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Sunday,  May 26, 2024 4:54 PM 

On Location: “Huge opportunities”: Growing Virtuoso Canada brings talent, strategy to Vegas

On Location: “Huge opportunities”: Growing Virtuoso Canada brings talent, strategy to Vegas
PAX was on the scene at this year's Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Virtuoso/Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

You could say the job started with “mon dieu!”

When Úna O’Leary joined Virtuoso as general manager for Canada back in September 2021, she was surprised to learn that French-speaking members were unable to access key company resources that reflected their spoken language.

At the time, Virtuoso, after years of being managed in the United States, didn’t have bilingual infrastructure in place to properly represent Canada's two official languages.

All of Virtuoso’s core training was written in English, so French-speaking advisors had no choice but to try and make sense of it all.

Úna O’Leary, general manager of Virtuoso Canada. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

And so, one of the first things O'Leary did upon joining the company was give Virtuoso’s resources a linguistic refresh, ordering for the immediate translation of training modules into French so members – primarily in Quebec – were set up for success.

French-speaking agents applauded the move, and love for the newly-translated materials was expressed beyond La Belle Province. Others in Virtuoso’s global network of some 21,000 luxury travel advisors, in locations such as Europe, embraced it also.

But for O'Leary, a former CWT executive, bilingualism was just one piece of an ambitious plan to create a more inclusive, Canada-focused Virtuoso that offers greater benefits not only to members, but to partners as well.

All about who you know

This strategy was in full motion last week in Las Vegas, Nevada at Virtuoso Travel Week, where the crème de la crème of luxury travel gathered for a go-go-go week of meetings, workshops, speaker sessions and big-budget parties where deals get done on the dancefloor.

Spanning the Aria, Vdara and Bellagio resorts, Virtuoso Travel Week, this year, welcomed more than 5,000 advisors and suppliers, and embedded within the hustle and bustle of it all was one growing segment of participants: Virtuosos from Canada.   

More than 5,000 luxury travel pros attended Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

“We’ve really seen an increase in Canadians attending,” said O'Leary, speaking to PAX at the conference, which is sometimes referred to as The Fashion Week of Travel. “The great thing about this conference is that it really connects people.”

READ MORE: On Location: Will demand for luxury travel last? Pros share trends, insights at Virtuoso Travel Week

Which is what it’s all about. “At Virtuoso, it's not necessarily about what you know, but who you know,” O'Leary explained.

Virtuoso’s network in Canada has 24 members, totalling 1,800 advisors, and while that may seem small, the high level of expertise, influence and sales production each advisor brings to the table is significant.

Úna O’Leary, general manager of Virtuoso Canada, spotted at Virtuoso Travel Week 2023 in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

Virtuoso-certified advisors undergo extensive training to serve their clientele, which, collectively, can be summed up as a global gold mine of high-net-worth, discerning individuals.  

The consortium equips members with marketing tools, invites to exclusive events, and access to the world’s most luxurious hotels and suppliers, which, in turn, shower clients with exclusive perks (such as complimentary breakfast, champagne or late check-out privileges at hotels) when travel is booked through a Virtuoso advisor.

READ MORE: Virtuoso honours best cruise lines of 2023

It’s a network focused on quality, not quantity – a motto that, from day one, has informed O'Leary and her mission to establish new partnerships, create brand awareness and mould Virtuoso into a Canada-focused entity, built on local expertise.

Luxury, through a Canadian lens

The turning point was in 2021 when Virtuoso regionalized, hiring general managers in select territories around the world, giving Canada, under O'Leary’s leadership, more autonomy.   

The move injected some much-needed local flavour into the Canadian Virtuoso space. Previously, Canada was lumped in with the U.S., and as a result, products and strategies didn’t always align.

Vancouver-based Virtuoso advisor Kemi Wells of Wells Luxury Travel remembers those days well.  

Years before the restructuring, Wells, alongside advisors Wendy Davis in Toronto and Samuel Spencer in Calgary, ran an unofficial Canadian board to ensure the needs of Virtuoso advisors in Canada were being met.

“We were speaking up on behalf of the Canadians…we did it out of passion,” Wells told PAX.

From left: Úna O’Leary, GM, Virtuoso Canada; Kemi Wells, founder, Wells Luxury Travel. (Virtuoso/supplied)

Because marketing travel in Canada, through a U.S. lens, doesn’t always work. Canadians, driven by seasonality and all-inclusive vacations, don't always travel like Americans do. There are airport, lift and currency differences between the two countries, and even within Canada, the way someone in Alberta travels may not be the same as someone in Nova Scotia.

What Virtuoso’s Canadian advisors lacked was regional relevancy, which is why separating from the U.S., operationally, was so significant. It gave advisors a voice.

“It’s incredible,” said Wells, a member of Virtuoso’s global advisory board, commenting on Virtuoso’s newly-established Canadian team. 

And that team, since O'Leary’s hiring, is growing.

“We now have coast-to-coast support,” O'Leary pointed out, listing off the professionals she’s hired in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax in nearly two years.

