Senior vice president of global member partnerships, Virtuoso, David Kolner

Senior vice president global member partnerships, Virtuoso Travel Network, David Kolner
Senior vice president global member partnerships, Virtuoso Travel Network, David Kolner

A network of exceptional travel professionals around the world, Virtuoso can tailor any trip to perfection. Senior vice president, global member partnerships, Virtuoso, David Kolner speaks with Panayiotis Markides about the latest trends and updates in the luxury travel sector, and why the company is able to exceed customers’ expectations.

TTG: Is the MENA market important to Virtuoso? Are there plans to augment your position in the region?

Virtuoso’s global growth strategy – a key focus for the company – has resulted in the addition of dozens of member travel agencies over the past 18 months. In addition to strengthening the network’s existing strong presence in North and Latin America as well as Australia and New Zealand, we’ve expanded into new regions, including Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Last year we added our first agency in the MENA market – dnata in Dubai.

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Virtuoso is actively pursuing new growth opportunities in the Middle East and Africa, and recognises this region’s strategic importance.

TTG: What trends in consumer travel have emerged and why?

Multi-generational travel continues to be a strong trend and what’s interesting is that several years ago it even began eclipsing travel with immediate family. Much of what’s driving it can be attributed to older generations and retirees. This group has saved wisely and they now find themselves with both means and free time. And while travel has always been a retirement goal, we’re seeing that travelling with their family is of key importance. In fact, we’ve termed it Journey to Global Citizenship – this notion of grandparents wanting their children and grandchildren to have a better understanding of the world and to be better prepared in life having experienced other countries and cultures.

Active and adventure travel is another area where we’re seeing a good deal of interest from our clients. Places like New Zealand, which offer a wide array of activities for people of all ages and abilities, continue to be very popular. Other favourite destinations include Southeast Asia, which has a distinct culture and cuisine, yet still appeals to a more active traveller.

Another trend we’re seeing is something we call Return on Life, where travellers are seeking experiences that draw them closer to their friends or family. Ultimately, they’re looking for deeper personal connections, the opportunity to decamp and just spend time all together, away from hectic schedules and technology. Whether it’s renting a villa in Tuscany or enjoying a beachside resort, the end goal is always the same: to build memories that last a lifetime with the people they love most.

TTG: How is Virtuoso capitalising on these trends?

Virtuoso tracks global trends and we offer training opportunities which keep our agency members and their advisors at the forefront of these trends. Sometimes we partner with our preferred suppliers to offer additional product or destination training. Other resources include the Virtuoso Travel Academy, which offers hundreds of webinars each year as well as exclusive Study Tours that allow advisors to gain valuable first-hand knowledge. Through on-going education, Virtuoso advisors are able to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to trends and deliver new and exciting experiences to their clients.

Virtuoso’s product mix also continues to expand to meet the growing demands of luxury travellers. Knowing that no single advisor can be an expert in everything, our goal is to facilitate relationships between our advisors and preferred suppliers that ultimately result in better travel experiences for their clients. One such way is through our portfolio of in-country destination management companies we call On-Sites.

These top specialists in more than 60 countries provide local insights, privileged access and deliver a level of customisation that make the difference between a vacation and an unforgettable experience.

TTG: Can you describe how the luxury travel sector has been performing in 2016?

Using the Virtuoso network as an indicator, I’d say the luxury sector is seeing steady and continued growth in 2016. Our network sales are $15.5 billion annually, up from $14 billion, and our first quarter year-on-year sales are outpacing last year. We’re also seeing hiring growth within our member agencies in response to increased consumer demand. In 2015, our network advisor count grew by 26 per cent to 11,429 total travel advisors, and 57 per cent of that growth occurred with our existing member agencies.

TTG: How do Virtuoso Travel Network member agencies stand out for travellers?

