America’s Vacation Centers Sees Opportunity for Home-Based Agents

AVC's Van Anderson

The widespread mind-set that travel agents can “survive” rather than “thrive” may prove a greater barrier to the growth of the industry in 2009 than any economic factor, Van Anderson, co-president of America’s Vacation Center (AVC), said in an interview with Travel Agent

Anderson supports his conviction with a $1 million expansion of his company's Travel Agent Stimulus Plan, which Anderson believes will encourage more independent agents to affiliate with AVC. “Without diluting our professional standards or AVC’s integrity as a company, we are going to expand in a responsible, innovative way," he said. "We have, in fact, raised the bar.”

The Travel Agent Stimulus Plan is a turnkey business program that AVC created to assist all professional sellers of travel, including home-based, storefront or call-center agents. The commitment—to be spent by April 30—will cut the startup costs to start an AVC affiliated travel agency to $95 from $495. This is accompanied by a significant increase in consumer marketing to generate Live Leads.

Widely regarded as one of the industry’s best managed and successful host agencies and a member of the American Express Travel Representative Network, AVC’s Anderson admits to being fully aware of the plethora of bad news that clogs the agency distribution system.

“My parents started in the travel business over 40 years ago, [but] we feel that the pessimism over the last few years has gotten the better of too many agents and suppliers," he said. "Our Independent Affiliate network members continue to be extremely successful and our Travel Agent Stimulus Plan is considered a very positive response.”

Anderson reports that 2009 to date has been a stellar year with AVC’s Independent Affiliates turning in outstanding performances. As a family-owned business, AVC does not release financial data or other indicators, but sales have been estimated at $150 million annually with several hundred Independent Affiliates nationwide. “We see a need not just to think outside the box, but to kick the box over," he said. "We want to tap into the energy, entrepreneurial drive and professional commitment of our independent agents.”

One immediate impact will be to immediately decrease the costs for professionals to start their own AVC travel agency, with startup costs reduced by 80 percent. In addition, the program includes a pledge by America’s Vacation Center to significantly increase its consumer marketing to generate even more Live Leads. AVC’s Live Leads are the primary source of bookings for its current network of Independent Affiliates and are available for new Independent Affiliates to quickly grow their businesses. AVC’s commission policy is 30 percent for the Independent Affiliate and 70 percent for AVC on AVC Live Leads, and 80 percent for the Independent Affiliate and 20 percent for AVC on their own customers. Independent Affiliates have access to AVC’s $5 million E&O policy, but AVC recommends agents have their own policy as well.

Anderson believes that AVC’s trademarked Live Leads program gives AVC a major advantage. Live Leads are well-qualified customers offered exclusively to America’s Vacation Center Independent Affiliates via the phone and Internet using patent-pending technology.

Available 24/7, Live Leads enable professional sellers of travel to focus on selling and generating profits. Unlike other lead programs that force several travel agents to undercut each other for the same customer, America’s Vacation Center’s exclusive Live Leads are superior, Anderson says, because Independent Affiliates never share leads and each customer is only sent to one travel professional based on their areas of expertise.

The Travel Agent Stimulus Plan also includes an increased financial commitment by America’s Vacation Center to provide live agency support for Independent Affiliates. AVC independent agents also gain from more than 25,000 cruise cabins and tour seats of blocked group space. Anderson also applauds the efforts of major cruise lines such as Celebrity and RCI for innovative agency support.

From Anderson’s perspective, the Travel Agent Stimulus Plan improves the odds of being successful in today’s economy. Along with a host of other assets, including an extensive library of vendor and entrepreneurial-related training, AVC maintains close contact with its Independent Affiliates. Among other educational resources, AVC has 10 to 15 agent individual trainings a week. AVC has both Florida and California offices.

Anderson intends to maintain AVC’s long-standing reputation in the travel industry for being one of the top-producing host travel agencies worldwide and its 20-year membership in the American Express Travel Representative Network. Anderson boasts that AVC was recently named Travel Agency of the Year by Carnival Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Oceania Cruises, MSC Cruises, Brendan and Norwegian Cruise Lines—an accomplishment no other travel agency has ever achieved.

Tour sales are growing steadily since last year's launch, Anderson reports, and AVC agents have the advantage of Vacation Explorer, a recent addition to AVC’s proprietaryy online Agent Power booking resource and technology platform. Agent Power provides an array of best-in-class integrated applications including Customer Relationship Management (CRM) resources, an advanced booking engine, task reminders, a follow-up calendar and a personalized consumer website.

“The challenge is to market better,” Anderson said, questioning if sales skills can alone help agents thrive without a marketing and back-office support system to back up sales. “We know there is real pain out there and have felt some of it. But the challenge is clear: use the full resources of a solid host agency. AVC’s business model has been tested again and again and proven to work for our Independent Affiliates and our customers. Our business model is even more valuable in an economic downturn.”

Anderson is also bullish on the growth of the home-based independent agent sector of the distribution system and AVC’s role. He is also confident that the independent agents will continue to prove their value to industry suppliers and the traveling public. “This will be a tough year, but smart, professional agents and their host agencies can and will thrive.”

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