Mark Grundy, managing director for Asia for Avanti Destinations // © 2016 Avanti Destinations
Feature image (above): Clients may visit Jeju Island in South Korea during a trip with Avanti Destinations in 2017. // © 2016 Avanti Destinations
Avanti sells all of its tours exclusively through travel agents. In September, the company announced plans to expand its Asia reach to a total of 13 countries in 2017. Avanti released its 84-page “Essence of Asia” brochure earlier this fall. We spoke with Mark Grundy, managing director for Asia for Avanti, to learn more about the company’s new additions and activity highlights in the region, as well as its approach to business.
What destinations in Asia will you be adding in 2017?
Technically, we’ve got eight new destinations. Singapore we’ve already been selling, and then Dubai is a stopover; we’re not really treating it as a full-blown destination, although we are getting a lot of interest in it. The six new destinations are Taiwan, Myanmar, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Were some of the new options more frequently requested by travel agents?
The two that stood out the most were Myanmar and South Korea. Myanmar, because of its history, is getting back onto the travel map. They haven’t opened up the whole country, but certainly Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake are four very popular destinations creating a lot of interest. So Myanmar was an obvious choice.
South Korea has a lot of pre- and post-cruising options, and that’s very popular for travel agents to call in and book. It’s also a good way to get over to Asia. Some people will look at South Korea as, “Let’s go there for three or four nights and then head down to China or Japan.” And it’s a great destination. Seoul is an amazing city. We’re featuring three destinations primarily: Seoul, the capital; then in the south, Busan; and then even farther south, Jeju Island.
What are some new activity options that stand out?
From my own personal experience, one that springs to mind in Seoul, South Korea, is going up to the Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ. It’s about an hour’s drive from Seoul, heading north, and you get to look at the North Koreans. It’s quite an intimidating place. It’s interesting to see the difference between the North and the South. Also, when they were at war, North Korea built tunnels to the South. Today, visitors can go down inside these tunnels, about 230 feet down.
In Myanmar, in Bagan, which is right on the Irrawaddy River, we also do a really nice day where we rent electric scooters and go around the countryside looking at individual temples and pagodas. You have a guide, and some people want to look in every temple, while others just want to drive by and take pictures. At about an hour before sunset, we get to the Irrawaddy and take a private boat upstream for about 45 minutes to an hour, then they cut the engines just as the sun is about to set. We serve cocktails, wine or champagne while the boat drifts back. The sunsets are unbelievable — just spectacular. When we get off the boat, we take you to a local restaurant, where I had one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Asia.
How does Dubai fit into your 2017 plans?
For people on the eastern side of the U.S., to get to Southeast Asia, if they go with our existing airline contracts, they’re adding about five hours coming west and then going north and over the pole. Whereas if they fly on Emirates out of the East Coast, it’s much quicker for them to get down to Southeast Asia, and it’s an incredible product. Emirates has one of the most modern fleets in the world. If you’re going to be flying a long time on a plane, you might as well do it on one that’s very modern and very comfortable. We’re now also having people asking to stay three or four or five nights in Dubai.
What sort of activities are available to clients who stop over in Dubai?
If you fly to Dubai, when you get there you’re pretty tired. So the first night, people are just crashing. But there is incredible shopping in Dubai, and some people like to spend the day shopping. We also do a nice glamping program, where people go out into the desert and camp for one night in very luxurious tents. They have staff looking after them, and there are beautiful rugs on the floor and walls. It’s really like you’re in a five-star hotel, but you’re out in the middle of the desert.
Can you describe your custom-built vacation approach?
Our philosophy is if you’re going on vacation, you want to go on the vacation you want to do. You don’t necessarily want to go on a vacation where 38 other people are sitting on a coach, and you’re all doing the same thing. I always like to say we never sell the same vacation twice, because each one really is custom-designed for the family or the couple. We talk to the consumer through the travel agent to find out what it is that they really want, and then we piece it together.
The hotels are four- and five-star and boutique properties, but a hotel is a hotel, and I think what makes Avanti totally different are the other services we provide — private guides and private transportation, which can be customized to make possible whatever it is you want to do. It’s all about giving clients a unique experience so that when they return and walk into their church group or their board room or their tennis or golf club, they can say, “Guess what I did in Tokyo (or Bagan or Bali)? I did something that was really unique.”
How has your Asia business performed since you launched last year?
It has exceeded all of our expectations. That’s why we are able to bring in these new countries and increase the size of the brochure. Japan has done very well for us. Thailand is doing extremely well for us, and we’ve added a lot of new product there. China started out a little bit slow, but in the middle and toward the end of this year, it has really picked up, and the forward bookings to China look to be really strong going into 2017.