Matthew Upchurch: Leading Luxury Travel in 2020

Matthew Upchurch: Leading Luxury Travel in 2020


Luxury journey community Virtuoso is all about development lately. Last yr, membership grew from 20,000 to 22,000 advisors — most of which got here from current companies bringing on new workers. The community additionally introduced on 100 new companies and 200 new suppliers, bringing the totals to 1,100 and simply over 2,000, respectively. In all, Virtuoso companies’ gross sales have been up from $26.four billion to a strong $30 billion — that’s a 14 p.c enhance, which incorporates all gross sales made by the companies, not simply with Virtuoso companions.

This yr, Virtuoso is celebrating its 20th anniversary since rebranding from API Travel Consultants, the corporate that Matthew D. Upchurch and his father, Jesse, co-founded in 1986. In the early days, a lot of the community’s focus was on infrastructure, advertising and marketing and constructing its most popular companion program. Over the years, its purpose has shifted to bringing customers’ consideration to journey advisors to serving to them develop into a extra worthwhile career.

We caught up with Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, in February to achieve perception on the luxurious community. At the time of our preliminary dialog, 2020 numbers have been spectacular. Virtuoso was up 17 p.c on cruise gross sales, 20 p.c with on-sites and 50 p.c for lodges. The perspective of luxurious journey advisors was excellent on the time, too. Optimistic, excited, energized, assured — these have been Upchurch’s phrases. Eighty-four p.c of advisors stated gross sales can be larger than in 2019; 15 p.c stated about the identical and just one p.c predicted a downturn. This yr was to be a banner yr.

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Sustainability for Upchurch “isn’t just the environment. It’s the preservation of cultural heritage and it’s making sure that we benefit local economy and the local people.”

The world has modified since February, nonetheless, and so we’ve stayed in contact with Upchurch to get his tackle how the current coronavirus problem is affecting his community and the trade. To study extra, please see the underside.

Challenges apart, Upchurch has a transparent imaginative and prescient for journey advisors and for the luxurious journey trade. “I think about what it was like 20 years ago, when everybody was wondering if we were going to be around,” Upchurch says. But not solely are journey advisors nonetheless round, they’re thriving. 

What’s modified from 20 years in the past, although, when so many predicted the extinction of the career? “There’s been the long gestating transition of people prioritizing their spend on experiences versus goods,” Upchurch says. This is music to the ears of journey advisors. But Upchurch isn’t glad with simply this — his objective is to make Virtuoso as environment friendly at serving to advisors succeed.

One method Upchurch sees that taking place is by way of the multibillion-dollar knowledge warehouse that Virtuoso is constructing, which is able to assist the community study much more about its shoppers. Ninety-seven p.c of members within the U.S. and Canada give the community their transactions nightly, and these numbers have allowed Virtuoso to do some attention-grabbing analysis.

One such spotlight, in line with Upchurch, was that “we were actually able to prove the efficacy of Virtuoso marketing on households.” By digging into the numbers, Virtuoso checked out whether or not their advertising and marketing develop spend or loyalty. “We were able to show that at the same income level, consumers that received Virtuoso marketing exponentially spent more,” he says. And as a result of “the really incredible relationship that we have with our partners, where our customers feel something different when they are taken care of by our preferred partners,” Virtuoso noticed that loyalty grew, as effectively. “That loyalty then translates into greater spend and into greater loyalty and greater repeat factor,” Upchurch says.

But it’s not about pushing shoppers to costlier choices for the sake of getting them to spend extra. “In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” Upchurch says. Rather, it’s about Virtuoso and its member companies constructing relationships with their “judiciously” chosen companions. “The quality of the relationships that we have built with these people creates a greater experience,” Upchurch says.

It would make sense, then, that if Virtuoso shoppers are spending extra and are constructing loyalty with their advisors and the community, that they might be fairly glad, as effectively. Turns out, that’s the case. Upchurch says that Virtuoso is beginning to get increasingly proof “that the network’s clients, when collaborating with our partners, have a generally higher degree of satisfaction with the experience and the product.”

