Travel agents have been hearing about the decline of their industry for about a quarter century, as airlines first capped and then slashed commissions.
Avondale Travel is no exception.
It’s a company that has seen many ups and downs over the past 48 years and is now led by Leigh Israel, the only child of founder Louis “Lou” Black.
Black started the business in 1974 with an office in the Shoppes of Avondale on St. John’s Avenue. Fifteen years later, the family business grew to 50 offices and was one of the largest travel agencies in the country at the time.
At that point, he decided to sell all but one location to US Travel. The company retained Orange Park Travel, which eventually joined a consortium of invitation-only agencies focused on the luxury travel market. A second location opened in Avondale in 2014, a year after Israel got into the business. Her father died four years later.
“Business was going well when I joined the company because we hadn’t found our niche to really focus on the luxury tourism market. We were trying to compete with the internet and basically helping anyone and everyone that came through the door,” Israel said. “To survive in this industry and do your job well, you have to have a niche, whether it’s budget travel, cruising or luxury travel. By specializing in convenient VIP service, we no longer compete with the Internet.”
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How COVID-19 has challenged the travel industry
Israel says she has loved being in the travel industry since she was a little girl, when she enjoyed traveling with her family and filling the travel agency stands with brochures about places around the world. But nothing could prepare them for the onset of the pandemic, when travel suddenly halted and more people than ever sought answers about canceled plans for trips already booked.
“It was a crazy time. Borders were closed, airlines grounded and no one knew how long it would take,” she said. “The first thing I did was tell everyone to pack up and go home and we’ll figure out what to do with the office.”
“We had two offices and we knew we had to do something to survive. We have closed our Orange Park location,” said Israel, 35, who was pregnant with twins at the time. “But our phones never stopped ringing. Everyone needed help and companies quickly stopped issuing refunds because they were bleeding money.”
I reached out to Avondale Travel because of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the travel industry. The impact of the pandemic on global travel has cost the country billions in spending and put travel companies of all sizes at risk.
A year into the pandemic, the leisure and hospitality industry accounted for nearly four in 10 of all US jobs lost, according to an analysis of the Labor Department’s national employment report. That’s triple the figure for the hardest-hit industry, government.
Shortly after the pandemic broke out, the American Society of Travel Advisors issued a dire warning, estimating that 77 percent of travel agent members surveyed said they would be out of business in six months if things didn’t change soon.
Building on Lou Black’s legacy
The global pandemic that brought the entire travel industry to a standstill seems to have only made Avondale Travel stronger.
Israel said that remembering her father’s legacy was a driving force that led to her success.
“Failure is not an option for us,” she said. “I love the business and the namesake. I have trademarked the name of our company. This legacy for my two children is very important to me.”
However, it wasn’t easy. Israel said its staff prides itself on specializing in high-end, white-gloved service. Before the pandemic, the company’s primary goal was to leverage its relationships around the world to find off-the-beaten-track travel experiences. They prided themselves on making customers feel special from the moment they arrived at the airport, with chauffeurs advertising with their customers’ names. They’ve also enjoyed reassuring clients that they have their back should anything go wrong. Clients range from high net worth dual earners in their 20s to people in their 80s looking to cruise around the world.
“The access we have is incredible,” she said. “If you can dream it, we can make it happen.”
But for more than a year, the company has been busy rebooking canceled travel arrangements.
Canceled trips have allowed Avondale Travel to increase its value
David Meyers, a recently retired general contractor, said he had nothing but praise for Avondale Travel. He booked a trip to celebrate his 35th wedding anniversary before the pandemic, and partied for two weeks in London and France two years later.
“Not only were they good, they were phenomenal,” said, “I just can’t say enough about Avondale Travel because it’s been a difficult trip to plan and manage even in the best of circumstances, but throw away COVID and all that I an I can say the keyword that comes to mind is perseverance. They rescheduled our trip a few times.”
“You must understand what that meant. It was an exclusive trip for us and another couple who joined us. The entire trip was five stars and the way they put it together was brilliant. We gave them free rein to put it together and they delivered.”
Meyers said he doesn’t have much experience traveling abroad and the thought of not understanding different languages worried him, but Avondale Travel made sure they had someone to guide them on every part of the two-week trip.
“Leigh is a travel junkie who knows lots of things about lots of places around the world and she brings that experience to the table,” he said.
support is everything
Israel said her company prides itself on offering a seamless experience that includes moving customers through overseas customs, but over the past two years the company has been forced to be creative with travel packages close to its home country.
When customers’ travel plans were cancelled, they began to express interest in road trips closer to home. For the first time, Avondale Travel began piecing together more regional trips than ever before at five-star hotels throughout Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Sandy Harbison, managing director of Avondale Travel, said she began her career with the company in 1984 and left the company shortly before the sale. She rejoined the business 30 years later when she learned that the founder’s daughter had taken over the business. At the time she was unhappy working in a hotel.
“I returned to Avondale in 2014 and have no regrets. We had our growing pains and with the loss of Lou 5 years ago, Leigh shone and made the company what it is today,” she said. “We did something right to have weathered the pandemic and to be able to have a storefront with four agents and six independent contractors.”
That’s an understatement considering the company expects 2022 to be the most successful year in company history.
“We’ve always worn a lot of hats, but now we’re wearing a lot of them,” Israel said. “Travel is so hot right now. Now that Covid restrictions are being lifted people are ready to go. They are tired of just sitting around and want to experience the world and inland. It’s exciting to see their excitement.”
Marcia Pledger is Opinion and Engagement Editor at the Florida Times-Union. She can be reached at [email protected]