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Matthew Upchurch Celebrates 35 Years of Virtuoso Travel Week

The Virtuoso travel network CEO talks industry demand, sustainability and the value of human connection

by Eden Herbstman

August 9, 2023

Virtuoso CEO and cofounder Matthew Upchurch / Photo: Courtesy of Virtuoso

It’s likely you’ve stayed at a hotel or resort that is part of Virtuoso’s global network. The luxury travel organization carefully vets properties that receive its seal of approval, with affiliated brands including Aman, Belmond and Waldorf Astoria. But that just scratches the surface of Virtuoso’s ecosystem. For those seeking a bit more than a hotel—perhaps a private villa in Italy, an exploration cruise, or a sustainable wellness retreat in Bali—Virtuoso offers an arsenal of experiences. It’s also possible your travel agent is a member of Virtuoso’s advisory network, which encompasses 20,000 agents. “My family roots are in tour operation. But if you would have told me at 22 years old I would be hanging out with travel agents the rest of my life, I would have run for the hills,” says Matthew Upchurch, CEO and cofounder of Virtuoso. Today the company is a one-stop shop of extraordinary travel offerings, but its roots go back to 1950 as Allied Travel, established by independent agencies to share resources, people and technology. “Back in those days—and I mean no disrespect—being a travel agent was a clerical job. Airlines began cutting agency commissions by 15 percent trying to get rid of them. The feeling was travel agencies were dinosaurs.” In 1986, alongside his father, Jesse, Upchurch rebranded Allied as Virtuoso. “The birth of the Virtuoso brand came from everyone looking at travel agents as the lowest common denominator. We needed to do something to show the consumer that these people are different. Advisors can add value before, during and after a trip.”

This month marks the 35th anniversary of Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, bringing together industry professionals for conferences, networking and dealmaking. At press time, 4,000 attendees from 102 counties had been confirmed. “I’m prouder of the 102 countries than the attendee number. Not many things today bring that many countries together.” Here, Upchurch takes Business Traveler inside the Virtuoso brand.

For readers who aren’t familiar with Virtuoso but may have seen its logo on a hotel or travel agent’s website, what does Virtuoso signify?

We want to make sure we have a product that meets the needs of the now very diverse luxury traveler. Looking back on my youth in the business, luxury used to have a narrower definition. The old luxury of years ago meant opulence. Today luxury could be remoteness. It’s finding the best in class, but it also depends on each individual trip, because everyone has diverse desires. Where I want to stay in Paris when I’m with my kids is different than where I want to stay in Paris when I’m just with my wife, or at a board meeting. It involves room quality, food and beverage service and, most importantly, the relationship.

What do you look for in partners who want to join Virtuoso’s network?

A Virtuoso-affiliated property comes with solid relationships. Whether corporate or leisure, every single property, and frankly every single member, must have a dedicated Virtuoso liaison. Virtuoso advisors have to be able to communicate with someone about their clients. It’s a known fact inside our community that properties where the general managers are emotionally and physically involved in the relationship get a disproportionate amount of business. This is why general managers and owners attend Virtuoso Travel Week, like Le Sirenuse and Jade Mountain. The number one question I get about travel agents is, “Isn’t it true that agents send their business to the people who pay them more money?” I’ve heard that for decades and I always laugh. We deal with a high-end market of educated, tech-savvy travelers who have God status with Delta and Buddha status with American Airlines and Jesus status with Marriott. They’re already at the top of the pyramid. If that’s the way we ran our business, we just wouldn’t be around. We send those clients to people and advisors who are going to make their experiences better and elevate everything. That’s how we get repeat business, and why we keep doing better.  

Virtuoso affiliate properties Jade Mountain, St. Lucia / Photo: Courtesy of Jade Mountain

Virtuoso is mostly known for its leisure travel offerings. How does Virtuoso cater to business travelers?

Luxury and experiential travel are definitely our wheelhouse. Agents like Priscilla Alexandra at Protravel, who joined Virtuoso in 1999, or Valerie Wilson of Valerie Wilson Travel didn’t join Virtuoso for the corporate side—they joined for the leisure side. But they found how useful we became for the ability to provide added value to the experiences of their C-suite or senior executives in planning their vacations. For certain corporate clients, there’s not much difference between their corporate and business travel. On the business side we help with board meetings, like how to make them really special and different. What’s the difference between a high-net-worth family that wants to go to Italy or Iceland and a board meeting that wants to do something that’s experiential and adds value?

