by Jonathan Vatner | December 01, 2005

Sandy CutroneSandy Cutrone is just like any other meeting and incentive planner, except her requests are handled faster than other planners’, and her attendees are treated with more care than other attendees.
    No, she’s not bribing every hotelier and destination management company in her path. She simply has access to a tool, known mostly to carriage-trade travel agents, called Virtuoso.
    “Over and over again, we hear from guests that they felt as if they were visiting royalty,” says Cutrone, president of European Connection, a Roslyn Heights, N.Y.-based agency for individual and group travel to Europe, and a Virtuoso member for seven years. “I regret that I didn’t join sooner.”
Virtuoso, a Fort Worth, Texas-based consortium designed to help travel agents book luxury vacations, isn’t meant for meeting planners, but some agents who plan group travel, Cutrone included, have quietly put Virtuoso to work in their meetings. With their help, so can you.

What is Virtuoso?
Known variously over the past 50 years as Allied Travel and API, Virtuoso is a consortium of travel agents, hotels, airlines, cruise lines and DMCs (referred to as “On Sites”), all of whom specialize in luxury travel. The agents agree to work with the preferred suppliers, and in return, their customers are treated like heads of state. Individual travel is booked based on bulk rates, and a plush amenity, such as a room upgrade, massage or shore excursion (for cruises) is provided gratis.
    Virtuoso also is the country club of travel alliances, according to its members. Just 331 travel agencies in North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand belong, and any new applicant must either be invited or laudatorily referenced by current members. It’s rumored that the group accepts only one of every 300 applications. Dues vary but are said to be substantial. In addition, members must commit to buying a large amount of travel from certified suppliers. They say it’s worth it.
    “It’s the premier organization in the travel industry, hands down,” says Gerard Bellino, executive vice president of Raleigh, N.C.-based TQ3Navigant Vacations. “There’s no other relationship we’re interested in.”