Luxury Hotels

Final thoughts of that luxury lifestyle gathering, Virtuoso Travel Week

Omnipresent Mathew Upchurch

It is the blend of hard work and serious business with parties, invariably concurrent, that makes Virtuoso Travel Week so essential for all those involved in luxury hotels, cruises, safari companies, ships and river boats, private jets and so on.  Another element that makes it work is that, thanks to Matthew Upchurch, and his family, and his extended family, also known as his team, the whole mega-event still seems amazingly personal.  As always, the hotels that send along their GMs as well as sales staff are the most likely to benefit – one GM had a definite Middle East booking for $450,000, rooms alone, just because of interaction with the relevant travel advisor.  That is the business side. Now think of the networking at parties.

Look across to Paris

Evening parties start long before sunset. The regular circuit, year after year, includes early cocktails hosted by Belmond, and another party, which always has really good food, thrown by InterContinental, getting ready to open its Ljubljana hotel. Corinthia London joins with the Halekulani, Honolulu, and the Jefferson, Washington DC, to host a more intimate cocktail – this year Ireland’s K Club joined in, in an elegant party in a Bellagio suite looking across The Strip to Paris. Accor’s poolside breakfast is always popular (they give a choice of dishes). Mandarin Oriental hosted dinner for 70 cooked by Pierre Gagnaire, who had given up part of his oh-so-sacred France August holiday to fly to Vegas. ILTM had its usual casual outdoor relaxer, this year themed for Latin America, the new name for its next annual Mayakoba event, September 25-28, 2017.

Olives’ carpaccio

The list of planned events goes on and on, and the level of their entertaining seems ever higher. Peninsula’s regular pool-side party was this year themed for The Peninsula Hong Kong, with stunning food stalls (top Mexican advisor Teresa Perez told me, as she rushed out to yet another function, not to miss the Pekin duck). There were also, thanks to the imagination of the hotel’s GM Rainy Chan, old-fashioned Hong Kong games of the calibre of trying to throw sweets through holes in a vertical board. SEE THE PENINSULA VIDEO, STARRING SHANGHAI GM JOSEPH CHONG, BELOW. At the same time, too, there were the usual important gatherings of just meeting, as planned or not, in the casual Café Palio deli, with its shaded outside terrace, and, for more refinement, breakfast was best in Café Bellagio, with waiter service and a good line in omelettes that ranged from healthy-spa through to every additive you could think of, and waffles, with what-ever. At lunch, some hotel groups booked the same table for lunch every day at Bellagio’s Olives (Conrad and Waldorf Astoria – OH the Olives’ carpaccio!) or Lago (Swire’s House Collective) restaurants, with no-choice menus to save time, and back to speed-dates.

Welcome to Best of the Best

My final night back at this luxury mega-hotel was Wednesday’s Best of the Best gala, of particular interest to hoteliers. Cocktails were sponsored by Marriott’s luxury brands (the company then took 16 tables), and the Le Calvez family’s Ch Clarisse St-Emilion 2013 supplemented the wines at the two top tables. This evening was circus-themed, with Albert Herrera appearing on a rotating wheel, though by the time of the awards it was serious business, hold the fun. Winners included Best hotelier of the year Susanne Hatje, New York Mandarin Oriental (photo above), and Best ambassador was Kees Hogetoorn, Sofitel Grand Amsterdam. Luca Virgilio was of course there to collect Best restaurant, for the newly re-opened The Eden Rome, and Christian Boyen, the same, for the Hemingway Bar at Ritz Paris. And then, sadly, I had to leave, for the next place (but, already, I cannot wait for Virtuoso 2018)… NOW SEE THE VIDEO

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Luxury Hotels

More on Virtuoso’s unique gathering for luxury hoteliers

A speed-dating room

Monday to Thursday at the 29th Virtuoso Travel Week was the really HARD WORK. Mornings clocked up a total of 327,124 speed-dating sessions, with 2,700 travel advisors sitting while GMs and others representing hotels, and other products, nipped around trying to differentiate themselves in four minutes. This can be quite difficult when you sometimes have to explain first where Chengdu is, said Temple House’s Kurt Macher, but others find savvy educational tools to use. Pierre Bord, who runs the Negresco in Nice, came with an outsize pack of playing cards, each showing something to do with that luxury hotel – he is photographed as the joker, while there are cards showing the new bathrooms, and the Michelin-starred Chantecler restaurant and so on. The meeting rooms are extremely colourful, and it is so brilliantly organised that you really do not get lost, says the gal.

Albert Herrera’s independent hotels panel

The 76 media invited this year had a separate programme some of the time, and there was a trial speed-dating afternoon for those who had not done it before. One of the most useful sessions was a panel led, as if at Carnegie Hall, by Virtuoso’s versatile hotels guru, Albert Herrera. He was conducting the independent hotel theme, and his panel included, on the left of the photo, Deborah Yager Fleming, Acqualina, and Ted Teng, Leading Hotels of the World. Ovation Travel’s Jack Ezon, a former attorney (on the right of the photo), pointed out that a one-off independent property does not have to concentrate on appealing to the locale as it is local. And then the media were all rounded up and put in buses for the ride along to lunch hosted by One&Only in the Alain Ducasse Rivea, on the 56th floor of the Delano, a marsupial-like hotel tucked into the Mandalay Bay integrated resort.

