Just off a tailwind-backed 13-hour flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Sydney, Matthew Upchurch, CEO and Chairman of Virtuoso sat down exclusively with LATTE yesterday [Thursday 1 February 2024] to share his enthusiasm to be able to celebrate the luxury travel network’s 20th anniversary in Australia.
Virtuoso launched in Australia on 29 January 2004, and a schedule realignment enabled Upchurch to be able to attend a celebration in the flesh on picture-postcard day on Sydney Harbour today. More from that event here.
In his only travel trade 1-on-1 interview, Upchurch said “the Australian market is what really made Virtuoso a truly global company.”
Before establishing its presence in Australia, Virtuoso had expanded outside the United States to Latin America in Mexico and Brazil, but it was extending Virtuoso’s reach a couple of years later across the Pacific that Upchurch says propelled the business forward with its foreign market strategy.
Australia was Virtuoso’s first international destination to have a regional member advisory board, Upchurch explained.
“It was Australia that allowed us to change the whole model and build teams. We had member relations people in other countries but it was here that we first started building a full complementary team, so that a lot of the functions – events, marketing, partner relations, etc – were based here.”
“The evolution of coming to Australia all these years has been amazing.”
The launch agency in Australia was Mary Rossi Travel on Sydney’s North Shore. In its first year, Virtuoso had around five member agencies. By 2010 there were some 20 members in Australia and New Zealand, and today the number stands at 60 with the latest addition being Jacinta Blundell and her agency, Caboolture Cruise & Travel in Queensland.
Before broadening Virtuoso’s reach to Australia, Upchurch revealed the network had held preliminary discussions with potential partners in the UK, however “they kind of didn’t take to it”.
“Whereas when we came here, there was a lot of excitement for doing something different and resonating, so the original members were all in.”
“When we launched here I always felt like it was a partnership with the members.”
“It was this market that really helped us re-imagine what it was to be a global company and I’m very grateful for the Australian and New Zealand nature of being kind, but direct, which made us better.
“The members here could see the potential of this market and so a lot of the innovations we did abroad were born here, and it put a lot of pressure on the US organisation to be able to not building something that was just built for the US and see if it fits, but really opened up the opportunity for the businesses’ support and product areas to look at things from a different perspective.”
An example of that is the first Virtuoso Magazine produced outside of the US was for the Australian market.
Other innovations for the network that pioneered in Australia and are now rolling out across the group include the Regional Partnerships Program, which is a stepping stone to full membership for travel partners.
Fiona Dalton, General Manager AU/NZ said, “We do think of ourselves as a bit of an incubator ground, because we can test and learn here, and Matthew’s been very gracious in allowing us to do that here. And if somethings not working, we move on, but this is a marketplace that has been hungry for innovation.”
Questioned how the luxury traveller has changed in the past 20 years since the first Australian Virtuoso agencies came online, Upchurch said it in one word. “Diverse”.
“Number one, the diversity of the luxury traveller. One of the reasons travel is doing so well is that every major disruption in the world – certainly since I’ve been alive – has only made travel more valuable.”
More from Upchurch next week in LATTE.