This knowledge and analysis are key for Virtuoso because it strikes ahead. It’s why they employed a brand new senior vice chairman of know-how, Travis McElfresh. One of his new tasks shall be to construct the Virtuoso Cloud, which shall be an infrastructure that permits Virtuoso to offer content material and microservices “that draw from an unite the unique technological ecosystems of our very diverse members from around the world,” Upchurch explains. What one company would possibly want tech-wise from Virtuoso could also be completely different than what a second wants, and maybe a 3rd makes use of the identical data differently. Agencies aren’t run in a one-size-fits-all method, and Virtuoso is attempting to supply as a lot as it might to as many as doable.

“I’m super excited about the technological roadmap that we now have,” he provides.

One of the largest technological endeavors by Virtuoso has been the creation and full launch of Wanderlist, which “is basically an innovation around an existing process.” As Upchurch explains, Wanderlist is “a very interesting combination of a tangible process with some digital tools to create and deliver a more consistent, repeatable value proposition that is embedded in the organic practices of really good advisors.” In essence, it’s a software that mixes the perfect practices of the highest advisors to assist them find out about their shoppers and create long-term journey plans. By mapping out what locations and experiences a consumer want to go to and attain, it helps advisors higher get to know them and plan future travels for his or her shoppers. 

“One of the purposes of Wanderlist is to actually enhance deeper, more meaningful conversations and relationships, while looking at the client holistically,” he provides. “It’s the ability to create and use technology to enhance interaction but without replacing it.” 

A favourite saying of Upchurch’s is: “Automate the predictable so that you can humanize the exceptional.” Wanderlist goals to satisfy this mantra. “As an advisor, your core value is not the fact that you are able to book the trip,” he says. “Your core value is that you’re able to help me, my spouse, my family, have a much more thoughtful, purposeful plan to optimize my life experiences and my limited, most valuable, non-removable asset: my leisure time.”

An advisor’s job isn’t accomplished as soon as the journey is deliberate, and even taken, although. The distinction between a transactional journey agent (“there’s nothing wrong with that,” Upchurch tells us) — and a trusted journey advisor is the dialog after the journey. And overlook about merely asking, “How was the trip?” Advisors must ask questions that assist them study concerning the consumer, to allow them to make the subsequent journey much more tailor-made to them. Upchurch suggests asking, “If there was one thing you could change about that trip, what would it have been?”

Another good thing about Wanderlist is the creation of a brand new journey career: the Wanderlist Guide. The information works hand-in-hand with advisors to study the Wanderlist software, in addition to finest practices for partaking households within the course of. Currently, over 200 advisors have gone by way of the complete coaching because it launched in 2019. And ought to an advisor choose to not full the complete coaching, Virtuoso’s Wanderlist Guides can be found to help advisors case by case.

Working on the Wanderlist undertaking gave Upchurch a “really good booster shot of travel advisor empathy.” He says, “We can all sit up here, high and mighty, and say travel advisors should do this and travel advisors should do that [but] until you really get down in the trenches and you realize that when you’re a travel advisor booking travel, you can wake up in the morning with all the greatest of intentions of being super proactive, but the reality is you don’t really own your time.” Clients change their minds. Flights get cancelled. Cruises change their itinerary. A pandemic is asserted. All of the above.

“Trying to add a lot of proactive processes to what is fundamentally a reactive profession to the needs of the client and the realities of the marketplace is a challenge,” he says. 

Leadership Team (from left): Seated: David Kolner, Matthew D. Upchurch, Michelle Rashid, David Hansen; Standing: Steve Kawamura, Mike McCown, Terrie Hansen, Albert Herrera, Travis McElfresh

In abstract, being a journey advisor is hard and Upchurch admits it. But when one thing goes fallacious and also you save the consumer’s day, that’s whenever you actually shine. 

If there wasn’t already sufficient to be enthusiastic about, Upchurch provides the evolution of Virtuoso Communities to that checklist. Originally launched 4 years in the past with 4 teams (Adventure, Family, Voyages, Wellness), two extra have been added final yr (Culinary and Ultraluxe); 2020 will see two additional additions: Sustainability and Celebration. 

