Travel industry loses a luminary with the passing of Virtuoso co-founder Jesse Upchurch

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Virtuoso® has reported death of former chairman Jesse Upchurch on February 26. Upchurch was the visionary leader who not only helped found one of luxury travel’s most successful organisations, but left an indelible mark on the broader travel industry, changing the way many experience destinations from Mexico to Africa to India. Upchurch, 93, who co-founded Virtuoso in 1986 with his son, current chairman and CEO Matthew D. Upchurch, relished a career in travel that spanned more than 50 years.

“My father was a pioneer in this business, and I am forever grateful that he introduced me to the world and this industry at such an early age,” said Matthew Upchurch. “He had a nose for knowing what the luxury traveller wanted, and it wasn’t necessarily the traditional refinement found in five-star hotels or transatlantic cruise liners. He knew the world offered more than that. His insatiable curiosity about the unknown, his passion for other people and their cultures, and his tendency to question conventional wisdom with a simple ‘why not?’ opened the door for others to experience countries that were not considered tourism-friendly yet. He left his mark on this industry that he loved so much.”

The elder Upchurch’s entry into the travel industry began when he invested in Vagabond Cruises, a yacht-chartering company in the Caribbean’s West Indies islands. Realising a market existed for both adventure and luxury travel, he turned his attention to Mexico, building the first timeshare resort in Acapulco and purchasing Turismo Antonio Perez and Hoteles S.A. de S.V., a travel company and international hotel representation group.

After purchasing Percival Tours in 1962, Upchurch expanded operations into more exotic locales such as the South Pacific and Asia, quickly augmenting beyond more traditional European destinations. As chairman and CEO of Percival Tours, he opened up tourism in markets previously considered only for the most intrepid traveller, such as Africa and India. Understanding the luxury consumer’s mindset, he introduced the first air-conditioned motor coaches so that his upscale guests could tour the areas in comfort.

A founding member of World Wildlife Fund’s 1001 Club, Upchurch was an ardent supporter of conservation. In an effort to help protect the endangered Rothschild giraffes, he bought land in Kenya and donated it to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife for what is now known as the grounds surrounding Giraffe Manor.
Upchurch was also a co-founder of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, where he served as chairman, CEO and president. He also held the chairmanship of the African Travel Association. Travel Weekly recognised him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

Outside of travel he held the chairmanship of the Executive Committee of Tandy Corporation for decades and was inducted into the United States Polo Association’s Hall of Fame.

In 2000, Matthew Upchurch was named CEO of Virtuoso and he assumed the role of chairman in 2010.

The family will honour Jesse Upchurch’s memory privately, and celebrations of his life in various communities will take place in the months ahead. Details for in-memoriam gifts will follow soon.

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