This fact might surprise our friends: We used a travel advisor to plan our 30th anniversary in Rome. We had always assumed a travel advisor would add little value, since, as journalists, we were skilled at researching our own trips. It was easy to call upon public relations firms or tourism offices for advice. But in 2010 we had a backlog of editing work and no time for research. For this all-important, romance-themed trip, time was running out.
Fortunately, a friend told us about a travel advisor who came highly recommended. Nancy Whelchel was—and remains—affilitated with Virtuoso, a global network of over 20,000 advisors and 1800 partners (hotels, travel companies, cruise lines, tour operators, etc.) who specialize in luxury travel and bespoke travel experiences. It’s a “by invitation only” group of professionals.
We explained to Whelchel our preference for independent travel and that our budget was modest. In response, she came up with a small but luxurious hotel (one we hadn’t heard of before) not far from the Spanish Steps, access to the Vatican sans the crowds and a special tour of the Villa Borghese. Then she suggested an anniversary dinner at one of Rome’s best restaurants. She took care of everything, so we could focus on relaxing. It was a great trip, and we came home with a new appreciation for what a well-connected travel advisor can offer.
Our Next Anniversary
Fast forward to our 40th anniversary. It’s spring 2020 and our travel plans have melted into thin air, thanks to the coronavirus.
In need of a “reset,” we check back in with Whelchel, who now works as an independent affiliate of Travel Experts, a Virtuoso agency based in Raleigh, North Carolina. These days, she, like other advisors, finds herself overwhelmed with work.
“Essentially we’ve had to reinvent the wheel, doing twice the work for any one booking” she says of the amount of time it’s taken to get credits or refunds, then rebook her clients for future dates. The process is made more challenging by on-going cancellations, operators’ ever-changing policies on refunds and credits and, of course, travel restrictions by country.
The Personal Touch
Virtuoso is the world’s leading luxury travel network and has a strong commitment to the “personal touch.” Its advisors, top agents in the industry, are committed to going the extra mile. As the company’s CEO says, “luxury is personal,” and the advisors take this to heart.
Virtuoso advisors, drawing on their extensive global network, can:
- Help navigate the post-pandemic environment.
- Recommend bespoke experiences tailored to your preferences and budget.
- Take care of all the details, large and small, from booking flights to reserving your favorite table at your favorite restaurant.
- Obtain preferred rates, room upgrades and a variety of perks, such as daily breakfasts, early check-in or check out, spa and dining credits.
- Provide peace of mind if something goes wrong. If your flight is cancelled, for example, your advisor will rebook it for you.
- Help you think creatively about future trips.
You might be surprised to learn that, despite the rise of online booking, 43 percent of travelers still prefer to use a travel advisor (according to a 2018 survey by the International Air Transport Association) In fact, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) reports that a majority of cruises and tours—and about half of airline tickets and hotel stays—are are booked through advisors. And we suspect that, post pandemic, more travelers will realize the benefits of having a professional travel advisor on their side to navigate the plethora of travel options and new safety guidelines.
View to the Future
Despite the virus-related uncertainty, Whelchel says her clients are “wild” to start traveling again: “People are cautious now. They won’t travel much this year. But they’re already looking at 2021.” Given the industry’s desire to encourage travel, future bookings often include discounts, refundable deposits, and special perks, such as upgraded rooms or shipboard credits.
So where will we want to go after the virus dies down or disappears? Whelchel thinks there will be a new emphasis on “giving back.” Clients will feel better about giving business to companies who support their local communities. And sustainable travel— traveling in such a way as to protect the planet and its diverse cultures—will continue to be important to most travelers.
Small group tours (those with no more than 16 people) and small ships or yachts will have the edge on oversized “floating petri dishes.” As examples, she mentions Sea Dream’s mega-yachts and her favorite small-ship luxury line, Azamara, whose ships stay in port longer and whose excursions explore the local culture in more depth than other cruises do.
Finally, the virus has made us realize the importance of staying in touch with loved ones. Separated for months, families are now eager to get together. Family travel is one of Whelchel’s specialties, and she’s already dreaming up new and different experiences for her clients. “Don’t go to Disneyland,” she advises, “instead, take an ‘active’ African safari that gets you out of the vehicle—walking, camel-trekking or hot-air ballooning.”
Industry experts say luxury travel will be the first sector to come back. The super-rich will lead the way by renting a private jet to take them to a villa on a private island—the ultimate in social distancing. But what about the rest of us? Renting a villa in Tuscany is an option, but, as Whelchel points out, “that’s not as unique an idea as it used to be.” She suggests Puglia, a less-visited region in southeastern Italy. “I spent a week there and stayed in a cave hotel. It’s not as expensive as Tuscany and has a real North African feel. I had a wonderful lunch in the olive groves, hosted by a charming man who reminded me of Donald Sutherland. He loved to talk … and the more wine he drank, the better the stories.”.
By the way, folks interested in adventure or specialty travel shouldn’t feel they can’t book through Virtuoso. Virtuoso’s partners include some of the most respected names in the adventure or soft adventure business: Explora, Abercrombie & Kent, Tauck, Australis, to mention a few. And even if a client’s favorite company is not a Virtuoso partner, an advisor can still book the trip. This makes sense for a journey that involves multiple destinations or stop-overs, where extra help is welcome.
Even as the pandemic rages, Whelchel advises, “It’s still OK to dream.” Through emails, downloadable bi-monthly magazines and special-interest catalogues, Virtuoso offers clients and potential clients many ways to imagine their next vacation. Virtuoso Life and Virtuoso Traveler magazines, in particular, are great sources of ideas. Wanderlist, an online portal, lets clients define what’s important to them, research places of interest and share an evolving wish list with their advisor.
Anniversary Plans Revisited
So where should we travel on our now overdue 40th anniversary? I tell her we’re considering Switzerland—to hike and photograph in the mountains and breathe the fresh air, which we so desperately need after four months in the city. Whelchel is immediately onboard; her connections can make it happen. She’s already coming up with unusual ideas: ”I know someone in Switzerland who can arrange a tandem hang-gliding experience …. the views will be unsurpassed!”
Before I say yes, I hesitate. I confess I’m afraid of heights. It’s probably best for this alley cat to to photograph those views with a drone!
Contact Nancy Whelchel at email@example.com.