LAS VEGAS — Virtuoso kicked off its annual meeting — rebranded "Travel Week" from "Travel Mart" — with a focus on integrating its travel advisors, preferred suppliers and consumers who buy through Virtuoso into one "community."
In doing so, Virtuoso hopes to harness the power of social media to connect advisors, suppliers and clients, and go the large online travel agencies one better by exploiting the existing human relationship that exists between travel advisor and traveler.
"One thing that social media has shown is that people don't want to disintermediate and simply buy things directly on the Web," said Virtuoso President Kristi Jones. "They want to utilize connections during the buying process."
The Composer agent desktop on Virtuoso.com will be enhanced to allow all three parts of the community to share information, and will assure that anyone commenting on a hotel, destination, tour or cruise has actually been there, as verified by a booking through a Virtuoso member.
Next year, the group intends to add the capability for travelers to load their photos, blogs and podcasts.
Virtuoso is also encouraging its members to use other means, online and off, to strengthen the tri-fold connection among advisors, suppliers and travelers. At the conference, held at the Bellagio, five stations were set up in a "Collaboration Lounge" so that an advisor could use Skype or Facetime, for instance, to sit down with the general manager of a hotel and speak live to a client who is considering staying there.
One benefit of that type of discussion, said Virtuoso Chairman Matthew Upchurch, is that the client will see the depth of relationships that their advisor has with suppliers around the world.
Upchurch also said that by looping consumers into the evaluative process, it will heighten the sense of community and elevate standards for everyone.
If, for instance, a traveler has a disappointing experience with a preferred supplier, the reaction might be, "That property should not be part of us," he said.
The Virtuoso focus on community also comes from the realization that many consumers who use travel agents also love planning travel themselves. Scott Ahlsmith, president of 23 Touchpoints (a Virtuoso technology spinoff), said that a Virtuoso advisor can start a trip folio and send it to a client with suggestions.
But in the coming expanded Virtuoso community, the client may start a folio with ideas for a trip and send it to the advisor, who can then come back with helpful suggestions and then book.
Jones said that the rebranding of Travel Mart to Travel Week was consciously modeled to parallel "Fashion Week," which started as a business-to-business event but has grown to include many consumer aspects.
For now, she said, the Virtuoso member is akin to a buyer for a store or boutique who attends Fashion Week to discover the latest trends, and then tries to match the products with existing customers.
David Hansen, Virtuoso's executive vice president of operations and finance, said that the organization intends to eventually involve consumers directly into Travel Week, although he would not commit to a timeline for when that might happen.
Follow Arnie Weissmann on Twitter @awtravelweekly.