“The Advisor is a Collaborator:” One-on-One with Virtuoso’s Upchurch

Virtuoso’s 2023 global symposium was held in Montreal from 17-21MAY, attracting 385 travel industry professionals from 35 countries.

Open Jaw Quebec had the opportunity to sit down with Virtuoso Chairman and CEO, Matthew Upchurch.

Upchurch, a strong advocate for the role of travel consultants opened the Symposium by saying:

"What is unique about this profession in the luxury travel market is that the advisor is a collaborator in the life of their client. Not a travel booking engine."

To thundering applause, Upchurch added: “Why do people go to a financial advisor for a structured plan to optimize their financial assets, but don't go to an advisor for their most valuable, non-renewable asset - their free time?”

Upchurch underscored these sentiments during a one-on-one interview with Open Jaw’s Isabelle Chagnon.

Q&A with Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch

Upchurch hails from Texas and carries a legacy of travel industry experience as the son of tour operator owner. With a steadfast commitment to the field, Upchurch has created his own mythos as a seasoned and accomplished figure in the luxury domain.

Open Jaw Quebec: When we hear you speak, we think, 'my god, the travel industry is so amazing, it has so much potential!' It raises the question of what happened during the pandemic. Why do you think people left the industry in droves?

Matthew Upchurch: That's a big question!

The reality of our industry is that it's like a cardiogram. There are a lot of ups and downs. But that's what gives you energy!

I can totally understand that there are difficult times: politics, pandemic, war, it's like it's never-ending. But if you look at the trajectory of this industry over the last 50 years, and if you step back and take a broader perspective, there are only ups. Having said that, I want travel consultants to know they have an advantage that very few professions have: They can choose who they want to do business with! Every travel consultant has the ability to say to a client 'we're not right for each other.' There are very few professions that have this opportunity.

This is the major change that has occurred in this profession: We have gone from a booking agent to a real travel consultant. As I said earlier, the advisor is a collaborator. Yes, they will have to book a trip. But it's the value proposition that surrounds it that is so incredible. In a world where there are hundreds of technologies for booking, why would a customer go to a travel consultant? Because they are looking for the human factor.

That's why things have to be clear for a travel consultant. You need to build your criteria for doing business and determine who you are going to do business with. Easier said than done? Probably. So here's the thing, analyse your clientele along two axes: profitability and compatibility. It's okay to say no to a client. There are other options available. Because it is quite possible that one person is not compatible with another.

And above all, if you have the courage to let go of a client who is not a match for you, the universe will reward you! There will be others, and better ones.

Open Jaw Quebec: What are some missteps that travel consultants make in the luxury travel market?

Matthew Upchurch: Focusing too much on the transaction side. Because the business is actually about advice.

First and foremost, improve your listening skills and ask good questions. We live in a world where you can get thousands of answers. What impresses clients are the good questions their advisor asks, the ones they hadn't thought of.

Next, especially in the luxury travel sector, you are dealing with the most educated, technology-intensive people in society. These people know that you can't know everything! So don't pretend to know everything! It's old school to say you do. Instead, communicate that you are part of a large network of resources and that you are a contributor to that network.

Furthermore, see the positive side of the fact that clients often come to you with a lot of information under their arm. This is a plus for the advisor! Work from what your clients bring to you.

Open Jaw Quebec: Regarding sustainability, many people believe that tourism and sustainability do not go together, that the travel industry can’t be truly sustainable. What do you think?

Matthew Upchurch: That they need to educate themselves on the subject. The reality is that the two are not mutually exclusive.

There are a number of initiatives in our industry, but there is one important thing that comes out of this: travel and tourism are two of the biggest protectors. They are the main economic protectors of biospheres, reserves and parks. When we talk about sustainability, we are not only talking about the environment. We are also talking about the local economy and local preservation.

Addressing sustainability is the main fear for most travel consultants. Don't be afraid. Get educated and comfortable with the topic. Help your clients understand the hidden side of things, the behind-the-scenes of what a destination is doing for its communities. This will add great value to your services. Clients in the luxury market recognize the value of a consultant who will talk to them about these things.

Open Jaw Quebec: What can Virtuoso bring to a consultant and to an agency?

Matthew Upchurch: Personal contact, reputation, connection, technology, learning. At Virtuoso, we believe that sharing knowledge and resources — which is what Virtuoso was founded on in the 1950s — is an essential part of a successful business.

When you join Virtuoso, you are automatically recognised, you get more attention from others and you become part of an organisation where people share their ideas.

Open Jaw Quebec: What attributes define the 2023 travel consultant?

Matthew Upchurch: The one who is focused on optimising their customer base. That's the most important thing right now. Because energetically, connecting with the right client will make the consultant more creative. It will give you energy. In your mind, things have to be very clear: how do you want to do your job and with which clients?

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