In addition, every Community shall be segmented into numerous sub-groups based mostly off transactional knowledge. For occasion, advisors who wish to find out about a selected ardour level; these shall be “adventure-focused advisors” (or whichever Community theme you be part of). Virtuoso will provide these advisors particular programming, instructing them and rising their experience within the explicit space. Once you hit a sure greenback quantity that places you within the prime 20 p.c of producers, you’re labeled a specialist. At this stage, the programming turns into rather more individualized.

Communities are all about, “How can we become larger and feel smaller at the same time?” Upchurch says.

History of Support

“Our organization has a very long history of being there for our partners and our members in the midst of all kinds of crises,” Upchurch tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

In previous years, Virtuoso has pivoted the places of its Symposium, an occasion designed for luxurious journey company house owners and managers, to locations hit by numerous disasters. In 2015, after the terrorist assault on the Bataclan theater in Paris, Virtuoso visited. In 2010, the community shifted its Symposium from Madrid to Mexico City after town was hit arduous by H1N1. It even visited Luxor after the bloodbath in 1997. 

When the coronavirus outbreak was simply that (solely an outbreak), Upchurch says, talking with Virtuoso Chinese members and suppliers was “pretty emotional” as a result of there was “zero business.” Since then, the outbreak has been formally declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and is changing into one thing “different and more widespread than anything we’ve previously seen.” 

As a outcome, Virtuoso needed to cancel its Symposium, scheduled for this previous March. It was to be a giant one, because the community was to rejoice its 20th anniversary as Virtuoso. The occasion was to happen in Vienna — simply because it did 20 years in the past when “Virtuoso” made its debut. Upchurch had loads of thrilling issues deliberate that he hoped would “spark thought-leadership and insightful conversation amongst attendees.” He provides, nonetheless, “We may see such seismic shifts as a result of COVID-19 that what was true just six weeks ago is no longer the case.” 

Nonetheless, Virtuoso shall be there to help its companies, suppliers and locations when it might. “That became my passion 30-some-odd years ago,” Upchurch says. This mission grew to become clear when he was in a gathering with a Chinese firm that helps international entities arrange companies in China. They advised him Virtuoso was not within the journey enterprise, somewhat “in the professional consultancy and entrepreneurial support business.” Not solely did it higher serve Virtuoso in organising enterprise in China on the time, but in addition helped Upchurch notice the final word objective of the community.

It was a defining second for Upchurch, who had spent his entire life within the journey trade (his father, along with founding Virtuoso, was one of many co-founders of the U.S. Tour Operators Association and a pioneer of the luxurious journey trade). Looking again, he says, “If you were to tell me when I was 22 that I’d hang out with travel agents for the rest of my life, I might’ve run the other direction.”

But the trade modified. “It’s been so incredible to see how this profession has professionalized,” Upchurch says. “We were all basically human vending machines.” When API Travel Consultants made the choice to alter its identify to Virtuoso, this was one of many stigmas it needed to maneuver previous.

With Family: Upchurch says customers are in search of genuine and distinctive experiences however they’re additionally in search of enjoyable.

During a time of airline fee cuts, on-line journey companies (OTAs) and extra, Upchurch felt advisors wanted a champion. “The whole purpose of the brand name change was to create a spotlight on a category that was being maligned,” he says. 

Upchurch needed a pull technique, “to create a brand that people understood — that’s what it was all about.” In that first yr, Virtuoso’s public relations mentions grew by 400 p.c. The identify change “just created a kind of buzz,” he provides.

Soon after, many advisors acquired loads of new enterprise — however they didn’t have the hours within the day or the workers to deal with the enterprise. Some have been on the verge of “tapping out.” Virtuoso needed to change its mission; somewhat than specializing in bringing in as many consumers because it might, it needed to make the journey advisor a worthwhile and fascinating career. In 2001, Virtuoso’s mission assertion grew to become, “To improve the compensation and personal fulfillment of the frontline travel advisor.”

Upchurch remembers pondering, “If we do not make the profession of being a travel advisor a financially and personally rewarding career, that is our single point of failure.” Some advisors on the time have been skeptical of Virtuoso desirous to dig deeper into their financials to discover ways to higher help them. However, the data was important to serving to Virtuoso fulfill its mission assertion. And must you ask him what he’s most happy with having completed with Virtuoso’s members, Upchurch will inform you, “Hands down, it’s the fulfillment of our mission.”

