Avanti Destinations is launching a new department for large groups, as well as a number of upgrades to its travel agent website and call center. Travel Agent spoke with the tour operator’s new management team during a recent visit to our New York office to learn more.
“Groups had been the number one request from our travel agent surveys,” says Paul Barry, who took over as owner and executive chairman of the company following the retirement of founder Harry Dalgaard in June. “We’d get requests for larger group bookings, but we had to turn them away.”
Previously Avanti, which sells exclusively through travel agents, had specialized in custom FIT travel and custom travel for small groups under 16 people. The new department will handle customized arrangements for groups of 15 to 100 passengers in all of the destinations Avanti sells – Europe, Asia and Central and South America – although Barry says the typical group size will be under 30 or 40 people.
“It’s mostly affinity groups – church groups, education groups, book and garden clubs,” Barry says.
Launching the new large group department meant staffing up. To ensure the new large group bookings could provide the proper level of service, Avanti hired all-new staff to populate a standalone department within the company.
“We only recruited people with over 10 years of experience with group travel,” says Barry.
The new management team, including Chief Operating Officer Mark Grundy and Chief Marketing Officer John Hanratty, were also in New York to introduce the new groups department to travel agents.
“They’re quite happy,” Barry says of the agents’ reaction.
Other than the new groups department, a number of new travel agent tools and call center updates are on the horizon.
“We are both a travel and technology company,” Grundy says, noting that Avanti has its own proprietary booking software called Tourgate. Currently, Tourgate has direct connections with 75 percent of the company’s destination management companies (DMCs).
Grundy says Avanti is relaunching its website in January with a new consumer-facing page with general information about the company, as well as a travel agent dashboard that will offer streamlined, easier-to-use navigation. As part of the new site, consortia will also get their own dashboards to track their business with Avanti.
The company’s call center, too, has undergone a number of updates, including upgraded Internet and a new phone system with features like automated callbacks for agents who do not want to wait on hold.
The updates to both the call center and website reflect a strategy that allows travel agents to receive expert assistance through a variety of channels. “A consistent investment in technology is important, but it won’t work without staff,” Grundy says, noting that the company trains its travel consultants (TCs), who can work with agents via the call center, the new website or email, extensively. Each TAC receives a three-week training period, followed by a one-week period of observation of a more experienced TC. Only then are they allowed to actually start selling Europe, gradually escalating in responsibility to more destinations.
Avanti also sponsors extensive travel for its TCs, which Grundy says is important for product knowledge, as well as for retaining experienced staff.
“We have almost zero attrition in our call center,” Grundy says, which he attributes to the company’s investment in staff travel and education.
“Even if they’re not traveling, 20 percent of the year we’ll take them off the phone for education and coaching,” Grundy says.
The upgraded call center and website will allow Avanti to appeal to travel agents from a variety of demographics. “Most of our business comes through our call center, but Millennial agents want to do business online,” Grundy says. A major design goal for the website is, “anything you can do in the call center, you can do online,” according to Grundy. Millennials also now make up approximately half of the company's TCs.
“We don’t have the knowledge yet on the floor – we have to maintain consistency,” Grundy says. “It will come in time, but it’s not going to be a snap decision.”