Virtuoso On Tour Providing Personal Connections and the Latest Insights into Selling Luxury Travel

Virtuoso advisors in Toronto. Photo Courtesy Virtuoso

More than 200 top Canadian advisors. More than five dozen luxury travel suppliers. Networking. And professional development.

Virtuoso Canada held a series of On Tour sessions for Canadian agents and partners in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto over the past two weeks as it continues to beef up operations north of the border.

The third and final event was at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto on 13APR and 14APR. Open Jaw was on the scene to chat with advisors, Virtuoso management and suppliers, as well as sit on an excellent panel discussion with three top Canadian agents.

Cruise Booking Trends

Gerry Koolhof, a cruise specialist at Direct Travel, led off the morning panel talk by saying that Canadians are looking for longer cruises.

“They’re doing 30 days, 40 days, world cruises. I find clients are tending to book larger suites. They’re also looking for expedition cruises.”

“The pent-up demand has been enormous,” said Michele L. Smith of MLS Custom Travel/Trevello. “Mostly what I deal with are baby boomers and seniors. They’re back to their bucket list, and they’re doing it longer and more expensive.

“It’s not really about price, it’s about value, it’s about experience,” she said.

Charging Fees

The panel was united on the issue of advisors needing to charge fees for their service.

“Fees have been tremendous for me and my team,” Smith said. “If you have a client that comes to you and they’re a tire kicker, and you tell them there’s a fee, and you do that up front, they go away. Really you want the right client, because you only have so much time.”

Karen Marquardt Wyers of Mainbrace Travel Concierge/TTI Travel Canada was formerly a concierge at the Four Seasons Toronto and got into the travel advising business in 2021.

Wyers said she didn’t feel she could charge fees as a new person in the game. But she took the Virtuoso Certified Travel Advisor course and said she realized that the combination of the knowledge she had as a concierge and the preferred partnerships that Virtuoso offer made her a valuable commodity who could charge for her services.

“If you can create that script and tell people why you’re so good at what you do and the value you can add, you can charge fees,” she said. “With the experience in this room, every single person should be charging fees.

“If I can do it, you can do it.”

L to R : James Allen, Account Manager, Member Relations, Canada. Denise Harper, Director, Partner Relations. Augustine Kwong, Member Relations. Una O’Leary, General Manager, Canada. Anna Judek, Director, Marketing Canada,Ryan Fraser, Marketing Manager. Photo Courtesy Virtuoso
L to R : James Allen, Account Manager, Member Relations, Canada. Denise Harper, Director, Partner Relations. Augustine Kwong, Member Relations. Una O’Leary, General Manager, Canada. Anna Judek, Director, Marketing Canada,Ryan Fraser, Marketing Manager. Photo Courtesy Virtuoso

New Tactics and Adding Value

Koolhof said he looked long and hard at his business as the pandemic stretched on, and found that 20 per cent of his clients were accounting for 80 per cent of his business. He’s now delegating more work to colleagues and concentrating on that valuable 20 per cent client base.

Wyers said when she got into the business she wanted to “really focus on those special experiences … and creating that extra value to show what I can do to elevate the experience.

“It’s important to really get into details and add that extra bit, whether it’s a concert overlooking the sunrise in Mykonos; and I can get a private table there, or a luxury yacht and making sure it’s catered with my clients’ favourite food.”

Koolhof said it’s critical for advisors to know their suppliers, and told a story about recently booking some clients on a Uniworld cruise in Egypt. They wanted to stay at the Four Seasons hotel in Cairo for a few days prior to the cruise, so he sent a photo of the couple to the hotel general manager, who he had become friends with.

When his clients arrived at the hotel, the GM was there to say hello. He also gave them an upgrade, added a vase of fresh flowers in the room, and put a framed photo of the couple on the bedside table.

“They sent me a text with a bunch of heart emojis and said they’d never had a hotel GM meet them like that before.”

Smith said she has clients who are big fans of Roman history. For their Rome trip, she arranged for their kids to go to a gladiator school.

Smith told advisors she doesn’t ask clients what kind of budget they have, at least not right away. Instead, she asks what they want to feel and experience on their holiday, thus tapping into their emotions.

“They I’ll say, I think it (the cost) will be around this. And then they either nod or they don’t.”

It’s all about providing value, she explained.

“A budget is simply a guideline, and a budget doesn’t mean cheap.”

Wyers said she loves that Virtuoso will post to social media on a private label site for agents who are too busy to do it themselves. She also uses the private label site to send clients to get them excited about a trip.

“Clients love it when you’re excited for them,” she said.

One big advantage Koolhof has found are the various Virtuoso Communities, which are set up around themes such as adventure travel or family travel.

“The communities are amazing,” he said. “They helped put me on the map.”

Koolhof said advisors need to specialize, and that right he’s putting a big emphasis on expedition cruising.

“You have to stay current,” he said. “With Virtuoso communities you can learn about things like Coral Cruises, which offer great trips to the Kimberley region of Australia.”

He also used his Virtuoso community to find about a company out of Newfoundland that takes people on a $250,000 dive to the wreckage of The Titanic.

“Because I’m part of the community I’m aware of all these things. Clients expect that of me.”

Virtuoso Growth in Canada

Una O’Leary, General Manager, Canada for Virtuoso, said there are a lot of new people coming into the travel advisor business in Canada. Anna Judek, Virtuoso’s marketing manager, came from RBC.

