Virtuoso gears up as pandemic rebound gains pace

Preferred Partner numbers soar as cruise return gains momentum

Virtuoso has reported improving signs of a recovery in the travel sector this year, buoyed by a strong rebound in hotel city stays, increasing traffic to Europe and growing confidence in the cruise sector.

The global luxury travel network kicked off its 33rd annual Virtuoso Travel Week on Sunday night, with over 3,300 travel professionals from 102 countries participating.

Running through until Friday 13 August, this year’s hybrid function involves nearly 1,500 in-person attendees at Bellagio Resort & Casino, ARIA Resort & Casino and Vdara Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas, joined by over 1,800 remote participants for nearly 82,000 one-to-one networking appointments, along with a roster of professional development sessions by renowned presenters.

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Despite Travel and Tourism industry suffering a US$4.5 trillion loss and 62 million jobs stemming from the pandemic, Virtuoso has managed to ride out what Chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch calls the “mother of all disruptors,” by maintaining a steady membership. After an initial decline of 10% in individual travel advisors worldwide due to the effects of the coronavirus, travel agency members have increased this year by 26.

Virtuoso now has over 20,000 travel advisors in more than 1,200 agency locations, across 50+ countries who generated US$25-30 billion in normalised annual sales.

“The return may not have been as robust as we had all hoped, thanks to restrictions and variants, but when you consider where we were a year ago, there is absolutely progress and forward momentum,” said freshly promoted Vice President, Global Public Relations, Misty Belles.

“However, there’s no denying that the travel industry has suffered over the past 18 months.”

Misty Belles, VP Global Public Relations, Virtuoso | Credit: Robert Stanzione - Las Vegas PEI

In 2019, international visitor spend topped US$1.7 trillion. In 2020, that figure fell by nearly 70%.

“I am happy to say though that the Virtuoso network has remained incredibly stable through this time. We’ve weathered the pandemic better than many others. Now that’s not to say that our agencies, advisors and partners haven’t been impacted, because they absolutely have, and they’re all in various stages of recovery depending on where they’re at, mostly geographically,” Belles said.

As well as agency member growth (across all regions), Virtuoso has expanded its preferred partner portfolio by 10%, now surpassing 2,200 partners.

Bookings levels

Comparing booking levels between the “high watermark for travel” in 2019 versus 2021, Virtuoso indicated a steadying improvement as the year progresses. Whereas booking levels were trailing the January level by more than 82% compared to the same month in 2019, that percentage had fallen to 45% in June.

Source: Virtuoso

Belles said the significant falls in March, April and May coincided with the rollout of vaccines becoming increasingly widespread and consumer confidence gaining momentum. The gap tightened further in June as travel between the US and Europe opened up.

The impact of the Delta variant of COVID-19 was still to be fully measured on Virtuoso’s results in July, but Belles said the yet-to-be finalised figure was “minimal”, at less than 2 per cent off that of the June result.

New business versus refund processing

The second quarter of 2021 showed a stabilisation in refund processing by Virtuoso members. In pre-pandemic years, the average refund rate was 5-6%, but that number surged to nearly 50% in Q2 2020, only dropping to 25% in Q3. The figure has now returned to a mark of around 8-9%.

Source: Virtuoso, Virtuoso Reports database, 2018-2021

Virtuoso reported strong growth across three key travel sectors – Cruise, Hotel and Tour – between 2020 and 2021, with hotel bookings skyrocketing from a 60% fall to a 122% increase, and cruising jumping from a slump of 69% in 2020, to a positive recovery of 20% in 2021, and 79% coming into 2022, Belles said.

Bookings for city hotels are up a whopping 233% since January 2021.

Business sentiment

Agency advisors and partners were gauged as to when they anticipated feeling comfortable/confident about their businesses, about half of which said they are confident now or will be by the end of 2021, while 40% said they would be more confident in 2022. However the level of confidence has improved since they were asked the same question in January of this year.

Travel trends

Belles offered insight into travel trends this northern summer, between now and a year ago.

“Last year travellers were flocking to those wide-open spaces, the National Parks did very very well and now we’re seeing a return to city stays. Self-care and wellness retreats were really what led the way, but now adventure travel is having a resurgence. Cruising which was non-existent in 2020 is coming back and showing momentum.”

“People spent last summer exploring their own backyard, really their local surroundings, but as soon as Europe opened up this year they were back to exploring Europe. And up until a few weeks ago, space travel was a mere dream.”

Source: Virtuoso

Where people are travelling, desire to travel and their experiences

Europe was by far the most popular international destination for Virtuoso clients this summer with Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Portugal and the UK all in the top 10. Other top picks were Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and the Bahamas.

A flash poll to determine what was the motivation for recent Virtuoso travellers, and their comfort level while travelling, found 64% said the experience was different to pre-pandemic times, while 54% said they were concerned about the changes in service level, especially at luxury hotels. Belles said staffing continues to prove to be a “challenge” across all service sectors in the hospitality industry due to coronavirus.

Dream holidays have shifted from self-care to personal enjoyment, with results from another flash poll showing that more than 70% would prefer a food and wine experience over a wellness escape.

Top international dream destinations highlighted on Virtuoso’s Wanderlist platform also highlighted a strong desire for countries including Japan, Ireland, Australia, Scotland and Mexico.

Cruising confidence has continued to build. Quizzed in a flash poll on whether they would cruise right now, only 26% said yes in September 2020. That number jumped to 41% in January and increased to 46% in June.

Source: Virtuoso

When people will travel next

Another poll conducted on 30 July gauged traveller preference as to when they would be looking to travel again, with nearly one-fifth (18%) saying they would travel within the next month, over one-quarter (27%) saying they would travel within the 1 to 3 months, the majority (39%) within 6-12 months and 10% suggesting they aren’t willing to travel for at least the next 12 months.

Source: Virtuoso

Sustainability front-of-mind

“One thing we do know is that people intend to travel with purpose. 82% said the pandemic has made them want to travel more responsibly in the future. 78% said it’s important to choose travel companies that have a strong sustainability policy,” Belles said.

Seventy percent agreed that travelling sustainably actually enhanced their experience.

All of this leads to what Virtuoso’s Vice Chair and Sustainability Strategist, Jessica Hall Upchurch, calls the ‘conscious comeback’ and it supports Virtuosos long-standing mission which is to make sustainability a greater factor in consumer choice, reaffirming that travel is a force for good.

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