Editorial note: Barbara Joseph is Senior Manager, Business Development at Virtuoso, a network of the best luxury travel agencies with more than 17,500 advisors worldwide. Barbara leads Virtuoso’s startup incubator, which partners with Voyager HQ to source high-quality travel technology startups to participate in the program.
Even on the industry side, many still associate travel advisors with the traditional image: a headset-clad travel agent, perhaps typing on a massive desktop computer in a storefront agency, surrounded by posters of faraway beaches.
On the contrary, the current reality is quite a departure from the agents of travel’s past: today’s advisors are modern professionals who collaborate with their clients to create customized trips. They represent a large portion of the market, using a variety of technology tools to improve their clients’ travel experiences — before, during and even after the actual trip. They also may be your startup’s secret weapon.
The travel advisor sector is thriving: 68% of advisors reported revenue increases in 2017, driven by the 19% of American travelers that have used travel advisors (per MMGY). This vibrant sector is ripe for ideas and innovation driven by a new crop of emerging startups.
To leverage advisor expertise to run startups, build products, and understand the market opportunities, founders can lean on travel advisors for guidance and real-world insight on both product and process.
Product: Leveraging insider expertise
Travel advisors not only serve as your potential core audience, but they are also knowledgeable insiders with the expertise to products better. By providing feedback, travel advisors can help technology companies to identify problems and iterate their product until it reaches the best possible solution, leading to better solutions for an entire industry.
Travel advisors manage a steady stream of experiences across the spectrum of travel styles, preferences, and budgets. Startups serving the travel advisor community or creating a product related to travel advising can benefit immensely from these perspectives.
The 17,500 advisors of Virtuoso, the world’s leading luxury and experiential travel network, booked $23.7 billion in travel in 2017 across 50 countries. That’s a revenue increase of 12% from the previous year, showing how advisors represent a sizable and growing share of today’s travel industry.
Figures such as these show how significant travel advisors have become. As travelers now struggle to make sense of the endless choices the internet presents, human advisors have retaken their place as trusted allies across the travel value chain.
Operation-oriented startups should consider the function of the travel advisor to understand how best to serve the advisor community, and along with it, the large numbers of travelers that are seeking human-driven personalization to create a better travel experience.
By blending the latest technology with extensive expertise, travel advisors provide the best bespoke service to clients across all markets, generations, and geographies. Developing technology alongside travel advisors enables tech founders to tailor their tools to better meet market needs.
Process: Understanding the role of intermediaries
The process of human-driven personalization informs a modern approach to intermediaries in travel. While disintermediation has transferred some travel components to online travel agencies, there’s a shift underway that prioritizes personalization over simple connectivity. In other words, with much of the world’s travel inventory now available online, the current industry challenge is to match inventory to the right traveler. That’s one of the things travel advisors do best, giving them a competitive advantage. They can plan for all the details, both large and small, or they can simply validate decisions for those who like to conduct their own research.
While technology plays a role in making these matches, travel advisors represent a perfect example of technology/human duality. The most successful advisors blend technology with a personal touch to craft a travel experience that no OTA can replicate. Though OTAs may dominate leisure air and hotel bookings, sales from travel advisors now represent 68% of total sales of traditional tours and packages. And it should be noted that in the luxury space, the consumer is more prone to book high-ticket items with an actual human, a trusted advisor.
Given the scope and scale of the travel advisor’s network, there’s a deep understanding of the role of an intermediary. From contracts to loyalty to marketing, the travel advisor’s centralized role can provide startup founders with a wholly unique perspective on the inner workings of travel.
Virtuoso Incubator: Bringing it together
The benefits of product and process come together through Virtuoso Incubator, the industry’s first formal program aimed at fostering new technology and innovation for the travel advisor community. Incubator helps emerging technology companies refine their products through real-world testing and advisor feedback.
Participating companies receive a dedicated panel of Virtuoso advisors to provide input on product development to better suit the needs of travel advisors and their clients. At the conclusion of the program, participating startups are considered for full partnership in the Virtuoso network. 2017 program participant TravelContact is an example, with its services rolling out to Virtuoso member agencies worldwide.
Virtuoso Incubator is currently seeking startups that can enhance productivity and client services for its advisors through email and client management tools, group booking management, and activities-booking solutions. For startups looking to serve this dynamic segment of the travel industry, we welcome applications for Virtuoso Incubator’s class of 2019.
Is your startup making technology for travel advisors? Applications are now open for the 2019 Virtuoso Incubator program! Apply now →