But is there any, one secret to the community’s success? According to Upchurch, no. “It was the core, gravitational pull of everything we did. There was no crystal ball, I just kept trying to do the next right thing.”

Another mission of Virtuoso’s: “To create a global phenomenon and a global spotlight on a different level of advisor.” In different phrases: Create one thing bigger than the sum of its (already profitable) elements.

Two Decades Down, Many More to Come

Twenty years after Virtuoso made its debut, Upchurch is waiting for the subsequent 20.

While making ready for this yr’s would-be landmark Symposium, Upchurch labored with three “innovation teams” that every comprised Virtuoso workers, advisors and company house owners, and Virtuoso companion representatives of the identical technology. One of the focuses was co-creation. “Everything we’re about is co-creation,” Upchurch tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

“The whole idea is that at the core of our success is authentic human connection,” he says. Looking ahead, Upchurch goals to search out the reply to, “How do we build a human-centric operating system to take in knowledge and deliver real products and real value propositions that are relevant and desirable to different variations of customers?”

Upchurch provides, alternatively, the ability of the Virtuoso model is rising with the buyer. “I have to say that even I’m amazed,” he says. So, having helped make journey advisors worthwhile and even a fascinating career, it’s as soon as once more time for Virtuoso to show its consideration to the buyer, the place “you’re going to see us really up our game,” Upchurch says.

He tells us that it’s not unusual for customers coming to Virtuoso, wanting to search out an affiliated company. Advisors trying to work for a Virtuoso company are fairly widespread, too, we’re advised.

 “Belonging” is one thing else that Upchurch is sort of enthusiastic about. At the 2019 Virtuoso Travel Week, Chip Conley, strategic advisor for hospitality and management at Airbnb and founding father of Modern Elder Academy, spoke about what it was like to affix Airbnb, the place his boss and all of his coworkers have been half his age. That keynote helped Upchurch notice only one extra mantra for Virtuoso: “There’s power in sharing wisdom and being open to learning.”

He provides, “You really don’t belong at Virtuoso if you don’t believe in the ethos that there’s more to be gained by sharing than there is in keeping to yourself.” Fortunately, Upchurch says, that many members of Virtuoso are agency believers in sharing and studying from one another. 

 “That’s why we are where we are today — because a lot of our veterans actually have the ego structures and the open-mindedness to listen to a 26-year-old,” Upchurch says. If you’re contemplating becoming a member of Virtuoso, simply know you want “a willingness to share and co-create — takers need not apply.” In order to thrive and evolve the journey trade, its members should study to just accept teachings and solutions from others. 

“Cross-geographic collaboration, cross-generational collaboration — that’s what gets me up in the morning,” he says.

On the provider aspect, Upchurch is most enthusiastic about “how quickly we’re starting to see movement on sustainability as a real component” of journeys. While Virtuoso goes all-in on sustainable journey in 2020, as evident within the addition of the Sustainability Community, it has lengthy been training and selling sustainable tourism. To observe, Virtuoso’s Sustainable Tourism Leadership Awards will enter their 10th yr in 2020; as well as, final yr, Virtuoso received the World Travel Award for its dedication to sustainable tourism. The awards, in line with the World Travel Awards, “were established to recognize individuals, companies, organizations, destinations and attractions for outstanding initiatives related to the travel and tourism industry, and in fostering sustainable tourism and developing programs that give back to local communities.”

Upchurch notes, “Sustainability isn’t just the environment. It’s the preservation of cultural heritage and it’s making sure that we benefit local economies and the local people.”

The pattern to extra sustainable journey is a win-win-win — for the traveler, the advisor and the vacation spot. “What’s exciting to me about this is how quickly we’re starting to move away from the model of, somehow, sustainability meaning lesser-than, giving up something or making it more expensive,” Upchurch says. In truth, “I’m seeing evidence from partners that are starting to show examples where sustainable practices actually created higher margins and greater loyalty,” he provides.

