PHOTO: Harry Dalgaard has built a business based on travel the way he likes to travel — independently. (photo courtesy of Avanti Destinations)
Harry Dalgaard began his travel industry career in 1968 working for Pan Am Airlines. In the 1970s he worked for American Airlines in Dallas. He founded Avanti Destinations in Portland, Ore., in 1981. He was early in catching onto the movement toward independent travel and was an innovator in creating technology to automate bookings of independent travelers selecting from a variety of components.
Avanti began with selling independent travel to Europe and started offering South America in 1990. Dalgaard is a Board Member of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, chairman of its marketing committee and secretary of the executive committee.
Travel Pulse: How are things in the Pacific Northwest?
Harry Dalgaard: It’s a gloomy, rainy day here in Portland. I’m thinking Belize would be good about now.
TP: How is business for Avanti? You are in two areas that are doing very well this year: Europe and Latin America.
HD: Yeah, we’re in really good shape. It’s been three consecutive years of double-digit growth. Europe for us has grown a little bit faster than Latin America. We’re in the high 20s for Europe and the mid teens Latin America.
We are in the right markets in terms of destinations, but also in terms of the migration from group to individual travel, the maturing of the American traveler to travel independently with their own custom-designed itinerary. Certainly we are seeing it in Europe because people want to have it their way. So it’s good.
As I look forward to 2015, I see again double digit growth for the fourth year in a row. Advance bookings are up about 15 percent up Latin America and about 29 percent to Europe.
TP: Those are impressive numbers. Of course in the tour operator business if there isn’t a crisis for a while you start expecting the other shoe to drop.
HD: It’s been a long recovery. I was talking with my banker yesterday and he used the term “waiting for the shoe to drop” because it’s been so up and down. It’s been so cyclical.
Well, we might as well enjoy the situation. And I am enjoying it. We moved to new offices in Portland. We almost doubled the size of our office space. In the last couple of years we added about 35-40 employees. For a small organization that’s pretty great. I think we’re doing our bit for helping the economy, certainly the economy of the Pacific Northwest. So that’s good.
We’ve got more in store for 2016. I’ve been working feverishly on new destinations that we’re not serving now, which we’ll be announcing later, mostly in Europe.
TP: I recently saw on Facebook that you were in Brazil. How was that?
HD: I got a chance to go to the World Cup. I was an invited guest of our Peruvian DMC who was running charters out of Lima to different places for the World Cup. I thought that was really interesting because Peru didn’t qualify for the World Cup, But he sent thousands of people from Peru to Brazil.
I had the honor to go to a game in Salvador de Bahia. It was a quarter final between Costa Rica and the Netherlands. I was part of a group of 10 international tour operators
The most impressive part of it was – after all the negative publicity ahead of time about how nothing is working, nothing will be finished in time – I went to brand new stadium and everything was functioning beautifully. There was traffic getting there, but there’s traffic every day in Salvador, so that wasn’t any different.
It was very well organized, very well controlled. There were some protests but they were humanitarian protests you would see in any city over different causes. I felt very secure and had a great time.
You couldn’t ask for a better backdrop for the coverage. Every night you had the sports commentators with the Copacabana behind them, just beautiful photographs of Rio and the Copacabana. If that doesn’t make people want to go to Rio I don’t know what would.
They’ve done a lot of changes in the infrastructure — improving the airports, the highways, the stadiums and hotels, and getting new hotels online. The hotels needed upgrading particularly in Rio. It’s really helped and obviously now it’s for the next phase for the Olympics 2016. So that’s been good.
TP: How is your business to Brazil?
HD: It has increased but we’re struggling a bit with the currency in terms of services. So some of the gains we would have expected with the stronger dollar haven’t been reflected in some of the services that we provide. But the hotels have gotten more competitive for 2015. So I think will see a growth in tourism. The big elephant in the room is acquiring the visa.
Americans still need a visa and that is a complicated affair, especially if you live outside a major metropolitan area. There is talk of going to a reciprocity fee such as you have in Argentina and Chile and other places in Latin America, and getting it pre-approved electronically or upon arrival. I think that will be a huge boost once it happens.
TP: What other trends are you seeing?
HD: I don’t know whether other FIT operators are seeing it, but it’s very noticeable with us how how far out FIT bookings are occurring, nine months out of travel date. And then also how short in, within 30 days. The traditional 90-45 day advance bookings has shrunk and we’re getting a tremendous amount of business starting in September/October for travel to Europe next May and June and July. And the same things for Latin America, particularly Peru.
Peru is really our fastest growing destination and will probably will eclipse Costa Rica as our number one destination in all of Latin America. The number one in Central America is Costa Rica. In South America it’s Peru. But Peru has really been growing at a huge clip.
And it’s an overused term, but another strong trend is the move toward authenticity among the requirements of the traveler. They don’t want something artificially crafted as an experience.
Almost half our travelers are under 50, and certainly with the millennials and the Gen Xers there is a desire for more authentic experiences, a chance to meet the people and get up close, live like a local, those type of things. Not that the baby boomers don’t want that also. I’ve been an advocate of that ever since I started traveling. That’s why we focus so much on FIT travel because that’s how I prefer traveling.
I prefer to blend in with the locals as opposed to stand out. Even when I travel domestically I love to find local restaurants as opposed to chains, restaurants that have history and special cuisine. Whether it’s Minneapolis or St. Paul or St. Louis, there are local stories and it just brings the meal to life. With globalization, you go to a place like Vienna and you see people standing in line at Starbucks in a city famous for its coffee culture. It just blows me away.
TP: It’s very strange.
HD: It is strange. I guess it’s a comfort level.
They fulfill a role, but they’re not the end-all to everything. That I think is part of the trend. I think also the movement for free Wi-Fi everywhere. That’s to be expected. One of the things we’re working on as we move forward to negotiate with our providers is to provide free Wi-Fi in the hotels we work with. Many of them already do. In fact it’s very interesting, many three- and four-star properties provide it free but it’s the five-star properties that have these ridiculous surcharges for Wi-Fi.
TP: It’s so unbecoming for a luxury hotel to be nickel and diming you over Wi-Fi.
HD: Exactly. That’s what I tell them also. And they go, “Well, we’re of the opinion that if they can afford our rates they can afford anything we throw at them.”
TP: So put it in the rate. Then you’re not insulting people.
HD: That’s right.