LAS VEGAS — More than 5,200 attendees converged here last week for the annual Virtuoso Travel Week, where they learned about several new initiatives the consortium is undertaking, including a lead-generation program in the form of a consumer hotel-booking tool on Virtuoso.com.
When the tool rolls out in November, consumers will be able to visit Virtuoso.com and book a hotel at the consortium's preferred rate, with amenities. But the booking will immediately go to a Virtuoso travel adviser who is part of a hotel specialist program Virtuoso is creating.
David Kolner, Virtuoso's senior vice president of global member partnerships, said the consortium does not view it as a self-booking tool for consumers.
"We really think of this as adviser-assisted booking and really like a great way to get an adviser," he said. "We're really not letting the consumer book the travel themselves. The travel is always fulfilled by a Virtuoso adviser, and it always comes with the full service of a Virtuoso adviser."
Consumers will have access to Virtuoso's 1,100 preferred hotel rates, amenities and availability on the consortium's website, where any bookings they make will go to a Virtuoso agent via Sabre (Virtuoso will emulate the agency's pseudo-city code, create a passenger name record and send it to an agent).
Once a booking is made, the consumer will not have the ability to modify or cancel it, CEO Matthew Upchurch said. Instead, they will be matched with an agent which will be made clear to the traveler via marketing on the website.
If they have already worked with a Virtuoso adviser, the system will recognize their email address and send the booking to that agent. In order to get bookings and, potentially, new clients via the consumer booking tool, agents will have to first be eligible for Virtuoso's core leads program. In addition, they must sign up for the hotel specialist program, according to Kolner.
The core lead-generation program is complimentary but does have several requirements: an online training course, a completed agent profile on Virtuoso.com, a signed contract detailing their service level commitment and an agreement to share lead data with Virtuoso for conversion tracking purposes.
The hotel specialist program, Kolner said, will come at a cost of $250 per year, and will also likely have a per-lead fee. Those fees are not designed to cover operational costs, he said, but more to ensure agents have a stake in the program. The money will be used to improve services.
Consumer bookings that come through Virtuoso.com will be distributed evenly among the advisers in the hotel specialist program, according to Kolner.
Virtuoso does not have plans to aggressively market the new consumer booking tool because, Kolner said, the consortium feels that the 100,000 or so unique views per month that its website gets are sufficient traffic. Kolner emphasized that Virtuoso itself is not selling travel but is helping agents garner more bookings and, hopefully, clients.
"The travel is always fulfilled by a Virtuoso adviser, and it always comes with the full service of a Virtuoso adviser," he said.
The consortium also announced it is giving members access to significantly more hotel properties through a newly inked partnership with ABC Global Services. These properties will not be available to consumers via Virtuoso.com.
Kolner said the partnership is intended to fill gaps in existing hotel inventory by enabling members to access and book ABC's 40,000 properties.
"We're really thinking of this as an agency service," he said. "It's a distinction we use at Virtuoso to help members optimize their profitability or service to clients."
Kolner said commissions on properties agents book with ABC could potentially be over 10%. While he declined to release exact commission amounts, he did say, "We actually believe we have the highest commission paid to Virtuoso members as compared to any other consortia's contract" with ABC.
The properties will be bookable by agents via a rate code on their GDS.
Marketing is also on the minds of Virtuoso, as the consortium announced all 11,400 member agents will be offered free, personalized versions of Virtuoso.com that will be "a carbon copy of Virtuoso.com" and its resources, Kolner said, but with only one agent's name, logo and contact information.
He said agents who opt in to the service should look to leverage the site through local marketing by sharing pages on social media and sending product pages to clients.
Virtuoso's 2016 sales are up 5.5% year-over-year, Kolner announced. Membership is also expanding via both traditional agencies and newer models, such as Lola, an agency that speaks with customers solely through a chat app and assists agents by using artificial intelligence.
Virtuoso Travel Week spanned three properties this year: the Bellagio, the Vdara and, new this year, the Aria.