Eleven years ago this month, I wrote a column called "The death of Full Service Travel." I told how a relatively young host agency called America's Vacation Center (AVC) was the direct descendent of a family business called Full Service Travel.
The co-presidents of AVC were brothers, Van and Brad Anderson, and they made a persuasive argument that the time for their legacy family business model, which tried to be all things to all travelers, had passed.
Specialists, they told me, were the way of the future, and they were going to focus on cruises.
"If a mechanic had to work on every type of car, odds are you wouldn't want to go to him," Brad said at the time. "If you had a Toyota, you'd want to go to someone who worked on only Toyotas every day."
Their business has grown significantly since I first met them. Eleven years ago, they had gross annual sales of about $40 million; according to the Power List released last week, they're now at $225 million.
And their business model continues to evolve. A growing awareness of the importance of globalization led them to drop "America" from their name in 2010, and they became "Avoya."
That same year, the brothers decided to add packages, hotels and resorts to their product mix. When I asked Van at the time whether that would dilute the focus of their cruise specialist home-based agents, he told me the change was about growth and efficiency.
"Commissions aren't going up," he said. "The only thing you can do is sell twice as much or change the mix of what you sell. We started with cruises because the technology was there, and the technology is now there for land, hotels and resorts."
At Cruise3Sixty last month, Van gave me a heads up that they would soon be adding air, and the ability to package hotels, air and cars for their clients.
Had things evolved, I asked, or were they coming full circle? A little more than a decade after the era of the specialist had been declared, had he and Brad decided that perhaps full-service travel was again an attractive model?
"We believe in specialization more than ever," he answered, adding that the superiority of specialization "is almost a law of nature. We have independent agencies that, by choice, work with just one supplier. Maybe two. And they're very successful."
He likened the model featuring an expanded product range to large law firms.
"They have a wide range of specialists who may focus on a very narrow part of the law," he said. "Not just intellectual property, but perhaps intellectual property as it relates to travel data. As an organization, we may not be able to do every area of travel specialization, but almost."
Van attributes the opportunity for Avoya to expand its range of specialists to advances in technology.
"The data itself has always been there -- the bits and the bytes, the zeros and the ones -- but being able to interpret it in a way that works is the breakthrough," he said. "And whenever we become confident that the customer experience will improve and independent affiliate profitability will increase, we'll launch a new program.
"We have to always move toward efficiency. We won't be more successful because prices are going up, so we have to make more money for each dollar spent on marketing and lead generation."
At the end of the day, efficient delivery of a broadened product range is about growth: "Bigger is better, there's no question," Van said.
I have followed and chronicled the evolution and growth of Full Service Travel/AVC/Avoya more closely than any other agency, in part because I've observed that its innovations tend to be leading indicators of important trends and in part because its leadership articulates its decision-making processes well.
The new Avoya model isn't a return to Full Service Travel, but rather a move toward mega-agencies that comprise a broad spectrum of travel expertise. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that as sellers of travel have developed deeper product knowledge and professionalism, the Andersons' analogy for their work has moved from auto shops to law firms.
Now, if only travel specialists' fee schedules could mirror what's billed by their brethren who practice law.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.
This article has been updated to reflect that Avoya's annual revenue is $225 million, not $150 million as previously stated.