After 19 years as owners of Park Avenue Travel in Swarthmore, Pa., Craig and Deborah Bush were wondering how to plan for the future of their travel agency and the job security of their longtime staffers.
Their grown son Joshua had insisted since he was a teenager that he would never be a travel agent. So the couple had no heir to the business and were considering selling.
But over a fateful Memorial Day weekend in 2006, the senior Bushes described in some detail their great trips taken since Christmas -- perhaps they laid it on a little thick, but the younger Bush admitted he was already wondering why he had walked away from the world of travel.
Then, his parents swooped: Would Joshua be willing to join the company?
Joshua was willing. Bush and his parents spent the weekend working on business plans to grow the agency. "We agreed that if we didn't kill each other by December, it would work," he said.
It worked. Indeed, Bush said, he has been surprised at the benefits of "reconnection with my family, to be part of something I knew little about as a kid. I never understood what my parents had built."
From inauspicious beginnings, they had built an all-leisure agency with the kind of service and product line that won an invitation to join Virtuoso about 10 years ago.
When Bush was young, his mother stayed at home but "loved to plan trips for friends," he said. So, she signed on as an independent contractor with Park Avenue Travel.
However, two or three years into it, in 1987, Deborah Bush advised the agency's owner her family would be interested in buying. Two days later, the owner called to take her up on the proposal. This was an agency that had already had several owners and names, Bush said, in its not-quite 10 years.
The senior Bushes bought with a third partner, the agency's manager, then later bought the manager's shares.
Nowadays, Bush's father is CEO, his mother is president and he is vice president, but Bush characterizes their roles in practical terms. "Dad has another job [outside of travel] but is our free MBA." His forte is "high-level business planning," Joshua said. "Mom is operational and on the front line, and I'm technology, marketing and business development." The younger Bush also belongs to the select group of accredited space agents, those certified to sell Virgin Galactic's planned suborbital flights.
Park Avenue Travel is a single-location, $7.5 million to $8 million business with 10 employees and 15 independent contractors.
Adding independent contractors is a way to grow rapidly without a lot of capital expenditure, Bush said, but he acknowledged it has risks. To that end, the agency "got a good contract" by working with travel lawyer Rose Hache and decided not to take on any contractors who do not live within a short drive of Swarthmore, which is about 10 miles west of Philadelphia.
Applicants go through a "rigorous interview process," he said, adding "it comes down to getting to know people and checking references; you get a gut feel for people." He said the agency accepts only one of every 25 to 45 applicants.
On the other hand, the agency does not make travel-industry experience a prerequisite but looks for "top salespeople," regardless of industry.
The second-generation Bush has a strong commitment to technology. He said he "brought us up to speed on direct mail and updated the website, and I am now going into the future. ... So much of our business is based on relationships, so I am starting to use Facebook to solidify the relationships with clients."
Agents, he said, create their own Facebook pages and invite clients and suppliers to visit and exchange information. In this way, he said, agents can see what their clients are interested in and refer to those interests or activities in conversation.
Facebook also could be used to set up groups of clients who will eventually travel together, Bush said.
But Bush's high-tech endeavors don't come at the expense of low-tech, high-touch relationship-building and selling. For example, he said, the agency will visit clients at their homes to create five-year, 10-year or even 15-year travel plans.
Park Avenue Travel has many clients who can afford expensive travel, but the agency believes buyers at all levels should insure their trips, especially given the agency sells "some strange trips and [with] strange conditions." The agency uses Travelex and requires that customers who don't buy sign an acknowledgement that coverage was offered. About 65% to 75% of clients buy coverage, Bush said.
That adds up to a little insurance for the agency, too.
Wintertime in Amsterdam and London
Park Avenue Travel in Swarthmore, Pa., prepared the following custom itinerary for a winter trip to London and Amsterdam.
Day 1: Arrive in London, transfer to flight to Amsterdam. Transfer by private minivan from Schiphol Airport to your hotel. In the afternoon, enjoy a private sightseeing cruise aboard the saloon ship Paradis. While onboard, high tea will be served.
Day 2: A full-day, private excursion by car with an English-speaking driver/guide. Itinerary includes the Rijksmuseum, with its collection of works by Rembrandt and other Dutch masters.
Day 3: Morning city sightseeing. Visit the van Gogh Museum. In the city center, visit the Anne Frank House, where Anne Frank hid with her family during the German occupation.
Day 4: Transfer to Schiphol by private minivan for your flight to London. Meet your driver for a trip to Windsor followed by afternoon at leisure. Overnight in Windsor.
Day 5: Meet your guide for a walk around the corner to Windsor Castle and a morning tour, followed by a quick look at the college town of Eton.
Travel through the English countryside to the city of Bath. Enjoy a brief orientation tour to see the Royal Crescent, the Circus and Pulteney Bridge. Overnight in Bath.
Day 6: Meet your driver and guide for a day in the English countryside, beginning with a visit to Stonehenge. Drive to Bradford-on-Avon in Cotswold village for sightseeing and shopping. Return to Bath for afternoon tea at Sally Lunn's.
Day 7: Visit the Roman Baths and Pump Room. Return by car to London for the duration of the itinerary, stopping in Hammersmith for a quick lunch at the Dove, a riverside pub. Enjoy an afternoon visit to Westminster Abbey. See the Parliament building, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Dinner at Bertorelli followed by a performance of "The Mousetrap," the Agatha Christie mystery in its 51st year on the London stage.
Day 8: Visit the Cabinet War Rooms, the restored command center for England during World War II. After lunch, continue to St. Paul's Cathedral, then on to the Tower of London and a viewing of the Crown Jewels.
Day 9: Morning at leisure. After lunch, head to the Old Vic Theatre on the South Bank to see a pantomime.
Day 10: Consider riding the London Eye or visiting any of several museums or taking a Thames boat trip. Dinner at Simpson's-in-the-Strand, which dates to 1828.
Day 11: Shop in Mayfair before the afternoon return flight to Boston.