Feeding the (more than) five thousand

Lunch for the main number of the nearly-6,000 attendees was back at Bellagio, another of their splendid buffets, which never run out of seating, food, and drink – I spoke at length with the Bellagio’s GM, Olivia Brown, who looks about 16 but she is in fact the mother of 14-year old twins, brought up since birth by her husband. She confirmed that the entire organisation of Virtuoso Travel Week is like a military operation, with every detail planned minutely, with deviations continuously at the ready (although timing was so exact it seemed like clockwork). Unlike army situations however, a very civilian tender loving care comes into play, with special lunches for all 8,200 Bellagio staff members while the week continues.

Watching a Destination Showcase extravaganza

They also turn rooms round in lightning time. They had only three hours to change what had been a speed-dating ballroom into a magic setting for Monday night’s Destination Showcase dinner for 2,000. Tables are, immediately beforehand, meticulously dressed by their hosts, who could be nations, areas, or cruise ships – see a Portugal table, above. Crystal Cruises sponsored the welcome cocktails, and of course that company’s livewire President/CEO Edie Rodriguez, tonight in a black top and a full-length emerald satin skirt, welcomed everyone, as if impromptu with not a note in sight. Albert Herrera, master of ceremonies as always, later invited Virtuoso Chairman/CEO Matthew Upchurch to present awards, chosen by the assembled advisors: these included Tourism New Zealand which won best destination marketing for the third year NOW SEE A VIDEO OF ONE OF THAT DINNER’S THREE ENTERTAINMENTS

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Luxury Hotels

And so to Virtuoso, essential for all luxury hoteliers

Try a fitness board?

Although some had already been at the most famous of all MGM’s luxury Las Vegas hotels, Bellagio, for a couple of days or more, the main Virtuoso Travel Week started Sunday, August 13th, 2017.

There were several prior events, including  Saturday’s gathering of ‘communities’, displays of and interaction with destinations that are heavily involved in, say, Family Travel. Over 1,200 Virtuoso travel advisors came into town early, especially for this exciting day.  You chose a theme, and also an area of the world.  The gal chose the Wellness community, Americas, and had a fascinating two hours moving from one to another and another, hotels and resorts that all stress at least one element of fitness. There was mindfulness here – see the image above – and an introduction to bee-keeping there, and so on. Canyon Ranch brought along an impossible piece of equipment, a surfboard for the land, tried on a carpet (left).

SJP live at the forum..

On the Sunday came the usual opening forum, 4.30 to 6.15 p.m. There were just enough chairs for all the just-under-6,000 delegates, but the sound and light were brilliant and it was possible to see the three big screens clearly right from the back of the mammoth ballroom. As everyone by now knows, SJP by Sarah Jessica Parker conveniently opened its Bellagio store that very day. There was a 40-yard line snaking round outside the store, to get in to see and try and shoes, and SJP was rumoured to be there in person. Sure enough, after the forum was officially opened she wandered in. She said only a few words before gliding out again on her high-high heels, naturally SJP label.

.. and Rachel Hunter

Next up was New Zealand actor-environmentalist and her country’s sustainability ambassador, Rachel Hunter, talking about her television Rachel Hunter’s Tour of Beauty for TV One – she travelled to 26 countries to discover what beauty means around the world. After her came sky-high Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics, who seemed to have escaped from his Harvard office to sport dayglo-green glasses. He bluntly said human attention span is, at seven seconds, less than a goldfish’s but while tech changes the whole time human nature does not, clicks co-exist with bricks, Amazon is opening real stores, 90% prefer to read on paper – it is so much quicker. Finally, moving-art producer Louie Schwartzberg showed how the minutiae of wildlife can transcend technology.

Erik Qualman

After that Bellagio hosted the first of what turned out to be a myriad of networking ‘parties’, though perhaps that deviates from the usual sense of the word as, frankly, Virtuoso Travel Week is HARD WORK. It has now grown so large that delegates stay, and meet, in MGM’s three main resorts. Some are based in Aria, others in Vdara, but I, fortunately, stayed as always in the 3,933-room Bellagio, where all the main parties are held. That Sunday, once the forum was over, we inched our way, at snail’s pace, to one of the luxury hotel’s massive ballrooms, transformed into a party venue with masses of networking corners. This is the opportunity for conversations with some but, as the show gets larger and larger, a simple raising of eyebrows and a smile and a wave as you pass…  But, as always, it is just truly impressive how Bellagio, led by GM Olivia Brown, who came from Ritz-Carlton, and InterContinental before that, works so magnificently. SEE A VIDEO WALKING INTO THE BELLAGIO CASINO, VIA A SHOPPING ARCADE, BELOW


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