Friday, April 17, 2009

Is Virtuoso Hitting a Sour Note?

There have been grumblings within the travel agent world that Virtuoso has become a less attractive option for many of its member travel agents with, it is reported, significant numbers jumping ship to Signature and other consortiums.  (Full disclosure:  I am a member of a "competitor", Ensemble Travel consortium.)

Yesterday Virtuoso announced plans to reorganize its corporate structure, but cutting positions, centralizing operations, etc.  In its statement Virtuoso said, "“Virtuoso has redeployed its resources to focus on the group’s core strengths: increasing sales at a higher yield and providing award-winning, customized marketing to its member agencies.”  

Said another way, increase high profit sales through great marketing.  What does that mean?  Well, Virtuoso has, in the past, created a truly remarkable branding where many of the traveling public believed that, like the American Express Platinum Card Travel Services used to be, the only way to receive the highest quality luxury travel services you had to use their affiliated agencies...and then brag about it.  And, to be sure, Virtuoso does provide quite an array of possible luxury travel extras (at cost...sometimes a great cost) that, when packaged well...as Virtuoso has done...may transform the ordinary to extraordinary.  But just as the Platinum Card has lost much of its luster and its benefits compared to competing products are of less real benefit, it seems that Virtuoso is losing some of its.

As an example, Virtuoso touts it has the best tour operators in Italy, able to provide you with truly fantastic luxury experiences.  As an Ensemble Travel member I was initially a bit jealous of this lofty ability.  But then, after using my operator for a few years, I found out that he...the one that I researched, personally tested out, and initially fed small bits of my business...was exactly the same person.  So I tell my clients that I can provide them with exactly the same quality drivers and guides in Italy for significantly less than a Virtuoso agent.  Why, you might ask?  Because there is no middle man...Virtuoso doesn't get a cut or force the stabilization of higher prices, pay to brand the identical tour, etc.  Said another way, the client receives more value by not using a Virtuoso agent.  (Seriously, do you want to pay for your travel agent to look good or for your travel agent to make your luxury vacation the best it can be?)

And on the other side, the travel agents say, "I am paying Virtuoso how much for what benefits?  I can get the benefits I need either by joining another consortium or going it alone for much less money."  I did seriously consider becoming a Virtuoso agency and a Signature Agency, but I am quite content with Ensemble Travel because it truly provides my agency and my clients everything we need at a much more reasonable price and pricing.

And therein lies the biggest issues with Virtuoso.  In this economy travel agents and clients alike are looking for more value, even when dealing with luxury products.  There are, of course, the issues associated with newer products, better competition, and the like.  And, to be sure, Virtuoso remains an excellent product. 

Remember you need to look behind the marketing...Your travel agent is doing it, shouldn't you?