Virtuoso eyes European expansion by year’s end

TORONTO — It began in 1951 as a small co-op of Mid-Western U.S. agencies. Now Virtuoso has some US$12 billion in buying power, more than 340 agency members with 600 locations in 20 countries worldwide and a brand that’s become a powerhouse in the luxury travel market.

With close to 9,000 travel advisors across the globe, Virtuoso has member agencies in the Americas, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and, by the end of 2014, Europe.

Some 13 Canadian agencies are part of the Virtuoso network, and in the past year these agencies saw 12% growth, and in the past five years, they saw 93% growth, said Becky Powell, Senior Vice-President, Global Member Sales.

Virtuoso has “customized the Virtuoso experience for Canadian travellers,” added Senior Vice-President for Virtuoso’s Consumer Group, David Kolner. Both Kolner and Powell along with other members of the Virtuoso team, plus several local Virtuoso agents, were part of a media lunch in Toronto yesterday.

The network relaunched its website in October and Canadian agents along with their colleagues worldwide are listed in the site Luxury Travel Advisor Catalog, a search tool for clients. Hotels, cruise lines and other product get client ratings on the site, and Virtuoso agents do too, with directives like ‘100% of 22 people recommended’ displayed next to an agent’s profile. Clients can also post reviews of each agent, and agents can respond.

Another tool on the site, called Meet Your Advisor, acts as a filter for would-be clients looking for a travel agent, using travel preference questions about destinations and trip type (e.g. honeymoon, family getaway, etc.) to steer the business to the most appropriate agents.

Luxury clients are still travelling as much as they ever did, but the 2008 recession had an impact on how those clients want to vacation, said Kolner. “Value didn’t necessarily become the driver but it is expected now,” he said. “That’s what the recession taught us. Luxury travellers expect to be treated a certain way.”

Virtuoso aggregates its booking data every day and the most recent figures show that the ‘Hot List’ of the fastest-growth destinations for Canadian travellers include New Zealand (“off the charts” at 140% growth, said Kolner), Australia (59%), Mexico (35%), the UK (30%), Turks & Caicos (23%), Jamaica (23%), Cuba (19%), Italy (18%), the D.R. (15%) and France (11%).

While these figures show big rates of increase in travel to certain destinations, some of the base numbers for those destinations were quite low to begin with, said Kolner.

In terms of who’s getting the most numbers of Canadian travellers, at least in the Virtuoso network, the U.S. is still number one at 53%, followed by 6% to Mexico, 5% to the UK, 3% to Italy and the D.R. and 2% to France, Cuba, Israel and Jamaica.

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