Though luxury has always in some sense been in the eye of the beholder – one person’s definition of rich opulence can easily be another’s definition of overdone tackiness – in 2017, the boundaries of luxury have become especially hard to draw, according to Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch.
“It’s become nearly impossible to profile the luxury client today, particularly in travel, because consumers are searching for such a wide breadth and depth of experiences under than heading. ”
Those, Upchurch said, are not walled-off categories, of course. Consumers can be traveling for all kinds of context and for all kinds of reasons, and what they want most is a full set of options no matter what – as no one wants to be “pigeonholed” and limited as a result.
However, through all the clutter in the marketplace – there is an element of luxury travel that tends to always float to the top, which is something Upchurch refers to as “personalized stewardship.”
On the brand side, based on the growing sophistication of data-driven consumer profiling, travel companies are developing a more customer-centric engagement strategy to drive higher loyalty and lifetime customer value. That’s shifting the industry’s focus from targeting demographic segments, based on traditional connotations of luxury, to psychographic profiles based on personal lifestyle.
And this is where the Vituoso platform comes into play – and its own. Customers sign-in to the platform, answer a few travel preference-related questions – and seek to be matched with a travel agent (or travel advisor, as they are listed on the site). Once that bit of matchmaking is done – the consumer has a travel agent who books their travel, secures better deals and discounts and then manages whatever does not go quite to plan.
Consumer can plan travel for themselves – which is why for years it has been popular to list travel agents among the many verticals destroyed by the internet and the Expedias it brought. But, Upchurch says, just because someone can book their own travel or hunt down their own discounts, doesn’t mean they want to. And, he notes, particularly for affluent customers looking to travel – a massive part of actually enjoying the experience is handing the administrative details of travel off so as to be part of the pleasant parts of travel more fully.
“The role of the travel advisor is to really understand the luxury consumer’s needs correctly and clearly by asking the right questions to get at the core of what the traveler hopes to experience and achieve is the key. People don’t go to advisors for information anymore; they go for clarity and curation. Customers have plenty of information – arguably that is the problem, they have lots of information, no way to put it in a context. They need someone to distill it and make it workable.”
Consumers, are not just looking for good and experiences – and it is hard to win long-term loyalty and relationships because the digital age is the age of options. Consumers can get all kinds of things they want when it comes to travel materially – the question is what does the expense deliver emotionally – is it fun and does it really live up to consumer need.
“The more the advisor knows about the client, the more there becomes a mutual investment.”
Technology, he notes, isn’t an enemy here or even a competitor for travel agents. It is a facilitator – a way to pass information across systems so that everyone can work toward a common goal in hospitality, delighting the consumers.
Though many fear the automate future of retail – and that the world will be dominated by wholly digitally mediated transactions – Upchurch says he isn’t so sure, particularly when it comes to higher-end, higher-quality goods. He believes there will always be a key role for the human element.
“I always say automate the predictable, so that you can humanize the exceptional.”