It’s at all times attention-grabbing to see how properties, as an example, will search for methods to face out. Several years in the past, Virtuoso partnered with YouGov to do analysis on the “commoditization of quality.” Basically, which means over time issues which will appear luxurious, as an example, ultimately develop into commonplace. An instance: 25 years in the past, Upchurch says, Four Seasons started placing mini shampoo bottles in resort rooms. Now, “the cheapest place” does this. (Although on the subject of sustainability, it appears these bottles are on the best way out.) 

Nonetheless, because the distinction in high quality turns into much less perceptible as a result of total high quality simply retains getting higher and higher and higher, customers start making selections based mostly on a sequence of different elements past the standard that they anticipate to obtain. These elements vary from the buyer feeling that they and the model align on values and impression to sensing that their workers appear genuinely blissful to be working there.

Luxury is much less and fewer about items and extra about experiences. How typically have you ever heard that what makes or breaks a visit is the service?  

It’s only one method the traveler is evolving. Upchurch provides that buyers are “more diverse than they’ve ever been,” particularly noting that 5 completely different generations are touring for the primary time in historical past. He says customers are more and more believing that they’re additionally specialists. 

“The old-fashioned value proposition used to be, ‘I’m an expert; you want to deal with me because I’m an expert,’” he says. “Well, the problem with today’s world is the minute you say you’re an expert, everybody wants to test that out. This is why with WebMD, doctors will tell you, ‘It’s the bane of my existence because everybody comes in and says they’re just as much as a doctor as we are.’”

“We happen to be in a space that’s dealing with the best educated, most successful, best traveled, most technologically savvy group of consumers in the nation,” he provides.

Upchurch suggests altering the method. “I think one of the other things that’s interesting is vulnerability. I think that presenting yourself in a much more vulnerable and authentic way actually makes you more credible.” Advisors ought to converse with their shoppers, or potential shoppers, and be upfront. Say, “The world is changing really fast, I know a lot about this stuff, I keep up with it — but it’s not just my own knowledge; it’s the knowledge of my network, it’s the knowledge of my relationships.”

In addition to opening up concerning the individuals you depend on to create these journeys, he recommends being prepared to share the way you make a dwelling. (Regarding charges, Upchurch says there’s no proper reply.) One advisor within the Virtuoso community, in line with Upchurch, sits her shoppers down and says, “Look, these are the products I sell a lot and I’ve got great relationships. I get paid very well because I give them a lot of business. So, if you book XYZ, I’m your gal. And I don’t charge you fees because these guys pay me really well.”

“Creating that deeper connection at that more human level — that’s about transparency,” he says.

That connection on a human stage is the important thing for journey advisors. “If you tell people that you’re in the business of booking travel, you’ve lost before you’ve even started,” Upchurch says. “There are literally hundreds of new ways that are being invented every day to make it easy to book travel.”

One pitch you may make is that you just’re a specialist — and, no, not in a vacation spot or kind of journey (though area of interest coaching is one thing Virtuoso is clearly on board for). You’re a specialist within the consumer. “My job is to get to know you: What you want, what’s important,” Upchurch says.

You additionally function an entry level. Feel free, he suggests, to leap on a three-way name or video name session together with your consumer and the provider. Have them meet and converse to one another, which is able to assist you all tailor the journey to the consumer. “It’s my job to utilize my knowledge, my network,” Upchurch pitches. “Booking travel is obviously part of what I do, but really it’s about optimizing your time.”

Consumers, sure, are in search of genuine and distinctive experiences however they’re additionally in search of enjoyable. “Make it fun!” Upchurch says. A journey advisor needs to be an individual that shoppers stay up for speaking to. 

“It’s also about inspiring,” he provides. Maybe your consumer isn’t coming as much as you and explicitly requesting a sustainable trip. But, maybe, you may bake in some sustainable parts — perhaps by utilizing a portion of the fee to donate to an area trigger or having the shoppers take part in a volunteer effort. 

One first-time person of an advisor stated after a visit, in line with Upchurch: “You mean to tell me that my Virtuoso advisor can give me peace of mind, make sure I have a great experience with my family, take the hassle out of it, have my back when things go wrong, but then on top of that, layer in an element of making it easy for me to give my business to people that are doing things for the world? I didn’t even know that existed.”

