How travel advising weathered the pandemic and is proving its worth in a new era
No organization or industry has been 100% business as usual since the advent of COVID, but few have had quite the level of disruption that travel has. Countries all over the world closed themselves to leisure travelers for extended periods, shutting down large sectors of a global industry. Destinations, tour operators, hotels, advisors, and travelers had no choice but to rethink how people travel. Now, with restrictions easing daily, the results of that re-examination are playing out on the world stage. The advice Matthew D. Upchurch, chairman and CEO of luxury travel network Virtuoso, has for leaders everywhere is that “an organization cannot wait for the changes it knows it needs to make” and that there’s nothing quite like the power of human connection.
Operating System Updates
Not that Upchurch would welcome another pandemic or anything like it, but he has taken away valuable lessons. As Simon Sinek, author of leadership books including “Start With Why” and “The Infinite Game” puts it, “Failure is not the biggest threat to a business, success is.” A failing business has no choice but to adjust and innovate. In a successful business, finding that motivation can be difficult.
“I’m eternally grateful that I had started a process of how to rewire the organization,” Upchurch told BOSS. “Reorganization has this negative connotation, like, ‘Somebody did something wrong,’ or ‘It wasn’t set up right.’”
Rather, leaders should look at their organizations like their smartphones, constantly updating.
“We should be running our businesses like the Apple iOS,” he said. “We should expect minor updates and big updates, and just know that that’s the game.”
What keeps us from doing that is the fact that we’re human, and as such we crave comfort, certainty, and safety. We often don’t change until change is forced upon us. If leaders wait for that, they’re in danger of the painful realization of how far they’ve fallen behind. A healthy organization includes conflict and accountability, pushing leaders outside their comfort zones, with an underlying mutual trust and respect.
“That’s why culture is becoming so important. Patrick (Lencioni, president of The Table Group) has always said, ‘There’s so much money in the world, there’s so much technology in the world, there’s so much data, that really the only sustainable competitive advantage of any business is the level of organizational health.”
That organizational culture will absolutely project out to consumers. In a world of constant commoditization pressures, Upchurch said, one of the few things that will maintain a margin is, “How did you make me feel?”
Value of an Advisor
While travel advisors have been making clients feel great by facilitating trips of a lifetime for decades, the current explosion of pent-up demand “has absolutely turbocharged the profession,” Upchurch said. After two years of restrictions, people want to travel anywhere and everywhere these days. They want help navigating ever-changing COVID protocols, but they also want the knowledge that someone is looking out for them while they’re out in the world.
The complications of travel in the COVID era might have induced some travelers to work with an advisor for the first time, but they’re discovering what the most knowledgeable, best-connected globetrotters already knew: You can’t VIP yourself.
The value of a travel advisor comes before a trip, during a trip, and after a trip, Upchurch said. A good travel advisor listens to what clients have to say, the experiences they want to have, what they’ve heard about a destination, and synthesizes that with their own research and experience to design the perfect trip for the people traveling.
Advisors leverage the connections they make through Virtuoso’s vast network — the last pre-pandemic edition of Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas had 6,300 attendees from 105 countries — to personalize their clients’ journeys. Wherever they go, your travel advisor has partners on the ground taking care of them.
“It’s not just that I’m sending you to that hotel,” Upchurch said. “It’s that I know the general manager.”
Even if your advisor hasn’t met the hotelier or tour operator in person, the power of the network means you’re going to be well looked-after. Even the most well-traveled advisor can’t have gone everywhere, but they know their clients, and they have a trusted partner to send you to. When you get back, your advisor debriefs with you, what you really enjoyed and what could’ve gone better. The relationship deepens the more trips they plan for you, and they help you plan a long-term travel strategy.
“Why would you have a financial advisor to help you have a conscious plan to optimize your financial assets but not have a collaborator in your life to help you have a conscious strategy to optimize your most valuable non-renewable asset: your free leisure time?”
Back Out There
Disruptions accelerate trends, and the pandemic experience has only fueled the shift from spending on luxury goods to experiences. While in the short term, COVID restrictions had people buying so many goods it helped cause major supply chain backups, people are eager to get back out in the world.
“Nothing motivates human behavior like having something taken away that you took for granted,” Upchurch said. As one woman told him, “You better tell your travel advisors to take their vitamins and get ready, because when I’m ready to travel, oh my god, you just wait. … At the end of the day there’s only so much wine and so much furniture I can buy.”
Travelers like her are embarking on multigenerational and celebratory trips, making up for lost time marking special occasions with loved ones. Private charters of small ships and villa rentals are hot as groups of family and friends reunite in their own space. Five — soon to be six — generations of people are traveling in large numbers.
With prime destinations full for 2022, travel advisors are working with their clients on milestone trips two and three years in advance to scoop up space. Where you can find space now, “we’ve never seen rates at what they are today, and people are paying them. If you complain that the rate is too high, there’s three people waiting to take that room or that suite.”
As for destinations themselves, many are working to combat the problem of overtourism and used the pandemic to change their approach to welcoming visitors. While they don’t want to make travel elitist or the exclusive province of the rich, they do want to preserve the qualities that make them worth visiting.
“Just because you visit a destination doesn’t mean you should be able to do whatever the heck you want however the heck you want,” as Upchurch put it.
Sustainable travel is more than just environmental stewardship, it’s also preserving the communities, cultures, and local economies. Some fragile destinations, such as Venice, might require reservations and charge entrance fees. On the higher end, places will offer more immersive experiences and special access. Hotels and resorts used their sudden downtime to invest millions in renovations and are now working on bringing service levels up after pandemic layoffs.
Travel has changed, but travel advisors are out there providing clients with their best return on life.