At Virtuoso Travel Week, a growing focus on agent communities

Virtuoso held its first Community Globetrotting expo, where agents met with suppliers focused on a particular niche: adventure travel, family travel, cruising or wellness travel.
Virtuoso held its first Community Globetrotting expo, where agents met with suppliers focused on a particular niche: adventure travel, family travel, cruising or wellness travel.

LAS VEGAS -- As it grows, Virtuoso continues to add to its communities, groups of supplier partners and agents interested in travel niches: a family travel community launched this year, and a wellness community launched in 2016.

The communities enable supplier and agent members to share best practices and develop educational and marketing materials. Virtuoso also hosts events built around the communities, such as this year's Virtuoso Community Globetrotting, a fair-style expo, held at last week's Virtuoso Travel Week at the Bellagio.

Communities are not a new idea; groups built around cruise and adventure travel have been in existence for years at Virtuoso. But as the network grows, it is picking up the pace in adding new ones.

"The scale of events and the size of the network has been increasing," said David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships. "We wanted to find a way to retain that small sense of knowing everybody or having a smaller context of people around you."

Since January, Virtuoso has added 1,000 travel advisers, bringing its total number of agent members to 16,000. Kolner largely attributed that growth to the number of independent contractors who are affiliating with Virtuoso agencies.

"[Virtuoso is] a big thing to try and wrap your head around, and especially at events like this, you want a way to break it down into smaller groups that really are meaningful to you," Kolner said.

Travel Week drew a record 5,670 attendees, more than 2,700 of them agents.

Communities appear to be popular with Virtuoso members. For example, VAST, the Virtuoso Active and Specialty Travel community, has 900 year-round agent participants from 24 countries. Its pavilion at this year's Community Globetrotting event drew more than 1,200 agents.

According to Kolner, one of the things advisers find appealing about communities is the fact that they can connect with others who have shared interests, regardless of whether they work for the same agency.

"Seeing those connections around the world is really what inspired us to think more about communities, because these are ways for people to have shared passions," Kolner said.

He said agents learn more, grow their sales and work in a niche that interests them, while a community's portfolio of suppliers, curated by Virtuoso, realizes increased sales.

Bob Simpson, vice president of expedition cruising at Abercrombie & Kent, attended the Community Globetrotting event this year for the first time, representing his company's expedition cruise product.

He said the communities connect suppliers with the agents who would likely be the most interested in their product, an important opportunity considering the sheer number of suppliers and products in the marketplace.

"There are so many different companies, there are so many different products, there are so many different types of products, and this is where I am convinced that these types of agents bring so much value to the table," he said, describing the agents he met as "very engaged."

Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch agreed, comparing communities to a "prism" through which advisers can look at products.

"When you contextualize the product or the partner, it's much easier to absorb and much easier to retain," Upchurch said.

Communities are designed to serve both new and experienced advisers. While members are not stratified into subgroups based on experience, that could be a potential evolution of communities, Kolner said.

With three years of selling travel under her belt, Amy Rectenwald, an agent with Virtuoso agency Largay Travel in Conneaut Lake, Pa., considers herself a newer agent. She said being a member of VAST has been especially valuable to her.

In an industry as large as travel, she said, "you don't know what you don't know." But she said VAST has helped point her to the right suppliers, and she has taken advantage of educational and marketing opportunities.

"It helps me up my game considerably," Rectenwald said.

Wellness and family travel are the most recent communities to be added, but more are to come. A likely addition is sustainability, Upchurch said.

Kolner said to expect more community announcements in 2018.

"At Virtuoso, we say our mission is to increase both the compensation and the personal fulfillment of the frontline travel adviser," Kolner said. "Making more money and getting increased sales is not the only goal for Virtuoso travel advisers. It's that sense of personal fulfillment -- and that's really what communities play into -- that is really giving the adviser the sense of being a part of something bigger than even what they are."


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