It has been over 35 since Avenue Two Travel, formerly Park Avenue Travel, opened its doors in Swarthmore, Penn. The agency traces its roots back to Debbie Bush and her husband, Craig, who built a hometown travel company, first as a small agency focused primarily on air tickets, to one of the fastest-growing host agencies in the U.S.
Even with the changes through the decades, the agency has remained family-run, with Joshua Bush, Debbie and Craig’s son, joining the team in 2006, and currently serving as CEO.
Today, Avenue Two Travel no longer has a storefront, but it is as big as it’s ever been. This week, the host welcomed advisors and supplier partners to its first-ever Avenue Two Collective in Philadelphia, the first of what the team wants to be many annual gatherings between itself, its associates, and its members.
“We have long dreamed about hosting an event like this so it's incredible to think the dream has come true on the heels of some of the most devastating times of our lifetimes,” Bush told attendees during his keynote address last Wednesday.
The event included networking events, a town-hall-style meeting with Bush, one-on-one meetings with preferred partners, and more.
Shifts During the Pandemic
When Debbie Bush started Avenue Two, she did so in order to help friends and families book vacations.
“She knew the value of seeing the world and experiencing different cultures -- she did it because it was fun and travel is fun and that’s why we should be doing this,” Bush told attendees. He added that the agency went from four people in 1987 to where it is today, proving that “being good” is always more important than “being big.”
That was never more true than during the pandemic. Aside from not renewing its lease on a Philadelphia office, Avenue Two “tightened its belts” over the past couple of years but also looked out for its employees, who kept benefits during the shutdown, and its independent contractors, who were able to skip monthly fees during those same months. Aside from that, other things changed for the company, too.
“What changed really was the appreciation that working and operating as a family-run business was what really made us successful and we want to continue doing that,” Bush said.
That "tightening" is now shifting to something entirely different. Just like the industry as a whole, Avenue Two and its advisors have gone from “zero to 100 miles an hour,” as demand and supply continue to return even with the travel testing requirement in the U.S. continuing to hold some of that back. (Bush called that the "biggest" hurdle in the way of the industry's full recovery and expects its removal to bring another 20% to 30% of business back into the fold.)
Advisors being busier means Avenue Two had to staff up in order to keep up with their needs, including an expansion of its air team that is soon to offer 24-hours internal coverage to all members.
All additions, whether advisors or staff members, have to fit the Avenue Two culture, which Bush says comes down to the realization that "travel is a force for good." Each new addition goes through a rigorous recruitment process.
Focus on Sustainability
A lot of the talk this week between members, suppliers, and the Avenue Two Team focused on efforts to go above and beyond standard sustainability practices. Bush told attendees that the onus should no longer be just on the supplier to build clean and responsible vacations, instead it is time for travel advisors to play their own role.
“We were tired of hearing that sustainability is a supplier problem and not our problem,” Bush said. “At the agency level, we had to do something.”
In January, Avenue Two announced a partnership with Sustainable Wanderlust, a company founded by Rose O’Connor, to continue down the road of improving its social impact, including adding a sustainable travel training program for its advisors.
That partnership has led to the pursuit of B Corp. Certification, a private certification of for-profit companies of their "social and environmental performance.”
Avenue Two has already passed the assessment phase of that certification and is “well on the way to becoming the first B Corp. Certified Travel Agency,” Bush said.
The company then went one step further, taking on a legal change to become a Pennsylvania Benefit Corporation, a designation that “ensures we are legally bound to always consider the environmental and societal impact,” Bush said.
All those moves go back to making sure advisors are aware of the role they play in this pursuit.
“We are true advisors. We design itineraries and are the ones choosing the hotels and making the recommendations. It’s our objective to listen and learn about what that client wants, but more importantly, we can then steer and make the right recommendations to choose a sustainable pattern over another one,” he said.
The focus on sustainability and being good stewards of the earth is now at the heart of Avenue Two Travel’s Mission Statement:
“To design authentic travel experiences that make us better global citizens… Avenue Two Travel believes travel is a force for good. It drives human connection, encourages us to continue learning, and empowers us to take ownership in the future of our planet. Travel makes us better global citizens. “
In 2018, the team at Avenue Two Travel put together a business plan to shoot for 10-times growth, a plan that started to take hold in 2019 until COVID-19 took over in early 2020.
The 10-times growth strategy is an ambitious goal for any company. According to Bush, it was a “philosophical thing” for both he and his team.
“If you started thinking about doubling your size or wanting to be 100% bigger than you are, that is thinking of things in a granular way,” he said. “If you start to think of things in a 10-times way, you are able to start thinking creatively about what the things you would need in order to make things happen.”
While the pandemic did stress the agency, including forcing furloughs and other cuts to its business, it also “leveled the playing field,” allowing Avenue Two, after deciding to close its Philadelphia office space, to focus on building around a virtual work program and scaling its own staff to better handle new advisors and agencies.
That has led to significant growth for the host agency — according to Bush, membership numbers have grown 33% since the pandemic, up to 132 from 88 prior to COVID-19. That growth includes advisors and agencies from other groups, along with brand new entrants into the industry.
And while that growth isn’t by accident, it has been done without advertisement. “It has truly been word of mouth, and that’s just a major compliment to the team here,” Bush said.
Still, even with those numbers, growth isn’t necessarily the goal, Bush told TMR.
“We don’t want to be a big mega death star agency, it’s about quality. The actual number doesn't mean anything as long as the quality continues to be there and doesn't take away from anything else at the company,” he said.
That includes having the right support staff in place to handle what its current members need — at one point, Bush said, membership additions were put on hold in order to scale its staff to meet the need — and also having the ability to vet new members to make sure they fit the culture.
“We stay right here — steadfast and constant in being the same people and partners we’ve always been,” Bush said. “How big is too big? As long as those who want to join us believe in our values, culture, business, but most importantly they want to give back to the collective team, then the whole will always be bigger than the same of its parts.”