This year, Avanti Destinations, a specialist in independent travel, has undergone new leadership following the retirement of founder Harry Dalgaard, last summer. Taking over the helm is Paul Barry, who bought 50 percent of the company in 2014, then took over as sole owner and executive chairman last January.
Meet the operator
Barry has a 35-year history in the travel industry, beginning in 1983 when he took a job as a reservations agent with British Rail in New York. Three months later, he joined Travel Bound/GTA, where he worked until 1990, rising to the position of general manager. In 1990, he co-founded Europe Express, a specialist in FIT travel in Europe, and a direct competitor to Avanti.
Barry sold Europe Express to First Choice Holidays in 2005, and continued as president and CEO until 2008. Then he took a hiatus from the industry to observe a non-compete agreement. In 2012, he jumped back into the industry, acquiring Caradonna Adventures, a specialist in scuba dive and adventure travel, and two years later, took an equity stake in Avanti.
Barry is taking over at a good time for Avanti. “Avanti is at a stage where it has grown a lot,” said Barry, “and it’s looking forward to some future tremendous growth. We are already the market leader and we’re looking to increase our lead in customized independent travel to many major international destinations in the world.”
Avanti’s advantage, as independent travel has grown in popularity, is that it provides travel agents with an efficient, reliable system for easily piecing together custom vacation packages — without having to call each individual hotel for each night’s booking, and then having to chase down the commissions from the individual hotels.
Avanti, which sells exclusively through travel agents, is designed to be an adjunct to the retail business, providing travel agents with an instant plug-in to destination expertise in a wide variety of places. “If an agent doesn’t know a particular destination, we have people here who do,” said Barry. “So, an agent doesn’t have to take so long to put together a package.”
The education and experience level of its in-house travel consultants is one of the major components of the company’s value proposition, so Avanti invests heavily in the ongoing education of its in-house consultants.
“We are increasing the education within the company and the staff,” said Barry. “Sixty-two of our staff will be traveling in the next three months to experience Avanti destinations. Most companies have reservation agents, we have travel consultants. It’s not the same. It’s very different.”
Avanti’s historic edge
Avanti was founded in 1981 by Harry Dalgaard. The company’s edge was a proprietary booking software called Tourgate. While most tour operators approached independent travel via systems designed for group travel that were modified for individual travel, Tourgate was designed specifically for FIT travel — and, as such, it was structured to allow for multiple access points to different car, hotel, air and ground services functions. The system gave Avanti a good head start in servicing the growing independent travel market.
No assembly required
One of the innovations since Barry took over the company is the new Avanti Journeys product, which consists of pre-assembled packages that combine some of the most popular components into air-inclusive packages that can be purchased without having to assemble the parts.
The Journeys product line gives agents a baseline package to work from that incorporates the company’s experience in the destinations, the expertise of its product managers and travel consultants and the accumulated history of clients traveling to those areas.
The multi-destination packages can be customized to match the individual preferences of clients. “Avanti Journeys highlight some of the FIT product that we offer packaged together as sample packages so our agency partners can see the various types of offerings in the multiple countries that we service,” said Barry. “A lot of people customize them to create their own vacations.”
Avanti has used its contracts with airline partners to provide not only the price advantage of net rates, but also the ability to break up the air component into separate pieces that allow for stopovers along the way. “With contracts we have with airline partners, we have stopover allowances either in Europe or in the U.S. that are not available to the normal published arena,” said Barry.
Expanding product offerings
With the addition of Avanti Journeys, the company can provide anything from a fully inclusive package to the simplest post-cruise, three-night trip with transfers and private sightseeing.
“We provide a full range of FIT services in all the major destinations that we offer,” said Barry, “which is what makes us a great resource for the travel trade today. We provide expertise at the end of the phones to put that independent customized package together. And we do it in a quicker format than if agents were to try to book the individual components separately.”
Avanti began offering European destinations in 1981, expanded to Latin America in 1990, and to Asia in 2015. As a new market, Asia is showing the highest growth rate by percentage, but Europe is still, by far, the majority of Avanti’s business. Europe accounts for about 80 percent, while Latin America is 13 percent and Asia is 7 percent.
Continued growth in Europe
“Asia has done tremendously for us and it’s still growing,” said Barry. “Percentagewise, it’s the largest increase for us this year, but Europe is still growing tremendously for us.”
As a mature destination, Europe is growing in a different way. “Some of the core markets, such as Britain, France, Italy and Germany, have not grown as much as some of the newer or emerging markets, such as Iceland or Croatia. We are also seeing strong growth in Portugal, Poland, Scandinavia and Scotland. The smaller secondary markets are growing the most, percentagewise.”
In the established destinations of Europe, Avanti is expanding beyond the most heavily touristed sites. “This is where Avanti’s advantage really comes into play,” said Barry, “in getting you to secondary and tertiary destinations, and small villages as well as roaming around the countryside. In Europe, it is possible to connect to nearly everything by rail.”
In Europe, Americans now feel increasingly comfortable traveling independently, more so than in Latin America or Asia. “In Europe, people who have been back a few times don’t go to the major cities anymore,” said Barry. “They are going out into the country and exploring.”
Avanti is working with local DMCs to expand its offerings of experiences and activities, such as cooking classes, drinking establishment tours, wine or vodka tastings, and other kinds of experiences that help clients immerse themselves deeply in the destinations.
Booking farther out
Avanti is currently seeing an increase in booking lead times. “Bookings already for 2019 are 40 percent up over the same time last year,” said Barry. “It’s early but we’re getting a tremendous amount of phone calls. Bookings are getting deposited already, so that’s a very encouraging sign for 2019. New bookings are coming in really early in the season. The early signs are extremely good.”
One reason to book early is to get the best tour guides. “We do a lot of private flights and guides, etc.,” said Barry, “and there is only a limited number of tour guides. If you want to get the best guides, don’t book 60 days prior, or you won’t get the best tour guides. You need to book in advance.”
As travelers look to go beyond the crowded tourism sites, especially at peak season, new destinations are being developed. “We are creating deeper offerings within countries we already service,” said Barry.
The problem of overtourism has been getting increasing attention lately. “The world has become flatter in tourism,” said Barry, “so more people are coming to Europe, and all parts of the world. But, there are certain parts of all of the major countries, whether Italy, France, or Britain, that have yet to be explored by Americans, where you can get the experience of those countries without the crowds. So, for instance, in Italy, Puglia is an emerging, growing destination, but it doesn’t suffer from overtourism. So, it’s more like tourism was maybe 20 or 30 years ago.”
The same is true of parts of England, such as Devon and Cornwall. “We are working to develop more product offerings in those areas,” he said, “to offer a new type of experience reflective of an aspiration of getting to know the locals, to experience the country without being surrounded by tourists.
“For those who do wish to go to the major cities, we have a lot of private arrangements, so you can avoid the maddening crowds. We also have special arrangements through which you can go in at certain hours to certain tourist sites. We have those options for individuals as well as small family groups.”
Onward and upward
“Avanti” is an Italian word meaning “forward” or “come on.” It turned out to be an accurate portrayal of the company as it blazed trails in independent travel. Now nearly 40 years in business, Avanti is determined to continue to live up to its name.