Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations, reports that he is seeing the company’s Europe business hold up well, despite the weakening economy and the poor value of the dollar against the euro. Avanti, an FIT operator based in Portland, OR, moves approximately 42,000 clients a year; 75 percent of its business is to Europe, the remainder is to Central and South America.
Boats docked in Naxo Harbour, Greece—one of Avanti's many popular travel spots
“International travel is a birthright now and people need that fix,” says Dalgaard, who works exclusively through travel agents. “They need the stimulus of cultural interchange, whether it’s sipping a latte on the Via Veneto or in a Parisian café; it’s something that people want to do as part of their lifestyle.”
So where are people traveling to these days? Italy, Italy, Italy, as you may already know, but while that country has long been the perennial favorite, Dalgaard says that Spain is rapidly pulling ahead for both transatlantic travelers and intra-Europe visitors.
Interest in Spain continues to grow; pictured here, the Sagrada Familia, or Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, in Barcelona
Who Are the Clients?
And while Avanti’s key market falls primarily within the baby boomer demographic, he’s also seeing upscale young professionals with a penchant for Spain travel as well.
“We are seeing people who are interested in the food and wine of Spain,” says Dalgaard. “They are interested in three-night interludes where they might visit limited-production wineries, where they get to talk to the owners, find out what their challenges are and then they share a meal with them.”
The desire for such experiences bodes well for Avanti, which sells customized travel programs that can be further enhanced with interactive add-on components. These may include cooking in a rustic villa in Tuscany or a wine-tasting in the Alsace region. Or, a module could provide a castle stay in France, Ireland or Portugal. In Central and South America, it could include kayaking and rafting in Costa Rica and Belize or a jungle-lodge stay in Brazil, Peru or Ecuador. All the add-on modules are commissionable to travel agents; in fact, everything Avanti sells is commissionable—the air, the car rental, the included meals and the sightseeing.
“I cater to people who want it totally their way,” laughs Dalgaard. “We as consumers are used to being able to customize and modify things just the way we want them and on an FIT basis you can do that, you aren’t set on a fixed program. If you want to spend five nights in an area where people usually spend two nights, that is fine. You have control over your environment.”
While Dalgaard founded Avanti in 1981, the past two years have been a homecoming of sorts for him. That’s because in 2002, he sold the company to Rail Europe, only to repurchase it in September 2006. “The biggest reward so far has been the positive response we’ve received from the travel agency community on our customer service and the focus we like to put on designing the right trip for their clients,” says Dalgaard of the repurchase.
Avanti’s strategy for the hotels it offers through its Europe program is to offer locally owned properties. “The major chains are wonderful, but people are traveling for European ambiance. So we may be offering boutique or design hotels, but really not the known U.S. brands because we want the traveler to experience the European product,” he says, noting that the number of five-star properties Avanti offers is growing.
Avanti has also been expanding its reach beyond Italy, the UK, France, Spain and Germany by reaching into Eastern and Central Europe.
“We are doing a ton of business in Prague, Vienna and Budapest and in the last three years, we have gotten into Croatia and Slovenia and we’re going to develop more product in that area,” says Dalgaard, noting that he’ll also be adding on Romania. “There is tremendous interest in Central and Eastern Europe because people have done other things and they are looking for something new.”
Greece has also been growing in popularity for the tour operator. “Since the Olympics in 2004, there has been double-digit growth,” he says. “People are doing multiple islands. While Mykonos and Santorini are the ‘big two,’ people are exploring other islands, too, such as Rhodes and Crete.”
Harry Dalgaard, CEO of Avanti Destinations
Role of the Travel Agent
Dalgaard says he has been pleased to see how the role of the travel agent has evolved over the years. “The professionals in the business know that they are not just an issuer of tickets and that they have to have knowledge and provide value to the end user,” he says. “To stay in business, they have to appreciate that the customer that is coming to them now is a lot more demanding. The role that the agent plays is about saving time, providing knowledge and securing the right products for them once they are in the destination.
“Travel agents need to understand that these people don’t just want a room somewhere,” he adds, “they want the right room. They want to know if the view they are getting is a canal view and if so, is it a partial view? As far as transfers go, they want to know what kind of car it is. They’ll say, ‘I don’t want a Fiat, I want a Mercedes.’ The travel agent who is able to say, ‘I can get that for you and I can deliver it,’ is the one that provides that value.”
To ensure quality service on the ground in the destinations it serves, Avanti uses destination management companies (DMCs) throughout Europe and Latin America. “They are our ‘Johnny on the spot,’ they know the general managers of our hotels better than I do and they’re charged with fixing an issue on the spot instead of having the client call an 800 number back in the U.S. at 2 a.m.,” says Dalgaard.
To ensure that the services and hotels Avanti offers are up to par, Dalgaard spends 40 to 50 percent of his year traveling to Europe and Latin America. “My job is finding people in foreign countries who understand what our consumers want and what Avanti stands for in terms of brand and what our value proposition is. So I spend a lot of time choosing DMCs, grading their performance and understanding their issues. It’s good for me to get out in the field to visit our hotels so we understand what they are saying and [they] understand what we want.”
Travel agent education is vital for Avanti and so the company provides a series of webinars that provide destination and geography information. “One of our goals is to provide online training on how to sell FITs,” says Dalgaard, who notes that Avanti also puts its relationships with the various agency consortia to good use. “We use their distribution channels to focus on our marketing relationships. They have a lot of tools and it’s a matter of using those tools.”
To service its travel agent clients, Avanti employs 85 people in total; 45 of them are in the reservations system. “Travel agents like to use our website to check availability, but then they like to call us, especially if they have questions on the hotels,” says Dalgaard.
Looking back, and ahead, Dalgaard can’t help but reveal his love for the travel industry.
“What I enjoy so much about this job is that you are always learning and it’s not just about new destinations, it’s about new technology or new styles of travel. For me personally it’s also been very enriching in terms of the relationships we’ve established over the years with both with our customers and our suppliers.”