Panelists look to the future at Valerie Wilson anniversary event

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Panelists, from left: Gary Murphy, AmaWaterways; John Stauss, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts; Randall Soy, Regent Seven Seas Cruises; Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso; and Chuck Imhof, Delta Air Lines.
Panelists, from left: Gary Murphy, AmaWaterways; John Stauss, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts; Randall Soy, Regent Seven Seas Cruises; Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso; and Chuck Imhof, Delta Air Lines. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

NEW YORK -- While acknowledging that various sectors of the industry face challenges in 2017, industry insiders who took part in a panel discussion at Valerie Wilson Travel's 35th anniversary celebration here said they are looking toward the new year with guarded optimism.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, moderated the panel on Thursday during the festivities at the St. Regis New York and kicked it off with a question about how the supplier panelists were looking at the year ahead.

Gary Murphy, vice president of sales and co-owner of AmaWaterways, noted that the months following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris were challenging but said that without similar incidences he would remain optimistic looking toward 2017.

"We're very optimistic if everything stays quiet," he said.

Randall Soy, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, said he sees a bright future, especially for agents.

"This is a resilient business, [with] obviously resilient partners; 2016, like most, had its challenges, its ups and downs," Soy said.

Virtuoso sales are up about 4.6% year over year in 2016, according to CEO Matthew Upchurch, which he said was not bad considering the tumultuous year as a whole. Things like Zika affected sales, but Upchurch repeated a phrase he first uttered a few years ago: "The travel adviser is the hottest new thing that never went away."

It's a good climate for advisers, he said, especially considering that millennials are turning to them in greater numbers.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, moderated the panel
Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, moderated the panel Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

Wetty asked panelists about the challenges facing their respective sectors.

For Regent, Soy said, one of the biggest challenges is finding new customers to experience the brand, including a large number of baby boomers who haven't sailed with the line.

Educating agents about what sets AmaWaterways apart is a challenge, Murphy said. He encouraged advisers to take a cruise with his company and experience the product for themselves to better understand it.

The challenge for Delta is the unknown, something the carrier has tried to build into its business model so it can weather any situation, according to Chuck Imhof, its vice president of New York sales.

From a hotel standpoint, it remains difficult to keep up with the latest trends that luxury travelers have come to expect, according to John Stauss, regional vice president and general manager for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts.

For instance, a luxury traveler might simply decide to replace a slightly dated bathroom at home; it isn't that easy for a hotel. It's a matter of keeping up with change, he said.

Stauss also noted that particular challenge won't go away for hoteliers, it will just accelerate.

Later Thursday morning during a press panel, Wetty and her sister, co-president Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, addressed challenges that agencies face going forward.

From a corporate travel perspective, Wilson-Buttigieg said one of the biggest issue is finding passionate advisers. She also said there is a perception that Valerie Wilson Travel does not utilize technology to its fullest potential. She said that by listing the agency's technology partners on its website, they're trying to better educate clients and potential clients about the technology they do employ.

Finding new talent can also be difficult on the leisure side of the business, Wetty said, but the company has created a mentorship program for new advisers, one she said has been "incredibly successful."

Commission structure is also something that remains top of mind for Wetty. Preferred suppliers currently pay her agency a high commission, but she acknowledged that that could change. She did say that Valerie Wilson Travel charges service fees, something she remains in favor of.

Rate parity also remains a concern for Wetty, as clients often go online to research quotes their agents have given them. To help curb the amount of work agents have to do in researching and explaining costs clients might find online, her agency's leisure team now must include an online rate in quotes to show clients that they have already vetted the quote.

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