There’s Augustine Kwong, overseeing member relationships, in Vancouver; James Allen, account manager and member relations, in Montreal, also overseeing Ontario East; Anna Judek, director of marketing; Ryan Fraser, marketing and events, in Halifax; and Montreal-based Aaron Smith, an operations coordinator.

And two more hires are on the way: in partner relations, Andy Clark will become an account manager on Aug. 22, while Nick Roberti will join the team as an account director on Sept. 11.

Nick Roberti (left) and Andy Clark are joining the Virtuoso Canada team. (Supplied)

“We're looking to understand what advisors are selling so we can support our partners and be more strategic,” O'Leary said. “It’s about supporting members and making sure we’re putting the right product forward.”

READ MORE: Virtuoso Canada grows team, welcomes Nick Roberti & Andy Clark

Having a dedicated team in Canada is something luxury advisor Wendy Davis of Zebrano Travel appreciates.

“It’s important we have people who understand this market,” said Davis, who sits on Virtuoso’s hotel committee. “There's more regulation [in Canada]. There are things we have to work together on, such as issues with TICO [in Ontario].” 

Wendy Davis of Zebrano Travel spotted at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

And the more Virtuoso is promoted in Canada, the better, added Davis, noting how word of mouth is “how we get most of our clients.”

“There are huge opportunities,” she said. “Clients hear about [Virtuoso advisors] from other people.”

“The ungoogleable”

Virtuoso’s Canadian Regional Advisory Board met up at Virtuoso Travel Week to exchange intel that, each month, is shared with other regional committees that have been established around the world.

It’s a global collaboration that shapes Virtuoso’s direction and decisions.

 From left (top): Michael Londregan, SVP, global operations, Virtuoso; Liz Fleming, RMAB – technology committee, North South Travel; Aaron Levine, RMAB – destination & experiences committee; Voyages Laurier du Vallon; Wendy Davis, RMAB – hotel committee, Zebrano Travel; Brent Coate, RMAB - air/auto/insurance committee, North South Travel; Lynda Breakey, RMAB – events committee, Maritime Travel; Samuel Spencer, RMAB – cruise committee, vice chair, Ocean & River Cruises Travel; bottom, from left – Meredith Burbidge; RMAB – marketing committee, Direct Travel; Úna O'Leary, GM, Canada, Virtuoso; Kemi Wells, GMAB member, Wells Luxury Travel. (Supplied/Virtuoso) (Supplied/Virtuoso)

As for Virtuoso Canada’s membership base, O'Leary says she isn’t necessarily trying to increase the number of luxury advisors in Canada, but to grow things organically to “help our advisors, and preferred partners, come together to support each other.”

After all, there’s some exclusivity attached to being a Virtuoso advisor. The consortium doesn’t accept just anyone into the club.

Virtuoso’s Canadian Regional Advisory Board gathers at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Virtuoso/supplied)

Advisors have to be the right fit – in a “So Virtuoso” kind of way, to borrow a line from the organization’s global campaign, which highlights the value of Virtuoso’s advisors and partners.

“It’s the ungoogleable,” O'Leary said, putting Virtuoso’s skilled advisors, upscale partners and bespoke service into words. “Our advisors bring that Virtuoso difference.”

Canada’s got talent

Spotted representing Canada at Virtuoso Travel Week in Vegas this year was Trevello Travel Group, TTI Travel, Vision/Direct Travel, Maritime Travel, and other independent agencies.

Toronto-based Jamsheed Pocha, co-founder of The Pelican Club, a travel concierge specializing in luxury experiences, appeared on a panel to discuss the latest industry trends, including the importance of charging fees.

Jamsheed Pocha, co-founder, The Pelican Club. (Pax Global Media)

“It’s important that we charge fees for what we do, and it’s important we add value,” Pocha said. “There’s the question mark that comes in for the client – is there enough added value to pay for this service? You can go for $100 on and become a member and get perks at a hotel. But can you get the inside knowledge that we have? Can you be treated like a VIP when you arrive at a destination? Can you get all the little aspects we handle for you travel wise, whether it’s cars or spa treatments or experiences or thinking beyond just reservations?”

From left (of Trevello Travel Group): Zeina Gedeon, CEO; Susan Lawson, national director of sales & training. (Pax Global Media)

From left: Julie Skinner​, VP, leisure sales & operations, Vision/Direct Travel; Carolyn Kremer​, senior leisure advisor & destination specialist, Direct Travel. (Pax Global Media)

Newly-certified advisors from Transat Distribution Canada (TDC), which joined Virtuoso in 2022, were also spotted on the scene, upping the week’s CanCon.

Advisors from TDC double as “LuxeXperts” – a certification that TDC travel consultants must complete in order to qualify for Virtuoso status.

TDC’s LuxeXpert program, which launched in 2021, teaches advisors how to effectively sell luxury travel and navigate the marketplace.

