Avanti Destinations, a specialist in custom-designed independent travel packages, has expanded its business to include the handling of groups. It’s a departure for a company that has built its business, since 1981, on independent travel for individuals.
“Avanti has kept very much to handling FITs,” said Paul Barry, Avanti’s executive chairman, “because the type of product information and knowledge and the relationships that were set up with various vendors were geared toward handling FITs for up to 15 people. But, as the company has grown and done very well in the custom FIT field, the travel agents have been constantly calling in and saying they have a group of 20 or 25 or 30 and we have told them no.”
The company had a good reason for refusing to take groups larger than 15, according to Barry. “We want to offer the Avanti style of service and quality of knowledge and expertise in doing groups as we were doing with FIT,” he said. “And that didn’t exist yet within the Avanti staff. So, recognizing that there was an ever-growing demand in our agent database for that, we went out and recruited some highly experienced and knowledgeable group travel professionals who have individually done probably a thousand groups each in terms of quotations and operations over the years. They are all personally known to me and formerly worked for me.”
Barry’s relationships with travel professionals extend over his 35-year career in the travel industry, including time working for British Rail in New York and Travel Bound/GTA; and as co-founder in 1990 of Europe Express, a specialist in FIT travel in Europe, and a direct competitor to Avanti, which Barry sold to First Choice Holidays in 2005 and continued to work with as president and CEO until 2008.
“I knew of their expertise and skill,” he said, “and now we have our own separate groups department in the business.”
Avanti’s expansion into groups has not taken it beyond the custom travel mode it has been in since the beginning. It is not putting escorted or guided group tours on the market and filling the departures with individual clients. It is handling groups that come to the company already formed. They are groups of people associated by some commonality, a special interest, or members of a bank club, alumni group or some other kind of affinity group.
“These are not speculative groups,” said Barry. “They are closed affinity groups where everybody already knows each other. They are going for a specific reason, whether it’s with their church, their educational institution, their family, extended family, or a hobby or special interest they have, gardening clubs, knitting clubs, what have you.”
The group packages may, on the other hand, include guided tours as components of the package, if that is what the clients are looking for.
Avanti will handle groups of up to about 100 members. Most of the requests are for groups between 20 and 40 members.
As soon as Avanti opened the door to groups, the orders started coming in. “The department has been open for a couple of weeks now,” said Barry. “It just started and they’ve done more than 30 quotes already.”
So, how did Avanti get the word out so quickly that it is now handling groups? “We didn’t,” said John Hanratty, chief officer of marketing and sales. “This is just the normal, people calling in, and before we turned their business away.”