Misty Belles, MD, Global Public Relations of luxury travel network Virtuoso talks to Lysanne Currie about confidence, passion for her industry and smart remote working.
‘I was a small-town girl from Texas, who’d been obsessed with New York for as long as I can remember,’ says Misty Belles, who marks her 20th anniversary with Virtuoso this September. For someone whose business is travel, her own career has appropriately taken her all over the US; from the Midwest, to Seattle and (yes) the Big Apple, before ending up living and working in Washington, D.C.
She ascribes her career trajectory to an early ‘try-anything’ attitude: ‘I never thought, “I can’t do that.” I’d sit down and figure out how to do it.’ It’s that pluck that enabled the young journalism student to initially manage the advertising department for 10 newspapers – simultaneously – in Denver, Colorado. It was ‘a great bit of education,’ if a bit old school: she recalls at her first conference ‘hearing about this crazy notion of online advertising. Some of the older newspapermen said, “don’t worry that will never happen, newspapers aren’t gonna be replaced by a computer.”’
Moving to Seattle, she joined an advertising company that placed articles in performing arts magazines. ‘I’d studied ballet for 15 years, so that is part of who I am.’ But she felt uncomfortable that ‘it was just there to make money. I felt like it could have been much more supportive of its artistic community.’ However, while there, a colleague advised her to talk to her husband’s travel company, but warned her that ‘they never hire’.
‘I do a lot of video conferencing. I’m a huge believer in looking at someone face-to-face – even if it is through a screen. It changes the dynamic of the conversation.’
That ‘little tucked-away, 30-year-old company’ was API, who she joined in 1999 as their nineteenth employee. ‘I got home from my first day and said, “I’ll retire with this company because they’re so passionate about what they do and I get to travel and that’s all I care about.”’ It was a dream come true: as direct marketer for cruises and tours, she got to travel around the world. Importantly, ‘it opened my eyes to the fact that the world was open and available to people in this way.’ After a year she moved to the hotel department, as director of marketing. ‘They were incredibly kind to me, in letting me find my path. Following five years with the hotel department, I moved to PR and never looked back. That has been my truest passion.’
API became Virtuoso in 2000, and with the company starting to expand into other markets while building a consumer brand, Belles found herself working ever more closely with the PR department. She pitched CEO Matthew Upchurch, and asked for a job working alongside him on the PR front. She also told him she wanted him to move her to New York. ‘I said, “to accomplish what I want to accomplish I need to be with the media, I can’t do it from the other coast.”’ So in 2005 ‘I Fedexed my life into six boxes and went from a big beautiful home that overlooked the shores of Puget Sound to a little tiny box in New York’ for the next five years. She loves the place, ‘the energy, the sounds. It feels like home to me when I’m there.’
Belles puts Virtuoso’s success down to appealing to different types of consumers, from individuals to couples to multiple generations of the same family, and ‘from staying on course with the fact we’re in the luxury sector…we partner with the best in the industry to ensure a higher level of service and experience.’
‘Travel is the greatest industry in the world. I love that no matter where I go, people want to talk to me about my job.’
There are other differences: Misty runs Virtuoso’s entire global PR operation from her home. ‘I do a lot of video conferencing. I’m a huge believer in looking at someone face-to-face – even if it is through a screen. It changes the dynamic of the conversation.’ She meets with her team every day. ‘There are roles that really require that office presence and intervention. But mine happens to be a role where I have a little bit more autonomy.’
That autonomy stretches to family, too. Being family-owned, Virtuoso really understands the value of it, she says. ‘Working from home, I never missed first steps, first words, and I get to structure some of my time around the children. I can start before they wake up in the morning and get them ready for school and out the door.’
The travel industry has changed remarkably since Misty started her career: there were ‘very few female GMs’ when she started out, she’s delighted there’s now ‘some really incredibly powerful women running incredibly gorgeous hotels. I think there’s almost a maternal instinct that kicks in, where you want to care for everybody, whether it’s the guest or your staff.’
She still travels a lot, and is looking forward to the ultimate trip – space tourism: Virtuoso has had a relationship with Virgin Galactic since 2006. ‘They say they’ll start to take the first passengers up by the end of the year.’ And her tip for the next Earthbound hotspot? Mongolia. ‘We’re seeing a lot of interest but it’s still lacking the infrastructure that Americans need to feel comfortable in going there – it needs better transportation and more consistent accommodation.’
And of course, she still thinks travel is ‘the greatest industry in the world. You rarely meet someone who says, “Oh I hate travel.” I love that no matter where I go, people want to talk to me about my job. It’s a conversation that makes people come alive.’
Do you know someone in the travel industry who deserves recognition? Nominate them for the 2019 everywoman in travel awards.