Simply put: Virtuoso travel advisors provide advice, access, advocacy and accountability. That combination is nearly impossible to replicate through any other travel selling channel, especially online. Travellers who are familiar with the Virtuoso brand and have worked with our advisors quickly learn the difference; they exhibit a preference for the service and the ability to travel with confidence, resulting in trust and loyalty.

As part of their membership, Virtuoso negotiates market advantages on behalf of our agencies – the benefit of our aggregated buying power – which they can then pass along to their clients, further differentiating themselves against their competitors. Perks at more than 1,000 world’s-best hotels and resorts in over 100 countries, valued at up to $450 per stay; exclusive cruise benefits worth up to $800 per couple on some of the best luxury and premium ocean, river and specialty cruise lines; exclusive access to unique products like Virgin Galactic. And then there are the rare and exclusive experiences that consumers won’t find elsewhere, such as a private after-hours tour of the Vatican, recording a song at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, viewing Australian wildlife on a walk escorted by Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson or dining alongside Prince Charles, Prince of Wales.

TTG: How does being a part of Virtuoso’s travel network benefit members?

Because Virtuoso represents more than 11,400 luxury travel advisors at over 385 agencies, it has enormous buying power and clout with global travel suppliers such as hotels and resorts, cruise lines, tour operators and more. This means that Virtuoso member agencies are able to offer clients competitive pricing and added-value amenities at no extra cost: complimentary room upgrades, airport transfers, special dining experiences, exclusive shore excursions and custom itineraries.

Another benefit of Virtuoso’s clout for its members is the exclusive travel offers from network suppliers. Virtuoso provides its members with award-winning marketing vehicles, including magazines, catalogues and emails, to inform clients of these extraordinary values available only to them. All of our marketing is client, advisor and agency personalised, because our goal is always to further strengthen the advisor-client relationship.  What’s more, our advisors can select which clients should receive which materials, ensuring that the right messaging lands in the most receptive hands.

Virutoso.com is another great benefit for Members of Virtuoso. As a tool for our advisors, it helps them easily and quickly find the ‘right’ travel products for their clients, and even share content in handy comparison tools – all while working on both the desktop or mobile phone, keeping up with our advisors’ active work and personal lives. For consumers, Virtuoso.com is one of the first global sites that offers a directory of Virtuoso advisors around the world. In addition to product content, this Advisor Catalog enables consumers to find the ‘right’ advisor for their travel by viewing any one of thousands of profiles with rich information like languages spoken, interactive maps detailing where they’ve travelled, and more. With nearly a hundred thousand monthly visits, the site is a great source of leads and referrals for Virtuoso advisors on all continents.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the personal relationships and connections that Virtuoso fosters between its members and preferred supplier.  Because it’s not what you know that really matters, it’s who you know. Through events like Virtuoso Travel Week, we provide our members with the opportunity to strengthen existing ties and forge new ones with our suppliers. And something unique and almost magical happens when our advisors and suppliers collaborate together; the client is received like a personal friend rather than a patron – VIP treatment at its very best.

TTG: What criteria must agencies fulfill to become members?

Virtuoso is a by-invitation-only organisation and less than one per cent of travel agencies meet the criteria for membership. Consideration requires the agency to have an excellent reputation and strong sales with premium to ultra-luxury suppliers. In particular, Virtuoso looks for agencies that are already selling our preferred suppliers, but who we feel could possibly convert even more luxury sales with the right tools and support. Virtuoso members are a diverse lot: they’re located in 37 countries in every region of the globe, and range from boutique agencies focused on leisure travel to larger multi-region agencies with full-service operations. Virtuoso also has traditional brick-and-mortar agencies as members, as well as some of the industry’s best host agencies with homeworkers/independent contractors.

TTG: Please share Virtuoso’s top 5 destinations for travellers in 2016?

Every year we survey our members and publish the findings in our annual Virtuoso Luxe Report. This year, Italy was named the top global, family travel and honeymoon destination; the top emerging destination is Cuba, followed by Iceland. Adventure seekers are flocking to South Africa, followed closely by Costa Rica.