Meet the travel agent to the stars - literallyJanuary 14, 2014: 7:30 AM ET
Are travel agents obsolete? Not if you're headed to outer space. Luxury travel agency Virtuoso is helping Virgin Galactic bring the ethereal experience of space travel back down to earth for its customers.
FORTUNE -- In 1914, a former mayor in Florida paid the equivalent of about $9,300 in current U.S. dollars to fly on the first commercial airline flight in the world. The 23-minute journey from St. Petersburg to Tampa was hardly glamorous -- the boat was made of wood and traveled at speeds up to 60 miles per hour -- but the man was willing to pay the exorbitant price for a trip that at the time seemed out of this world.
One hundred years later, about 600 travelers have paid up to $250,000 to be a part of a similarly ethereal event: the first commercial flights into space, courtesy of Sir Richard Branson's space-tourism venture Virgin Galactic. Although the concept may sound completely outlandish, even dangerous, for the affluent adventurer, luxury travel network Virtuoso is working to bring the concept back down to earth for a few well-heeled customers.
"Virgin Galactic wanted a company that could come in and demystify the experience," said Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso's chief executive. His company has exclusive rights to book seats on Virgin Galactic aircraft for North, Central, and South American passengers. "It is about humanizing the experience and making it more reachable."
At a time when the traditional travel agent appears to be a dying profession, Virtuoso's 335 global member agencies with more than 7,200 travel agents earned $12.5 billion in sales last year. The company works to remain relevant in a digital age by creating travel experiences -- a key word in the age of the web-based booking tool -- for clients ranging from modest means to the top 1%.
Virtuoso has 56 "accredited space agents," or ASAs, that help customers through the complicated process -- medical tests, spousal approval, regular updates on the program's progress -- of signing up for Virgin Galactic. Although the company's commercial operations have not yet begun, Virgin Galactic plans to send six passengers at a time on suborbital space flights as early as this year.
"I work for the future astronauts, not for Virgin Galactic," said Jay Johnson, a Virgin Galactic ASA and the president of a Virtuoso member agency. "I don't sugarcoat anything. I just keep them motivated. My number one concern is to keep the customer happy, and if they have any concerns I help them address them."
Johnson has successfully booked eight seats on future Virgin Galactic flights. Although he declined to disclose the exact commission he earns from Virgin Galactic for signing up passengers, he said that he did not become a part of the ASA program for the money. Instead, the clients he meets through Virgin Galactic become profitable to him through other travel booking opportunities. For example, he just finished planning a 14-month around-the-world travel experience for a customer he got to know through arranging his travel into space.
The standard commission for a travel agent is about 10% of the total cost of the trip, but Virtuoso's positioning as a luxury agency allows its agents to earn more for their services.
"The Internet is great if you want very simple experiences," said Henry Harteveldt, a Hudson Crossing travel analyst, of popular travel tools like Expedia (EXPE) and Travelocity. "But the offline agents who have evolved the way they do business like Virtuoso are probably being more successful today because they have been forced to become better businesspeople. They have shifted from being order makers to dream makers."
As one of Galactic's founders, Virtuoso's Upchurch will be among the first 80 people propelled into space by Virgin. Eventually, the costly price of a suborbital ticket into space will decrease, just like commercial airfare did after the first trip in 1914, he said. Still, Upchurch is encouraging everyone who can afford it to sign up as soon as possible -- even if it's just to take advantage of the incredible perks Richard Branson provides for his future astronauts.
"For those of us who put our deposit down seven years ago and are trying to get our money's worth, we have gotten our money's worth with parties," he said with a laugh.