“In the past with travel advisors there were a lot of fams and things like that, but these people are looking at it as a business,” O’Leary said in an interview with Open Jaw. “They’re building a business. And they’re doing it in more intentional ways. They’re leveraging things like social media, and other tools we have. We also have special Virtuoso offers.”

O’Leary said events like On Tour are a great opportunity for them to come together.

“We had networking last night and the panel talk this morning. Advisors want to hear from their peers, and sharing best practices is so important.”

Virtuoso agents are constantly striving to improve their skills, Judek said. “There’s an ‘always learning’ mindset.”

O’Leary said Virtuoso Canada has gone from management team of effectively zero in 2021 to a full six employees across the country, including Toronto, Montreal, Halifax and Vancouver.

It’s part of a broader Virtuoso strategy to boost business north of the border.

“We have advisors in 52 countries,” O’Leary said. “We have 21,000 advisors all told, and 2,300 of them (11 per cent) are Canadians.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” she said. “Canada is a very affluent market, and a lot of our advisors have very high net-worth clients.”

Virtuoso advisors say they greatly appreciate what the network brings to the table.

L TO R: Erica Barbour, Ponant Cruises, Wendy Davis, Zebrano Travel Inc., Brigitte Krasner, Zebrano Travel Inc. Jim Byers Photo
L TO R: Erica Barbour, Ponant Cruises, Wendy Davis, Zebrano Travel Inc., Brigitte Krasner, Zebrano Travel Inc.
Jim Byers Photo

“Our Canadian Virtuoso members are thrilled that Virtuoso is focused on creating networking opportunities across Canada for our advisors,” said Wendy Davis, owner, Zebrano Travel. “We also use these events to network with each other. At the end of the day we are colleagues and Virtuoso is about sharing best practices. We can learn from each and we support each other. We can be independent companies and share at the same time.”

Davis said the training sessions are always current and top-of-mind.

“Topics such as how to specialize with Virtuoso Communities, and how to build your brand, and how to manage the workload. Also, the opportunity to have a professional head shot done at the conference, provides us with the tools we need to market ourselves professionally,” she said.

“Building awareness for Virtuoso in Canada is a priority, both with the travel community and also with luxury consumers. Virtuoso’s focus on luxury travel is unique, and, based on the predictions of huge growth for luxury travel in the future, we want to be prepared to manage what is coming,” Davis added.

Wyers said she loves the connections Virtuoso provides for her.

“The show last year was my first in-person event in the industry, and this year’s was even better.

“I adore Virtuoso and I give a lot of credit to my success as a new to industry advisor to the valuable partnerships and support from their site, On Tours, educational content and most especially Virtuoso Certified Travel Advisor course with Helen Nodland,” said Wyers.

Of course, as useful as these sessions are for advisors, they’re equally valuable for suppliers.

"These programs are incredibly valuable,” said Laura Di Nardo, Field Sales Manager, Celebrity Cruises. “Nothing will ever replace face to face meetings for building relationships.

“My favourite connections are the ones made unexpectedly over breakfast, or at the coffee bar. It's always exciting going into these events and coming out with so many new connections and business opportunities,” she said.

Lorenzo Campos, Hawai’i tourism Authority/VoX International Andrea Bunker, TWIL Travel. Photo courtesy of  Jim Byers
Lorenzo Campos, Hawai’i tourism Authority/VoX International Andrea Bunker, TWIL Travel. Photo courtesy of Jim Byers

Lorenzo Campos, Account Director for Hawai’i Tourism Canada, said Virtuoso puts him in touch with valuable advisors. It’s also educational for agents.

“For example, I was able to explain the Mālama Hawai‘i program (which asks visitors to care for the land and give back, and also provides hotel discounts) in detail to every agent that I met with, almost 100, and they are excited about the effort Hawai‘i is doing to create the awareness in travellers,” he said. “They really are interested in helping spread the word.”

“These events bring out the best of the best in qualified, high end agents with knowledge & expertise to sell a designation with luxury product like Santa Monica has,” said Annika Klint, Managing Partner, Pulse Communications. “With over 40 hotels, many of them luxury properties that are preferred with Virtuoso (Shutters on the Beach, Casa del Mar, Fairmont Miramar and Bungalows), we want to make sure that agents have the most up to date information to provide to their clients.”

Klint said she took part in both the Toronto and Montreal events and that the networking opportunities were very helpful. She also said the professional development sessions, including “Deep Dive on the Canadian Traveller,” and “Unlocking the Virtuoso Value,” were excellent.

The Toronto event drew 97 advisors and 66 partners/suppliers, resulting in 6,400 onnections. In Vancouver they had 79 advisors and 65 partners for 5,135 connections, and in Montreal they had 45 advisors and 48 suppliers for 2,160 connections.

In addition to the three On Tour events, Virtuoso runs Connect events with select partners in St. John’s, Halifax, Quebec City, Calgary and Victoria.

Virtuoso Symposium is coming up 17-21MAY in Montreal, and the popular Virtuoso Travel Week is in in Las Vegas 12-18AUG. Virtuoso Forum will be held in Vancouver 04-05OCT.

Jim Byers

Jim Byers is a freelance travel writer based in Toronto. He was formerly travel editor at the Toronto Star and now writes for a variety of publications in Canada and around the world. He's also a regular guest on CBC, CTV News, Global News and other television and radio networks.

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