“From the time I can remember, I always wanted to see what was beyond the flatlands of southern Texas,” shares Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations at luxury travel company Virtuoso.
Belles grew up on a cattle ranch in The Lone Star State and says her early travel memories consisted of road trips through the US. She decided to take up journalism in university and her love for leading people on a journey through words encouraged her to develop her skills in sales and marketing.
Her quest to see the world was soon made a reality as she started on what would eventually become a 20-year journey. “I started working with API – now Virtuoso – in September 1999 and never looked back; even declaring my first day that I would retire with the company. That’s a bold statement from a 20-something,” she says.
Luxury travel writer Ina Yulo finds out what it takes to hold a senior position in one of the industry’s most distinguished companies and is treated to a few insider travel tips along the way.
Tell me about your upbringing. Did you travel a lot growing up?[The place I grew up in] was quite remote and required a 30- minute drive to neighbouring towns to find the closest supermarket or movie theatre, even further to reach a proper city.
Piled into the back seat alongside my older sister, we would drive for nearly a day just to get out of Texas. But I remember waking to find us in the Colorado Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon and being mystified by its beauty (and lack of wide-open skies). The best, though, was when we drove through big cities.
I used to cut out pictures of places I wanted to visit all over the world: Paris, New York, London, Rome, Sydney, Tokyo. I would eventually make it to all of them. Japan was my first trip off North American soil, I would end up living in New York for five years, and I’ve visited Paris 20 times and counting.
I know that you started off as a journalism student. What has your journey been like since then?
I always liked storytelling, but I didn’t immediately set off to study journalism. One of my professors suggested it as an outlet to explore this side of my creativity, plus it provided some guardrails … I think my “early work” may have meandered a bit.
Following university, I moved to Colorado to work for a newspaper—and to ski, if I’m being honest—but I quickly moved from writing to ad sales and marketing and found myself managing an advertising service bureau for a collection of weekly newspapers. It was my first glimpse at the business of publishing, and having that knowledge combined with a writing background has served me well in various roles over the years.
It was while living in Seattle that I came across this company called API, courtesy of a friend whose husband worked there. By then I had the travel bug and she knew I was always saving to travel somewhere. They were looking for someone with marketing experience…and [since starting my career at Virtuoso in 1999], I’ve managed direct marketing for cruises and tours, spent five years as the director of sales and marketing for our Hotels & Resorts Program, and have been the head of global PR for the past 15 years. I love this company, the professionals I get to associate with through the Virtuoso network, my career and this industry – there’s none better.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the travel industry over the past few years?
I began my career at an interesting time. In 1999, the online travel agencies had just entered the marketplace. Almost exactly two years after my start date, 9/11 happened. Those two things in concert permanently altered the travel landscape, both for the industry as well as for consumers, and the effects are still felt today. It turned travel into a commodity that became price-driven, particularly at the mid- and mass-market levels, and clever advertising convinced legions of people that if you’re not booking your own travel, then you’re being taken advantage of.
It was during the global financial crisis when we started seeing the pendulum swing the other way, with travel becoming more about personal growth, family time and togetherness, particularly at the top end of the market. Soon, sales of luxury experiences were outpacing luxury goods, and it was then that the power of human connection really took hold.
Virtuoso’s CEO, Matthew Upchurch, is a visionary and he strongly believed that all the technology that empowered people would eventually leave them yearning for an actual human being to interact with…And you know what, he was absolutely right. Over the past decade, the Virtuoso network has grown from 6,000 travel advisors to 20,000, with annual sales that expanded from $5.1 billion to $26.4 billion (U.S.). Not many industries can point to that level of growth.
Why do you enjoy working at Virtuoso?
How many people get to say they landed their dream job? I was incredibly fortunate to have come into this company at the right time, where I could grow along with it and, at the same time, work with and learn from some of the most passionate, dedicated and knowledgeable professionals in the business. The entire Virtuoso network is committed to excellence, which pushes me to be better just to continue earning my place among them. And, I’ve been able to see far more of the world than this Texas gal ever expected, and in a style I could’ve never dreamed of when cutting out those pictures.
With the world of travel becoming more accessible than ever, many people think hiring a travel advisor is no longer necessary. What are some of the benefits that customers experience when working with Virtuoso?
Travel is more accessible, which is a beautiful thing, but that’s also exactly why you need a travel advisor. Advisors provide advice, access, advocacy and accountability – a combination that is impossible to replicate online or through any other booking channel. And while you can go to destination or niche specialists for individual trips, there is great value in working with a single travel advisor who becomes a specialist in you; someone who learns your likes and dislikes, your travel preferences and budget threshold. If this advisor is part of a larger network, such as Virtuoso, then they have all the resources needed to create bespoke trips all over the world.
