HAMBURG, N.J. — Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch said he believes the consortium's long-term travel-planning product, Wanderlist, is "transformational."
The digital tool, which Virtuoso introduced publicly in January, is an online interface that advisors share with clients via a link. Each member of the traveling party is presented with a variety of destinations and categories (like food and wine) and can give each a thumbs up, thumbs down or question mark. Advisors then use the results to create preferred destinations and experiences and map out a travel plan for the years ahead.
Speaking at Largay Travel's annual retreat at the Grand Cascades Lodge here, Upchurch addressed a group of Largay agents who had signed up to use Wanderlist.
"This is not just about the digital tool," he said, "this is about establishing a new language, a new value proposition and new processes that create a product that quite frankly doesn't exist out there. I truly believe this can be transformational."
Amanda Klimak, Largay's president, said she and a handful of Largay advisors have been beta-testing the tool for 18 months.
"It's been a really great learning experience," Klimak said. "It's so exciting and something that I truly feel is cutting-edge for our industry."
Upchurch said the history of travel advisors closely mirrors that of stockbrokers. Years ago, he said, every stockbroker was called a stockbroker, but some were transactional, and some offered great advice to clients. Today, that cohort goes by the term wealth advisors. The same thing happened with travel advisors, Upchurch said.
"The booking of the travel itself is important," he said, "but it's only a small part of the whole value proposition."
Virtuoso research conducted over the past 15 years has revealed that the No. 1 thing that consumers say differentiates transactional travel agents from travel advisors is the conversation that takes place after a trip. That's when the advisor asks what the client liked, didn't like and what they might do differently. The clients take notice on subsequent trips, recognizing the tweaks an advisor has made based on their feedback. These advisors often form deep friendships with their clients over time.
Wanderlist promises to help deepen those connections and encourage consumers to have more purposeful, conscious travel plans.
It also helps advisors with long-term planning. Upchurch said that as travel is mapped out for years, agents have more time to work on trips and craft personal, original experiences for clients. It also offers an advantage: They can advise clients to change travel plans if, for example, conversion rates to one destination's currency are favorable. That will help deepen loyalty.
Over the course of Wanderlist's beta-testing, Upchurch said, advisors presented the app to clients as one way to work with them. They informed clients that they could use it to collaborate on a trip-by-trip basis or on a long-term basis, and they explained the value proposition of each.
"It really changes the conversation in travel advising to really focus on the larger value of what you guys do," he told the group.
One advisor involved in the beta test even said he won't take on new clients who don't sign up for Wanderlist.
The tool does come at a cost, which advisors pass on to clients.
Jim Bendt, managing director of Wanderlist for Virtuoso, said agents pay tuition for the six-week training course associated with the tool, then pay Virtuoso's net rate each time they sell it to a consumer. The minimum amount advisors can charge consumers is $500, Bendt said, but the end cost is up to the agent. He said he has seen advisors charge consumers anywhere from $750 to $2,500.
Early on, Upchurch said many had knee-jerk reactions to give Wanderlist to clients for free.
"I have very strong feelings about that," Upchurch said. "You should not give this away. This is a professional service that's separate from the booking of travel, and there should be a value to it, so that the process itself has a value to the consumer."
As more advisors start using the tool in the next few years, Upchurch predicted, it could change how advisors and suppliers interact.
"In the not-too-distant future, instead of waiting for the suppliers to tell us what they have on offer, we as a network could say, 'We've got 322 people who want to go dog sledding in the next 18 months,'" he said. "And we go out and find the coolest, best, most exclusive stuff that's out there, and then we basically put it out to you. So our ability to then flip the marketing model could be incredibly powerful."