Forget Internet, hello travel advisers

Mr Matthew D. Upchurch, chief executive of global travel network Virtuoso, on the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe.
Mr Matthew D. Upchurch, chief executive of global travel network Virtuoso, on the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

When it comes to planning his trips, Mr Matthew D. Upchurch, 52, is old-fashioned.

While the Internet might be a mainstay today for making flight and hotel reservations, 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 travellers 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, Texas, and Seattle, where Virtuoso's biggest offices are, he spends upwards of 200 days a year on the road. In the first six weeks of this year alone, he criss-crossed the globe to visit more than 12 cities, including Aucklandand Los Angeles.

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with him.

It's so easy today to use the Internet to make travel plans. Why rely on a travel adviser?

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 travelling. And because of mobility, they can help their clients whenever they need.

Many Virtuoso advisers charge planning fees from US$100 (S$135) to US$250. Why should a traveller pay them?

You're paying for someone's time, expertise and connections and those are invaluable.

And in many cases, the advisers save clients 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. He then sees that it's a Virtuoso property and call his adviser to ask if it can beat the price.

They cannot, but the adviser's Virtuoso rate is only US$15 more a night and includes daily breakfast, US$100 resort credit and an upgrade at time of arrival.

So while the client could have saved US$45 on the "price", the value they get from their adviser is much greater.

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 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 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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Forget Internet, hello travel advisers'. Print Edition | Subscribe