While we’re on the topic of value, Virtuoso advisors save their clients time and money. Our travel agency members, and we have more than 30 of them in the U.K., have $26 billion (U.S.) behind them, allowing them access to unique benefits and valuable perks that travellers will not find on their own. Hotel extras valued at more than $500 (U.S.) per stay provide real monetary savings, as do our cruise benefits that can range from $800 to several thousand dollars per couple on a sailing.
Equally important, what’s your time worth to you? The average traveller spends 8.4 hours researching and booking online. That’s eight hours you could spend doing anything else, including shopping for your new travel wardrobe. While it’s always good to have an idea of what you want, clients ultimately benefit from their travel advisors’ knowledge and expertise, not to mention personal contacts, that they’ve invested years to acquire. Advisors take the guesswork out of decisions, ensure travellers are poised to get the most of their experience and add a layer of protection in case anything goes wrong during the trip.
The rise of experiential travel has been especially evident within the luxury travel sector. How has Virtuoso responded to this trend?
Virtuoso has always existed in this experiential space. The foundation of this network stems from a company called Percival Tours, which was a collection of individually owned in-market destination management companies, which we call on-sites. This incredible group works with our advisors to make magic happen in the locations they serve and the experiences they create are both exceptional and completely tailored to the client. From joining in an active archaeological dig in Greece, to not just attending a Broadway play but being in the actual production, to attending a private opera performance in the Sistine Chapel, our advisors deliver the experiences that create lifelong memories.
The interesting thing about luxury is that the traditional definition no longer applies. Luxury is about getting exactly what you want, how and when you want it. Virtuoso’s advisors are dedicated to providing that level of detailed service and our partners are how it happens, which is why our selection process to join the network is so thorough.
On the topic of travel trends, is there a recent trend that you’re excited about?
Every year we survey our advisors to find out what’s on their travel radar for the year ahead and it leads to what we call the Luxe Report. This year’s emergent theme was “Carpe Diem Travel” and I love this trend. “Someday I want to go” is being replaced with “I want to go now” and there’s something really exciting and inspiring about people embracing the opportunity to explore and live in the moment.
What is Virtuoso Travel Week?
Virtuoso Travel Week is the largest luxury travel event in the world. For one week every August, we bring together more than 6,500 attendees who provide the very best service and experiences in luxury travel. The hallmark of the event is a series of four-minute meetings – a kind of speed-dating for luxury travel – that occurs over four days, resulting in over 278,000 individual appointments and yielding more than $420 million (U.S.) in sales. It’s also where many of our partners reveal their latest news and where trends come to light. For that reason, we refer to it as the Fashion Week of travel.
What is your current dream destination?
It is impossible to narrow it to one. I’m getting ready to take my family to South Africa, so I’m dreaming about that right now. It’s the third visit for my husband and me, but the first for our two kids and I cannot wait to see how it blows their little minds!
As for what’s on my Wanderlist, I have been dreaming of Istanbul for years and am obsessed with scuba diving in Mozambique. Newer on the list is a visit to Gili Lankanfushi and their Crusoe Residences in the Maldives. I have a milestone birthday looming and this may be the ideal place to ease the pain of – I mean celebrate – a new decade.
Fill in the blank: I wish people on flights would stop _______.
Oh, I so wish people on planes would stop talking and FaceTiming on speaker phone. It shows a complete lack of consideration for others. While in-flight, I’d like for people to not encroach on my space. Seats have gotten smaller and smaller, and I don’t need to share what limited space I have with anyone else not related to me. And while you didn’t ask, crowding the luggage carousel is also a giant pet peeve. In general, I would relish a return to civility, and not just in air travel.
What’s inside your bag of travel essentials?
Just like many others, I am beholden to my suite of Apple products – iPhone, chargers, etc are always a must. For long-haul flights, I love Josie Maran’s Bear Naked Wipes – they remove makeup without needing water but are also moisturizing, all while doing something positive for the world. I also bring a tube of cuticle gel because my hands get so dry. Because I’m always cold, I also pack a wrap – my sand-coloured Gucci shawl is my favourite for its versatility. And the hair tool that comes on every trip is Drybar’s Tiny Tress Press, which can either straighten or curl depending on my mood. It’s a girl’s best friend!
Finally, name your favourite cities for the following: food, culture, history, hospitality
Food – Paris
Culture – Cape Town
History – Athens
Hospitality – Hong Kong