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When Harry Dalgaard, founder, president and CEO of Avanti Destinations, started the FIT operator 37 years ago, escorted coach tours and cruises ruled the market. But, along with his team at Avanti, Dalgaard helped grow FIT travel and push it past Europe and into Asia and Latin America.
Ahead of his June 30 retirement, Dalgaard spoke with TravelAge West to discuss his decades-long career in the travel industry, the growth of FIT travel and what’s on the horizon.
How have you seen FIT travel evolve over your career?Travelers may take escorted tours and cruises to “get their feet wet” in destinations, but repeat travelers want to do things their own way. FIT is a logical evolution as clients become more sophisticated.
It has always been something that’s perhaps a bit intimidating to travel agents because it requires knowing destinations and suppliers well enough to “connect the dots.” That’s where FIT tour operators like Avanti come in — we have the destination experience and knowledge to help advisors create the unique custom itinerary that more travelers expect these days. Our business has grown 20 percent in the past two years, a great barometer of the popularity of FIT.
While multidestination FIT is often done in Europe, it’s more of a challenge in Latin America and Asia. But we’ve taken the “fear factor” out in Asia, because each custom itinerary includes private local guides in nearly every location. Asia business has grown 60 percent over last year as agents feel comfortable sending independent clients off on their own, with our help, to a part of the world that most only see on an escorted tour or cruise.
Why did you choose to have your product sold exclusively to travel agents?When you start a new business, it’s a good idea to build relationships with those who have more experience. Since I had started my career in air and then worked with tour operators and at a travel agency, it seemed like the logical thing to leverage those relationships.
Technology is, of course, the thing that has transformed the travel business. Ironically, even though technology has given consumers a tool to book their own itineraries, it has also helped agents prosper. There are just too many choices, and more affluent consumers don’t want to wade through them. The internet makes fraud a greater threat. Some consumers have been burned by experiences with suppliers who have an enticing website but a very different product.
Americans work too hard and want to make sure that the limited time they have for vacation is the best it can be. That’s where agents play a role, besides being an advocate for travelers in case of unexpected problems.
What will you miss the most about working with Avanti, and what is your wish for Avanti moving forward?I’ll miss all the wonderful people I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with both in the travel business and suppliers around the world. I wish the team continued success and growth. And I hope they continue to build an even richer experience for travelers with stronger relations with agents, consortia and suppliers.
What can we expect next for Avanti?There are new developments in the works, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. You’ll just have to wait.What’s on the agenda for July 1? I am looking forward to spending time with my family, as well as traveling. There are many things I haven’t had time to do while I’ve been running a business: reading books on American history, studying languages, taking tai chi, learning to cook, etc. I’d like to thank all the amazing people with whom I’ve worked — especially the travel agents — who’ve made Avanti’s success possible.
The DetailsAvanti Destinationswww.avantidestinations.com