania
  3. Denmark
  4. Croatia
  5. Kenya
  6. Austria
  7. Hungary
  8. Thailand
  9. Ukraine
  10. Poland

Trends for family vacations include the conventional (beach resort stays and active/adventure, as well as celebration travel and touring) as well as the unconventional, in destinations like Iceland, South Africa, the Galapagos, Antarctica and Japan.

In Canada, in addition to its 185 members, Virtuoso also counts some 48 partners. “We do not take any chain as a chain. We do everything on a per property, per partner basis,” says Upchurch.

Virtuoso’s Hotel Booking Tool, launched in April 2017, recently hit a milestone with 150,000 visitors per month, he added.