The third night of the main part of Virtuoso Travel Week VTW – the gathering of those running the best collection of luxury hotels in the world and the best travel advisors, putting their clients into those hotels’ beds – was hotel-centric. One Night Only celebrated the eight annual Best of the Best Awards. Over 130 round tables filled the Bellagio’s Grand Ballroom. The gal was at Albert Herrera’s table. But where was HE, the host? Well, trust Mr H always to surprise. Pre-dinner, during a really plausible Moulin Rouge-type routine, he descended from the gods on what can best be described as a parrot hoop.
It was an amazing evening. First, my table, with Jason Friedman (The Siam, Bangkok) to my left, and Peninsula’s Simon Yip to my right. Absolutely coincidentally, Rainy Chan, GM of The Peninsula Hong Kong, won the hotelier of the year award, chosen by the Virtuoso members – the roar that went up from the main Peninsula table could be heard throughout the room, and in her acceptance speech, so much more professional than those Oscars affairs where every member of a family seems to be thanked, Rainy Chan genuinely thanked, from the stage, Peninsula COO Peter Borer, and all her wonderful staff members.
Other awards? Hotel of the year is Rosewood London, whose MD Matthias Roeke could merely bend down to the mike, from his height of 6ft 7ins, and whisper ‘I have lost my voice’ (he had also broken his toe). Shangri-La, the main sponsor of the dinner, saw Shangri-La Paris picked up the best culinary experience award, for its L’Abeille restaurant. Design award went to Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace St Petersburg, St Regis New York’s King Cole Bar was best bar, Bulgari London won spa, and Anantara’s Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort, Abu Dhabi, got most innovative guest experience award. Sir Rocco Forte, who had flown in just for the night, saw his Florence property, Hotel Savoy, win best family programme. =
And after that, the show went on and on. There were soul singers and a happy, very happy, gospel chorus group – gosh did the men, and their female colleagues, belt it out. As Ana Marie Mormando, the Bogota-born head of this 3,950-room hotel says, her team (8,200 in total) can do anything, but when they need help, they know how to pull in the best professionals.
The opening Forum of the annual Virtuoso Travel Week VTW at the luxury Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas had a surprise finale in the form of Olivia Newton-John (Virtuoso leader Matthew Upchurch loves surprises). OK, so Olivia was performing in Vegas but, says the gal, it was a stroke of genius to get her. She sang a couple of songs and then sat and talked with Matthew Upchurch about her own healing hotel, Gaia Retreat and Spa in Bangalow NSW – not to be confused with Gaia in Papagayo.
I went to the Bangalow Gaia seven years ago, and remember being impressed by the fabulous rolling countryside, and activities that included bellydancing for beginners, and bush walks through Nightcap National Park. Now from one entertainer to another. No, this is not really Dolly Parton but a pretty good imitation – were it her, she could have talked about Dollywood, her own theme park, in Pigeon Forge TN. The real Dolly Parton wowed the final session at the 2014 Glastonbury Festival, which must have done wonders for visitor numbers to Dollywood. The fake Dolly Parton was one of the entertainers at the first night party of this year’s VTW, fortunately a buffet.
Try catering a party for 4,200, the total number of delegates at VTW – and then add on the dozens of helpers and organizers. The secret tonight seemed to be ample drinks stations, quite a lot of food stations and constant entertainment, be it Dolly Parton or dancing on top of a high-high stage. And then, for the next three days, at every opportunity there were private parties. A succession of foot-sore people stood guard at the base of one of the elevator areas holding a One&Only sign, ready to take the invited to that suite. Belmond, by contrast, hired The Bank nightclub one evening, for its intimate gathering of several hundred.
Four Seasons had a continuous shuttle along The Strip to its gorgeous luxury hotel (no gaming!). Guests came early, and went on somewhere else, came here in the middle of the evening – as the Alain Milliat jam between the Poilâne sandwich – or finished their gallivanting here. Another night, ILTM held a white-clothes party poolside, at Bellagio. The hotel’s staff never batted an eyelash at anything. I loved the way, every breakfast, they lined the approach, as a guard of honour, and because delegates’ name labels were fabulously clear, they addressed you by name as you walked.
The biggest gathering of the world of purveyors of luxury travel is the annual Virtuoso Travel Week (VTW) the second week of August. For 26 years now it has been held at Bellagio, Las Vegas’ luxury mega-hotel that takes its name from a villa on Lake Como – fortunately Bellagio, the Vegas one, can cope, looking after the 4,420 delegates to VTW as well as a few other guests who are here for the casino, or just to stare at the size of the complex. As always, says the gal, the event started with an opening forum, with keynote speaker Patrick Lencioni, whose latest book, Getting Naked, stresses the power of vulnerability.
As one of four invited students from Ecole Hotellerie de Lausanne said later, he was amazed not only by the professionalism of VTW but by the transparency, the emphasis on vulnerability and the sharing of Virtuoso data and thoughts that could well have been hidden from outsiders. Yes sir, from the Chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch through the whole organization, the Virtuoso team wants to share. There was a lot of sharing going on, by the way.
The business essence of VTW is four days of speed-dating. Travel advisors (agents) sit at assigned tables and every four minutes, when the bell rings, yet another hotelier, or other supplier, comes along. The advisors stay put. It is hoteliers, of the calibre of The Peninsula Tokyo’s Malcolm Thompson, seen here, who have to move, and not just around one hall but then moving to another area – there are hosts, with Japanese-style tour-guide boards, to guide them as they become dazed, glazed and bewildered. It is hoteliers who lose their voices, as they repeat, yet again, what they want the advisors to hear, four minutes and no more and then move on. Try to stand out? The boss of The Jefferson, Washington DC, handed each of the advisors a two-dollar bill (not often seen), with the head of Thomas Jefferson on it, so he, and his hotel, would be remembered.
Matthew Upchurch, who guides Virtuoso, has a perfect colleague in Albert Herrera, who heads relationships with luxury hotels. Every hotel worth its proverbial salt wants to be in Virtuoso