Who doesn’t need that reward?

“There’s a leadership position in inspiring your clients,” he says. “It has to do with how to deliver a better value proposition, and that’s why I also believe that the role of the advisor is becoming more and more holistic.”

So, as customers proceed to evolve and journey advisors proceed to professionalize, there’s loads to get one excited concerning the trade. And whereas COVID-19 could have brought on Upchurch to delay his introduction to the way forward for Virtuoso, it’s little question nonetheless on the prime of thoughts.

“I’m in charge of continuously evolving a human-centric operating system that allows our network participants to be able to do things that are unique expressions of themselves, that connects to their uniqueness, their artistry, their craftsmanship, but also allows us to be able to compete in a global, scientific way,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “How cool is that?”

Matthew Upchurch: How Advisors Can Help in a time of COVID-19

Travel advisors, whereas specialists on journey, aren’t well being specialists — what’s their function in a pandemic comparable to this?

The function of a journey advisor is just not as disaster professional, however as a relaxing voice of purpose to function their shoppers’ number-one advocate. We’ve at all times stated that the advisor-client relationship is rooted in belief and that turns into most obvious when issues are at their worst. I feel it’s protected to say we’re at that time. Travel advisors have spent years, even a long time, constructing private relationships. They have entry to real-time info that they share with their shoppers, in order that they will make fact-based selections, and they’re able to assist navigate a quickly evolving journey panorama the place insurance policies are altering every day. An advisor isn’t there to inform their shoppers to go or not go; their function is to assist the consumer make the very best alternative for themselves. 

I feel we’ll discover once we look again in historical past that journey advisors have been the unsung heroes of this disaster. They labored tirelessly to quell fears and protect enterprise, and helped defend shoppers whereas negotiating with companions to maintain bookings coming in. Faced with a number of the most tough occasions they’ve ever seen, they confirmed up for his or her shoppers and their trade.

Has any earlier catastrophe — pure or artifical — had this huge of an impact on journey?

The journey enterprise has weathered many storms and it’s throughout occasions of turmoil that this trade bands collectively and rises to the event. This explicit occasion is completely different and extra widespread than something we’ve beforehand seen. It has the concern of the unknown that got here with 9/11 mixed with the financial gut-punch of the worldwide monetary disaster. All we are able to do is help our members and companions, and wait it out collectively, as a result of a lot of that is out of our fingers. We are assured that the virus shall be contained and the vaccine will develop into out there, and when that occurs, we all know individuals will wish to journey once more. And after they’re prepared, we shall be, too.  

How are you able to promote journey throughout a disaster comparable to this?

It’s robust to promote journey when planes aren’t flying and ships can’t sail; when borders are closed, international locations are on lockdown and persons are quarantined. These are unprecedented occasions. What we are attempting to do is keep optimistic and targeted on what occurs subsequent — suspending somewhat than canceling, summer time journey, vacation journey, 2021 and past.

What recommendation are you able to provide advisors?

Now is the time when your worth to your shoppers turns into most obvious. You will come out the opposite aspect of this with higher, stronger relationships due to the belief you’ve constructed. And belief results in loyalty, one thing that has at all times eluded the net channels. Focus on serving to shoppers right here and now, then, when the time is true, refocus them on future journey. Business will come again, planes will fill, cruises will as soon as once more go to ports, safari camps will proceed to promote out — ensure that shoppers know that journey hasn’t stopped indefinitely; it’s solely a pause. If you may get them dreaming about the place to go subsequent, you’ll assist them escape the present information cycle for a bit till they will get pleasure from that subsequent journey. Travel is the one factor that enriches their life on three completely different ranges: The dreaming that occurs whenever you plan, the precise expertise of the journey and the lifelong reminiscences it creates.


Headquarters: Fort Worth, TX (plus workplaces worldwide)
Chairman and CEO: Matthew D. Upchurch
SVP, Marketing: Terrie Hansen
SVP, Global Product Partnerships: Albert Herrera
SVP, Global Member Partnerships: David Kolner
Number of Agencies: More than 1,100 in over 50 international locations
Aggregated Volume of Business: $30 billion 

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