Hazim Al Hazmi, Saudi Tourism’s president.

Virtuoso Travel’s 2023 annual Travel Week gathering in Las Vegas drew dreamers, from billionaires to Saudis.

The world’s most significant international luxury travel confab, Virtuoso Travel Week, was barely underway in Las Vegas, where it has been held each summer for decades, when a thought-provoking question was posed by the leader of the Saudi delegation.”

“Do we have the right to win?” asked Hazim Al Hazmi, President of Saudi Tourism, from the stage in front of an invited group of travel advisors and some journalists. It was a question Saudi Arabia was asking itself when, in 2019, the Kingdom approved a strategy to develop as a tourist destination. Al Hazmi claimed the plan was going well.

“By 2030, Saudi Arabia will have 100 million visitors, putting us in the top five. Tourism will represent 10 percent of the Saudi gross domestic product and provide one million jobs for Saudis and expats,” he stated. “We have $800 million in projects in the tourism infrastructure pipeline from the government, private sector, and foreign investors. Hotel companies such as Marriott, Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton.”

Virtuoso Travel Week draws 5,000 worldwide attendees
Virtuoso Travel Week draws 5,000 worldwide attendees. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Get In Early

Al Hazmi compared the development, such as resort islands in the Red Sea, to ground-floor investing in a new company. “I had a friend, for instance, who missed his chance to get in on Twitter,” he winced.

The Saudis are well-funded and move quickly. Just down the street from the Virtuoso Travel Week Conference, Las Vegas was a month away from opening The Sphere at The Venetian Resort, an indescribable $2.3 billion immersive, high-tech concert venue of which even the exterior is hypnotically entertaining.

“In six months, we will have one, too,” a Saudi official said to me in an aside. He did not seem to be joking.

“One of the advantages of being new to the travel sector is that we have learned from others mistakes,” said Al Hazmi in a Las Vegas climate and terrain very similar to Saudi Arabia. “We have the determination, the willingness and resources.”

Virtuoso CEO and founder Matthew Upchurch
Virtuoso CEO and founder Matthew Upchurch. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Headlines and Headwinds  

To discover tourism offerings, people will have to read beyond the news headlines and political headwinds.

“We acknowledge the stigma. The perception of our reputation,” said Al Hazmi.

“Tourism Opens Minds,” is the headline at VisitSaudi.com, a theory Virtuoso’s CEO Matthew Upchurch espoused when the Saudi’s became involved with Virtuoso. “We are in the business of ‘How did you make me feel?’ The travel business is really the human connection business.”

“We are investing to correct the challenges with the truth,” Al Hazmi explained.

One of those “investments” are highly produced video ads featuring soccer superstar Lionel Messi enjoying the Kingdom, one of which was shown at the Virtuoso presentation. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal narrated a 30-minute, National Geographic film also shown: “Lost Treasures of Arabia,” about the archeological discoveries being made at Dadan – a pre-Islamic society in an ancient, 9th-century BC kingdom.    

The Saudi presenters promised drawing prizes – including a trip to AlUla – for those who stayed until the film ended. “The film is 30 minutes, but think of it as 30 Instagram moments,” Al Hazimi joked, in a painful nod to the shortening of the modern attention span.

“It is the thing we will eventually be best known for,” said Ansar Babu, of the Royal Commission for AlUla. It struck me as Saudi Arabia’s Machu Picchu.

Old World Mixes Modern Art

AlUla’s modern-day creation is the world’s largest mirrored building, the concert hall named “Maraya,” holding only 500 seats but offering intimate performances from the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Usher, One Direction and other music stars.  

“AlUla is a ‘living museum of the world’ and Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site featuring history, archeology, art, fashion and entertainment,” said Melanie de Souza, executive director of destination marketing for the Royal Commission for AlUla.

“Travelers are willing to go great lengths to see something new and have the story that comes with it. There is an interest in exploring beyond their comfort zones to far-flung places,” according to Misty Belles, Virtuoso’s vice-president of global public relations. “Luxury travelers want customized, tailored experiences. Virtuoso advisors get to know their interests and what excites them. Then they make it come to life.”

Virtuoso Travel Week

“Magnificent, welcoming, incredible, charming, diverse, inspiring, in-the-know, breathtaking and memorable.” These were all terms that were important to luxury travelers, according to Virtuoso Travel advisors and researchers. The influential global travel agency network specializes in luxury and experiential travel and boasts 1,200 travel agency locations with more than 21,000 travel advisors in 54 countries.  

Hours after the Saudi’s took the stage, Virtuoso Travel Week’s major opening session brought star power: social media entrepreneur and podcaster Steven Bartlett gave the keynote interview and American Idol singer Haley Reinhart performed the custom song she wrote for the event: “That’s So Virtuoso.”  

Bartlett, at 31, hosts the “Diary of the CEO” podcast, derived from his book by the same title detailing the “33 Laws of Business and Life.” He went from being so poor he had to eat left-behind food in a takeaway shop to spending five years working and selling in a customer call center. Eventually creating a company that went public for $300 million. Bartlett said he therefore became accustomed to luxury hotels and first-class flights. But boarding a recent flight stopped him in his tracks.

“I saw a woman in first class so excited to be drinking champagne and putting on the slippers. That was me at one time,” Bartlett said, reminding himself. “What became of my expectations? Now, every time I get on a plane, I stop and remind myself how privileged I am to do it.”

Steven Bartlett shared his laws.
Steven Bartlett shared his laws. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Downside of Social Media

For a man who made millions in the tech sector, he warned about social perception vs. reality.

“Social media has made “good” look ‘not good enough.’ It makes perfection look normal. Those screens in your hand are creating a hollow image of life. Looking at a fake, filtered photo on your phone will affect your expectations,” Bartlett said.  “We are human beings. We are meant to be together in small, caring communities. Human desire for connection and community will not change.”

While the United Kingdom appointed a “Loneliness Czar,” Bartlett advised companies to create a “Head of Happiness.” “People get depressed when they feel disconnected,” he said.  

Why Virtuoso

Even solo travel can make people feel connected with humanity and part of a world of people in motion. Belles explained the reason savvy travelers turn to Virtuoso Travel, its advisors and travel partners for expertise when planning trips. “Time savings, value, accountability, access, advice, and advocacy, each of which, if you travel well and travel enough, become priceless commodities.

Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]

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