Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The literal translation of the German compound word fernweh is "remote sore," but its connotation is travel-related: a painful yearning to see a faraway place. Or as Joe Miller, owner of Fernweh Journeys in San Marcos, Calif., puts it, being "homesick for places you've never been."

I met Miller at the Avoya Travel Conference in Long Beach last week, at a reception honoring "The Best of the Best," Avoya agents who sold at least $1 million in 2017.

Miller, who became an agent last year, did it in 10 months, and for six of those months he sold travel only part time, wanting to test proof of concept before quitting his full-time job in medical sales. He had sold $300,000 during the six months he worked after hours and $700,000 in four months going at it full bore.

He was no stranger to the industry; he had represented CSA Travel Protection, Contiki and Brendan Tours before his 15-year detour into medical sales. But "talking about research all day gets boring," so he decided to go back to travel.

Earlier on the day of the reception, Avoya executive vice president Jeff Anderson had gone onstage and declared, "We're a platform company." I wondered: Did that description, and all its implications, have any bearing on Miller's success?

Anderson later acknowledged that calling Avoya a "platform" was simply a new way of labeling what the company has been doing for about 20 years. But that label has a resonance today it would not have had in the 1990s.

Uber is a platform company. Airbnb is a platform company. A platform company's foundation is software; its asset is the ability to efficiently connect buyers and sellers. Avoya does other platform companies one better: It connects buyers with the right seller, generating leads on the web, then feeding them to agents whose area of specialization matches a prospect's desires.

Another important difference is that Avoya's platform includes a fourth party: suppliers. Uber and Airbnb operate within destinations, but the majority of relationships they tend to have with the destinations are litigious in nature.

Avoya's decision to have humans sell products means that it's not a purely tech play. President Brad Anderson (Jeff's father) accepted that, like other platform companies, Avoya and its independent agencies are "middlemen." But the human element justifies the use of a word he likes better: advocate.

In his presentation earlier that day, Jeff had shared that the company was entering a five-phase project with the goal of becoming the No. 1 vacation platform. In a wide-ranging conversation later that day with the Andersons -- Brad, Jeff, Jeff's brother (executive vice president, technology) Mike and Brad's brother (and co-founder) Van -- they explored what, exactly, being the No. 1 vacation platform means.

Jeff said this topic inspired a "vast debate" within the company. What metric should be used?

Volume? They checked the Travel Weekly Power List, which ranks agencies by aggregate gross travel sales, and saw that, though they enjoyed their best year ever in 2017, with sales jumping from $357 million to $410 million in 12 months, they still had a ways to go before besting No. 1-ranked Expedia, whose 2016 sales totaled over $72 billion.

Although the question of exactly what makes a company No. 1 still has not been settled at Avoya, retention, or repeat business, is the performance indicator that currently holds the most appeal to them (and, perhaps not coincidentally, it's a metric that the purely online travel agencies like Expedia have struggled with).

Jeff pointed to Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out Burger as two examples of businesses that, although not the largest in terms of sales, have the fiercest loyalty and longest lines. But as Van noted, burgers and chicken are tangible; travel is not. You can taste chicken or a burger, but you won't really know what you're getting on a vacation until your toes are in the sand.

The Andersons credit the human element -- the middleman as advocate -- for creating strong loyalty within a platform company.

In his onstage presentation, Jeff had quoted Amazon chief Jeff Bezos saying that his company didn't kill Toys R Us; rather, the retailer was shuttered by "the future."

Jeff was underscoring the importance of exploiting technology to create better solutions. Van didn't disagree, but he also noted that, despite Amazon's march from strength to strength, Best Buy also had a tremendous first quarter, demonstrating the importance of humans in the sales process.

Jeff agreed. "As tech people, we tend to lose sight that humans are the collectors of all knowledge."

To that, Van sounded a cautionary note: "Today, humans are. But what about tomorrow?"

And indeed, the advent of artificial intelligence as a competitive travel recommendation engine brings to mind, among travel agents, another German word, one that needs no translation: angst.

I had wondered how being aligned with a platform company contributed to Joe Miller's success. After speaking with the Andersons, I realized the question could be flipped: What role do humans play in the success of a platform company?

The combination suggests that both technology and humans will play an important role in alleviating the symptoms of fernweh in the foreseeable future.

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