An Interview with Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch

By Paul Joseph

The travel industry was rocked recently by the closure of Thomas Cook, and many responded to the news by pointing to the rise of the internet as the cause of the grand old company’s demise.

Yet across the upper echelons of the travel sector, where more affluent tavellers seek unique experiences delivered through bespoke and personalised customer service, are a handful of companies proving it is still possible to thrive amid the digital revolution.

Among them is Virtuoso, a by-invitation-only network specialising in luxury and experiential travel. We caught up with Virtuoso Chairman and CEO, Matthew Upchurch, to learn more about the values underpinning its success, and hear his thoughts on the broader state of the luxury travel industry. Can you start by giving us a brief background to Virtuoso as a company and the services you provide?

Matthew D. Upchurch: Virtuoso specialise in luxury and experiential travel and we emphasise the experiential aspect because, while we tend to work with the upper end of the market, luxury is very personal and the word itself has become diluted. Experiential gets to the heart of what we do best, which is providing clients with unforgettable, transformative experiences throughout their travels.

“Within our network are affiliated travel agencies, which we call “members,” and their advisors, our preferred partners, and the clients who travel with us. Globally, Virtuoso has more than 1,000 agency locations across 50 countries with a salesforce of 20,000 travel advisors.

“At its core, though, Virtuoso is a network based on relationships and it’s the human connection between these two entities that really sets us apart from all the myriad ways someone can plan and book their holidays. We provide support that brings our advisors closer to their clients and, ultimately, we ensure we have partnerships that allow travellers to connect with the destinations they’re visiting on a more human level.”

What has your journey been in terms of developing such a comprehensive network across the luxury travel industry – how did you achieve this?

Well, if you’d told me in my 20s that I would be hanging out with travel advisors 30-plus years later, I wouldn’t have believed you, but here we are. It’s been an incredible journey that all started when my family bought two companies – Percival Tours and a co-op of US-based travel agencies called Allied Travel. In 1986 we merged those two companies together, and that became the basis of the modern-day Virtuoso network.

“Quite honestly, the growth trajectory has surprised even me. When the online travel agencies first came up in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the pundits all projected that travel agents would become obsolete. Even Bill Gates said you can throw away your travel agent’s number because Expedia would replace them. If we had bought in to that belief, we wouldn’t be here today. When faced with adversity, though, you have two choices and ours was to double-down on our value proposition to the client: provide anticipatory service, unique experiences and treat people as human beings, which was never going to happen online.”

What are some of the most unique or unusual travel adventures and experiences you have curated for clients?

We used to say we specialise in the things you can’t Google. That doesn’t work anymore because you can Google anything. Now we say we specialise in the things you didn’t know you could even ask for because creating something unique and personal for the traveler, something that speaks to their passions, is really where this network shines. These incredible experiences can range from a private opera performance in the Sistine Chapel after hours, to joining in an active archeological dig in Marathon, to not just seeing a Broadway play or meeting the cast afterward, but actually taking part in the production.”

Do you have any connection within the superyacht industry, and if so, what have been your operations and experiences in this sector?

Within Virtuoso, we have something we call “Communities,” which are really subsets of our partners and travel advisors who cater to a specific travel niche. Earlier this year, we launched our “Ultraluxe” community, which caters to travelers seeking experiences at the highest levels of luxury, including superyachts, private islands, private jets and anything else for exclusive use. We have relationships with companies servicing private yacht charters as well as trusted brands that have entered the yacht space, such The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection and Crystal Cruises, as well as individual vessels such as the Satori Yacht by Borgo Santo Pietro.”

How would you say the demands of luxury travelers have evolved in recent times and how can we expect them to change in the future?

There is no longer a ‘traditional’ luxury market due to an evolution in consumer expectations, which now leaves the concept of luxury open to interpretation. Luxury used to mean gilded ceilings and thread counts. Now it’s about catering to the traveler’s individual needs and tastes, making sure the experience doesn’t feel contrived and is unique enough that it leaves an imprint on the memory. It’s that desire to create lifelong memories that’s driving a movement towards more purposeful travel planning.

“This year we announced a new consultative process called Wanderlist. Wanderlist was created to help people plan with forethought to maximise their most valuable non-renewable asset: their leisure time. It provides insight and inspiration in a fun and engaging way. More importantly, though, it engenders conversations amongst friends, families, anyone who is a travel companion, and is essentially the gamification of travel dreams.

“Family first continues to be front and center in luxury travel, and another trend that warms our hearts is the growth of “skip gen,” where grandparents take their grandkids away while leaving parents behind. The driving force behind it are the Baby Boomers, who are the first generation where the majority are expected to live an additional 20-25 years, or an entire generation, after they hit 60. This Longevity Revolution has never happened before and it’s changing the industry in a number of ways.

The environment is obviously a hot topic right now – what efforts do Virtuoso make when it comes to sustainability?

“At Virtuoso, we support three pillars of sustainability: to preserve natural and cultural heritage, protect and enhance the environment, and benefit local economies. We’ve made a commitment to make sustainability a greater factor in consumer choice when traveling and to help those making travel a force for good be more successful, thus creating a virtuous cycle. For the traveler, the fact that the experience is elevated because it supports natural environments, celebrates cultures and enhances local economies, rather than occurring at the expense of them, is a concept that resonates and only continues to strengthen.”

It’s been well-reported that you are signed up to be one of the first Virgin Galactic passengers to fly to space – what inspired you to do this, what is expected time frame for the big trip, and how are you feeling about it?

Let’s start with how I feel about it, which is pretty darn excited. I am considered a ‘Founder Astronaut’, meaning I’ll be among the first 84 passengers to experience a flight. It will all be done by lottery once Sir Richard Branson and his family have taken the inaugural flight, so it remains to be seen where I’ll be in the line-up.

“As for what inspired me, I was never a space fanatic or a thrill-seeker. I love travel because it takes you out of your comfort zone, opens your mind, and helps you grow as a person. Seeing things from a new perspective is my motivation and everyone who has been to space has says it is life-changing. That’s how I feel about all travel, but this is the ultimate.  Being, even briefly, decoupled from spaceship Earth is humbling and reminds us we are all in this together.”

By Paul Joseph