I’ve seen firsthand how travel agents in Virtuoso’s network use the affiliation to get the best possible experiences for clients. It’s almost like the word “Virtuoso” has become a secret password in the travel industry to unlock the best of the best. When did you start realizing the connective power of the brand and the cachet of the name?

I kind of knew it at the time, and I really know it today, but I didn’t realize how lucky we were to get the URL and trademark for the word “Virtuoso.” It’s turned out to be an insanely powerful word and brand because there’s no translation for “Virtuoso” in any country. It’s a Latin derivative and such a specific word. The team in Singapore oversees our Chinese members and I literally see presentations where everything is in Mandarin except for “Virtuoso.” Typically a brand is all about consistency, but because our network is so diverse, one Virtuoso advisor isn’t a clone of another. They’re incredibly different. We share excellence, care, connection and humanity. The word “Virtuoso” means someone at the top of their art. It’s mostly associated with musicians, but it can be anyone, a painter, a poet or a travel agent. We grew as a brand because businesses like Hotel Cipriani in Italy were proud to be part of Virtuoso and align our logo with their brand on their business cards, website and letterheads. The word signified commonality and helped to create a total unified brand between the hotels, travel advisors and agencies.

Given this year’s avalanche of AI-dominated conversations, how do you feel about AI’s potential impact on the travel industry? Are you anxious this might challenge the role of travel advisors?

Every major technological revolution in the history of mankind has had its positives and negatives. It’s the duality of life. I understand all the debate that’s going on at a higher level and the fears of AI actually taking over. Those are thoughtful debates that need to happen. I’m generally optimistic, though. The only reason we exist as a species is because we are social animals. It’s embedded in our DNA. I think AI can end up being significant in the evolution of the advisory business, and the human connection business. My North Star around technology for 20 years has always been automate the predictable so you can humanize the exceptional. How can we leverage technology to allow human beings to spend more of their time in activities that are fundamentally more human? I think a year from now we’ll be laughing that we gave the AI conversation this much attention. But I’m very bullish about this, and I think there is tremendous potential for AI to accentuate what we do.

Hotel Cipriani, Venice, Italy / Photo: Courtesy of Belmond

What trends are driving revenues this year, especially coming out of the pandemic? 

Bookings for 2023 are 91 percent higher than they were in 2019 leading into 2020. Air capacity is a big issue right now, but I’m not surprised by what’s happening. There’s a reason why travel hit an all-time high in 2019. We’ve never had in the history of the planet five generations of people all traveling at the same time. 80 percent of all human beings who have reached the age of 80 are alive today. Nothing motivates human behavior like having something taken away from them. That’s why we’re seeing tech companies laying off tens of thousands of people, because the digital-to-human-connection pendulum swung. People want to be with people. Virtuoso-preferred hotels are experiencing extremely high demand, with bookings 193 percent higher than in 2019. Cruising looks very strong; Virtuoso bookings are up 55 percent compared to 2019. Luxury is up 79 percent, expedition is up 83 percent and river cruising is up a whopping 128 percent.  

Sustainability has long been a core pillar for Virtuoso, and your wife, Jessica Hall Upchurch, oversees the sustainability practices. What’s been your approach to successful and realistic sustainability over the years?

Sustainability in our book isn’t just the environment. It’s the preservation of local and natural heritage and the benefiting of the local economy. We’ve been supporting sustainable tourism for 15 years now. I’ve been in the travel industry my entire life and I was amazed how adding sustainability as a proactive part of our itineraries made travel more meaningful. Every time I show pictures of The Brando resort, I never show pictures of the food or the villa. I show our two boys smelling coconut oil out of a beaker, or the saltwater air-conditioning system, which are really just photos of pipes. If there was ever an industry for sustainability, it’s ours. If we don’t sustain it, we have no product, period. Our motto around sustainability is, “No shame, no blame,” and just start where you are. In Europe now there’s a huge movement not to fly or go long-haul. Does that mean you won’t fly long-haul to some of the poorest parts of the world? Or to expanding biodiversity? Of course we need sustainable air fuels, but we learned through Covid the horrendous effects when tourism dries up. From a practical perspective, we have data that shows more and more people want to give their money to organizations that not only satisfy their needs but also are doing something positive.

Are you starting to think about what the future of Virtuoso will look like, possibly with your children becoming involved?

I have always felt that my role in this organization, which is not your typical corporate structure, is based on the concept of servant leadership. Our vision for Virtuoso is to make it a self-perpetuating community of innovators who are advocating for the principles and values of human connection. There does seem to be some interest from my children in that servant-leadership perspective, and if they want to pursue it, I know they can make a great contribution to Virtuoso.