From left: Marc Pelletier, senior director of marketing, communications & events, TDC; Sandra Wesson, director of product & industry relations, TDC; Matthew Upchurch, CEO, Virtuoso; Barry Davis, LuxeXperts Calgary; Oshelia Hong, LuxeXperts Ladner; Debbie Seed, LuxeXperts Maple Ridge. (Supplied/Sandra Wesson)

One thing Debbie Seed of LuxeXperts Maple Ridge, B.C. appreciated about Virtuoso’s conference, which she was attending for the first time, was discovering luxury hotels “I never knew existed.”

Seed became a Virtuoso advisor in March of 2022 and has already unlocked exclusive benefits for her clients.

“I had a family travel to Europe, and through Virtuoso, I found nice freebies for them that were pleasant surprises, such as a beautiful shopping experience that included champagne and macaroons,” Seed told PAX at the event.

From left: Debbie Seed, LuxeXperts Maple Ridge; Oshelia Hong, LuxeXperts Ladner. (Pax Global Media)

She said having both the LuxeXpert and Virtuoso tags attached to her name “really opens up a lot of doors.” 

Also attending Virtuoso for the first time was Oshelia Hong of LuxeXperts Ladner based in Delta, B.C.

She praised the week for introducing her to private jet experiences, as well as luxury-focused partners, like Quark Expeditions and Abercrombie & Kent, which “are perfect for my clients.”

Marc Pelletier, senior director of marketing, communications and events at TDC, said the LuxeXpert program has been “going really well.”

He said the next step will be to elevate the brand further to consumers.

“Luxury is a market we want to cater to, and being part of Virtuoso makes it more concrete,” Pelletier told PAX at the conference.  

From left: Ryan McElroy, CEO/co-founder, Travel Agency Tribes; Sonya Orr, TTI Travel. (Pax Global Media)

“What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas”

For Sheila Gallant-Halloran, owner of Lush Life Travel (an affiliate of Vision/Direct Travel), it was her eleventh time attending Virtuoso Travel Week in person and 13th conference in total (she attended two virtually during the pandemic). 

“The whole week is wonderful, but my favourite part is Saturday’s ‘Globetrotting,’ which involves visiting supplier partners in elaborately-designed booths, organized by pavilion for adventure, cruise, wellness, family and celebration, and ultraluxe travel,” Gallant-Halloran said.

Sheila Gallant-Halloran (left) meets with Ron Lonsdale, Canadian director of strategic partnerships at Collette. (Supplied)

And the Toronto-based travel pro got her steps in – between Monday and Thursday last week, Gallant-Halloran attended 26 six-minute “speed dating” meetings each day, 10 ten-minute matched appointments, as well as additional meetings with suppliers in booths at the “Cruise Café” and “Preferred Partner Lounge.”

That doesn’t even include each day’s luncheons, dinners, cocktails and afterparties.

She said the event both acknowledges sales accomplishments (last year, Gallant-Halloran was honoured for being a top Wellness advisor) and helps advisors make important connections.  

This year, Gallant-Halloran met with top executives from AmaWaterways and Uniworld, the latter of whom she is working with to build a women’s-themed cruise that will also cater to solo female travellers.

From left: Michelle Palma, EVP, sales, North America, Uniworld; Sheila Gallant-Halloran, owner, Lush Life Travel; Ellen Bettridge, president & CEO, Uniworld. (Supplied)

“Virtuoso Travel Week is where serious work intersects with fun while building relationships,” Gallant-Halloran told PAX. “What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.”

Meanwhile, Virtuoso’s growing team in Canada, with its monthly sales updates and business development channels, is a “huge bonus to us,” Gallant-Halloran said.

Canada loves luxury

Vancouver-based Shane Buksh, director of national accounts for North America at Seabourn, said he sees more advisors finding success in Canada’s growing luxury segment.

“Canadians have an affinity for luxury, whereas in the past, we thought it was just sun packages and contemporary cruises,” Buksh told PAX last Tuesday (Aug. 15) at the Cosmopolitan, where Seabourn and Princess hosted Virtuoso’s electric “Culture Club” party, which featured culinary and entertainment activations inspired by destinations from around the globe.  

Shane Buksh, director of national accounts, North America, Seabourn. (Pax Global Media)

“There are Canadian advisors finding clients who are spending a lot of money on ships and travelling the world,” Buksh said.

Buksh praised Virtuoso Canada for not only giving travel advisors in Canada “a voice,” but for also helping facilitate connections through its luxury-focused events.

“It’s important,” he said.

Virtuoso's Culture Club party at the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

“Super excited for 2024”

Up next for Virtuoso will be its first Canadian Forum, taking place Oct. 4-5 in Vancouver, followed by seven “Connect” events across Canada, involving 8-12 preferred partners and 30 to 40 advisors in intimate settings, through to November.

A Chairman’s event in Taormina (Sicily), Italy, will also take place Oct. 23-27. This will welcome top-performing agencies around the world, including six from Canada. 

Next year will then see Virtuoso “On Tour” events unfold in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

“We're super excited for 2024,” O'Leary said. “We're excited to help our partners, members, advisors and ultimately, Canadian travellers, have the best ‘So Virtuoso’ experience as possible.”

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