Fiji Forum fabulous for Virtuoso

Despite economic and geopolitical storm clouds gathering across the globe, there seems to be nothing but blue skies ahead for the luxury traveller, according to figures released at this week's Virtuoso Owner Managers Forum in Fiji. BRUCE PIPER reports.

The luxury travel segment is alive and well, if the attendance and excitement at this week’s sold-out Virtuoso Owners and Managers Forum at the Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa are any indication.

The event had a total of 186 attendees including 90 owners and/or managers of Virtuoso-affiliated travel agencies from across Australia and New Zealand. 45 supplier partners were in attendance too, with the Forum – the group’s first overseas get-together since 2019 – allowing them to “gather in a collaborative setting that promotes learning, sharing and empowerment”.

As well as a series of personal development sessions on topics such as social media marketing, motivation, communication and training, there were plenty of opportunities for networking, as well as hundreds of one-on-one appointments to allow members to connect with key suppliers from the Virtuoso network. 

The opening session saw regional General Manager, Fiona Dalton, speak alongside several other senior Virtuoso executives who had travelled from the USA to attend the event. They included the group’s Chief Commercial Officer, Brad Bourland; Jennifer Campbell, Senior Vice President of Network Products & Events; and Cory Hagopian, Virtuoso’s Senior Vice President of Sales & Partnerships. Also in attendance was Australia’s own Michael Londregan, who has driven the development of Virtuoso’s burgeoning regional structure across the globe over the last few years in his role as Senior Vice President of Global Operations. 

CEO Matthew Upchurch, a regular fixture at most Virtuoso events around the world, was unable to attend due to a family commitment, but prepared a video message reflecting on the “two paths to profitablity” – either selling more transactions in the same amount of time, or you selling in a more collaborative, consultative way to a client who values travel on a higher level.

“As members of Virtuoso, you’ve rejected the transactional and embraced travel advisory as the legitimate profession it is today,” Upchurch said.

During the plenary, Dalton set the scene by noting that tourism now contributes more than $7 billion in global GDP and represents one in every 10 jobs on the planet. “No other industry apart from agriculture can claim such scale. And as the global travel demand continues, we can expect travel and tourism to grow at twice the rate of global GDP – adding more than 50% of new roles on the existing more than 100 million jobs in the next 10 years,” she said.

While the US is a key market for the luxury segment, with America having the largest number of Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs) in the world (those with estimated assets of $50 million or more), Australia is also in the big leagues, taking the eighth spot in the rankings despite a much smaller population. Dalton also noted that the number of millionaires has continued to grow in Australia and New Zealand over the last few years, driven primarily by soaring property values.

A recent survey of Virtuoso member agents asked what factors they believed would impact luxury travel in 2023, with geopolitical conflicts, stock market volatility and continued labour shortages in many sectors seen as the most critical issues. “This, coupled with recessionary fears, supply chain challenges and political uncertainty means it’s not all roses out there,” Dalton said, quoting a recent statement from Tourism Australia MD Phillipa Harrison who at the Destination Australia conference in Sydney last Thursday noted that global concerns had shifted from “health” to “wealth”.

“Yet despite this, some 69% of global high net worth individuals plan to increase their overseas travel in 2023,” Dalton added, citing another survey published in Travel Daily this week which indicated that 30% of affluent Australian travellers intend to spend more on travel in 2023 than they did in 2022.

“And we know this to be true, because you continue to confirm to us what we’ve known all along, there’s been no abatement in the demand for luxury travel in our network and in our region, and you continue to trade in record-breaking volumes,” Dalton told the Virtuoso delegates.

“It would seem that after the pandemic, there’s no denying that luxury travel in all its shapes and forms has cemented its role as a key consideration for the allocation of wealth in 2023… our category has incredible opportunity,” she added.

The Virtuoso team laid out a comprehensive program of upcoming events and other big news, including the local launch of a new Virtuoso Certified Travel Advisor course and a new initiative to help attract staff to member agencies desperate to rebuild their expert advisor workforces.

The organisation recently promoted Michelle Duncan to a newly created regional training leadership role, with this significant investment expected to bear fruit for both the overall network and individual advisors. Virtuoso is a strongly data-driven organisation, and has figures that clearly show the more training and participation in Virtuoso events that an individual undertakes, the higher their sales and productivity in the luxury segment.

“I know for many of you, differentiating your business from any other travel business in the market today and future-proofing it for longevity is top of mind… professional development and training is one avenue to help you achieve that,” Duncan told the Virtuoso delegates. As well as delivering the new qualification, Virtuoso will also deliver “more of the deep dives you’ve come to know and love, focusing on the needs of the industry,” she added. “These will include a one day ‘Why Should I Work With You’ course examining the interplay between life and language, to enable advisors to easily highlight and promote their work,” Duncan said, with this taking place in person in Sydney in June, a day prior to the NSW capital’s “Virtuoso on Tour” event. 

The conference gala dinner, immaculately presented by the Sofitel team, was a fitting celebration of the group’s resilience and recovery, and saw Michael Nolan from Melbourne’s Bayview Travel honoured with the group’s Southern Cross Award celebrating his commitment to excellence in leisure travel and to the Virtuoso group. He’s the fourth ever recipient of the award, coming on the illustrious heels of Wentworth Travel’s Bev Cohen in 2019, Claudia Rossi Hudson from Mary Rossi Travel in 2021, and the late Greg Ashmore from Ashmore & James who was posthumously recognised last year.

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