By Shivani Vora, The New York Times
When it comes to planning his trips, whether for business or pleasure, Matthew D. Upchurch, 52, is old-fashioned. While the Internet might be a mainstay today for making flight and hotel reservations, Mr. Upchurch, the chairman and chief executive of Virtuoso, a global luxury network of travel advisers and more than 1,700 hotels, cruise lines and tour operators, says he believes there is nothing like the human touch. To that end, he encourages travelers to develop a relationship with one of the brand’s 9,000 advisers and rely on that person to create and manage their itineraries.
He knows from experience. Although he divides his time between Fort Worth and Seattle, where Virtuoso’s biggest offices are, he spends upward of 200 days a year on the road. In the first six weeks of 2015 alone he crisscrossed the globe to visit more than 12 cities, including Orlando, Fla.; Auckland, New Zealand; Rio de Janeiro; and Los Angeles.
Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Upchurch.
Q. It’s so easy today to use the Internet to make travel plans. Why rely on a travel adviser?
A. Your most valuable asset is your leisure time, and once it’s lost, there’s no making it back. Why would you trust that to chance by booking online? Because as we all know, with travel it’s not about if something will go wrong, it’s when.
Working with a knowledgeable adviser gets you advice, creativity and advocacy; those things are hard to come by online.
How are advisers different today from what they were a decade ago?
Social media and mobility have boosted our profession. Advisers are no longer tied to a desk; they’re out traveling. They’re exploring the world and posting it on social media and enhancing their own credibility by actually being out there. And because of mobility, they have the ability to help their clients whenever they need.
Many Virtuoso advisers charge planning fees from $100 to $250. Why should a traveler pay them?
You’re paying for someone’s time, expertise and connections, and that is invaluable. And in many cases, these advisers actually do save clients either real dollars or provide them with greater value.
Here is an example: A client finds a “great” weekend rate at a luxury casino hotel in Vegas and books it. They then see that it’s a Virtuoso property and call their adviser to ask if they can beat the price. They cannot, but the adviser’s Virtuoso rate is only $15 more per night and includes daily breakfast, $100 resort credit and an upgrade at time of arrival. So while the client could have saved $45 on the “price,” the value they receive from their adviser is much greater.
You spend most of your time traveling. Do you have a favorite destination?
Africa is one. They say “You leave Africa, but it never leaves you,” and it’s true. It’s a place that touches your soul and stays with you. My father owned safari lodges in Botswana when I was growing up so I used to and still go frequently, not only there but also to other countries including Kenya and Tanzania. The nature and animals are magnificent as you would expect, but so are the smiles of the people.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I’ve been blessed to have many, including canoeing down the Zambezi amid hippos and getting married on North Island in the Seychelles, to dressing up as a giant green parrot and dancing the samba in the 2013 carnival parade in Rio. My most beloved experiences, though, are the ones I’ve shared with my family, so today I’d have to say it was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with them this past November at the Kempinski Adlon Hotel as the “wall of balloons” came down, and my children experienced a piece of history they will remember for a lifetime.
Any wisdom you can share from all your time on the road?
If you can, carry on or ship your bags. You will not believe the freedom you feel not waiting alongside a baggage carousel.