Travel agencies have been hearing about the demise of their industry for about a quarter of a century when airlines first limited and then cut commissions.
Avondale Travel is no exception.
It’s a company that has seen a lot of ups and downs in the past 48 years, and is now run by the only child of its founder Louis “Lou” Black, Leigh Israel.
Black started his business in 1974 with a single office in Showbiz of Avondale on St. John’s Street. Fifteen years later, the family-owned business had grown to 50 offices, making it one of the largest travel agencies in the country at the time.
That’s when he decided to sell all but one of the sites to US Travel. The company retained Orange Park Travel, which eventually joined into an invitation-only consortium of agencies focused on the luxury travel market. In 2014, a second location opened in Avondale, a year after Israel joined the company. Her father died four years later.
“The business was fine when I joined the company because we didn’t find a suitable place for us to really focus on the luxury tourism market. We were trying to compete with the internet and basically helped anyone and everyone walked in the door,” Israel said. “In order to survive in this industry and do your job well, you have to have a niche in place, whether it’s in budget travel, cruises or luxury travel. By specializing in practical VIP service, we are no longer competing with the internet yet right Now . “
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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 travel agency booths with brochures around locations around the world. But nothing could prepare it for the onset of the pandemic when travel suddenly stopped, and more people were searching for answers about canceled travel plans already booked.
“And it was crazy time. The borders were closed, the airlines were shut down and no one knew how long it would last.” “The first thing I did was ask everyone to pack their bags 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 in order to survive. We closed down the Orange Park site,” Israel, 35, who was pregnant at the time with twins, said. But our phones didn’t stop ringing. Everyone needed help and soon the companies stopped giving refunds because they were spending money.”
I reached out to Avondale Travel because COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the travel industry. The pandemic’s impact on global travel has cost the country billions in lost spending and put travel businesses of all sizes at risk.
A year after the pandemic began, nearly four out of every 10 U.S. jobs lost were in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to an analysis of the Labor Department’s National Jobs Report. This is three times the number of the industry most affected, which was the government.
Soon after the pandemic broke out, the American Association of Travel Consultants issued a dire warning, estimating that 77 percent of travel agency members surveyed said they would be out of business within six months if things didn’t change soon.
Building on the legacy of Le Black
The global pandemic that has brought the entire travel industry to a blatant standstill appears to have made Avondale Travel even stronger.
Israel said that thinking about her father’s legacy was a driving force that led to her success.
She said, “Failure is not an option for us. I love the namesake business. I got our business name branded. This legacy to my two children is very important to me.”
It wasn’t easy. Israel said its employees pride themselves on specializing in the high-end white glove service. Before the pandemic, the company’s main goal was to use their connections around the world to find unfamiliar travel experiences. They pride themselves on making customers feel special from the moment they arrive at the airport with chauffeurs promoting their customers’ name signs. They also enjoyed assuring customers that if something went wrong, they had their back. Clients range from high net worth dual income clients in their twenties, to people in their eighties seeking to go on cruises around the world.
“The reach 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 trying to rebook canceled travel arrangements.
Canceled flights allow Avondale Travel to boost its value
Recently retired general contractor David Myers said he has nothing but praise for Avondale Travel. He booked a trip to celebrate his 35th wedding anniversary before the pandemic, and ended up partying for two weeks in London and France two years later.
“Not only were they good, they were great,” he said, “I can’t say enough about Avondale Travel, as it was a tough trip to plan and manage even in the best of conditions, but benefited from COVID and all I can say is the key word that comes to mind.” Mindfulness is perseverance. They have rescheduled our trip several times.”
“You have to understand what that took. It was an exclusive trip for us and another couple who joined us. The whole trip was five star and it was great how they put it together. We gave them carte blanche to put it together and that’s what they gave.”
Myers said he hadn’t had much experience traveling abroad and the idea of not understanding different languages made him uncomfortable, but Avondale Travel made sure someone guided them through every part of the two-week trip.
“Lee is a travel addict who knows a lot of things about a lot of places in the world and she brings this experience to the table,” he said.
Support is everything
Israel said its company prides itself on providing a seamless experience that includes expediting customers through customs abroad, but in the past two years, the company has had to get creative with its close-to-home travel packages.
When clients’ travel plans were canceled, they began expressing interest in road trips close to home. For the first time, Avondale Travel is beginning to bundle more regional trips than ever before at five-star hotels across Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Sandy Harbison, managing director of Avondale Travel, said she started her career at the company in 1984 and left the company just before it was sold. She’s back in business 30 years later when she learns that the founder’s daughter has taken over the business. At that time she was unhappy with working in a hotel.
“I came back to Avondale in 2014 and have never looked back. We’ve been through our growing pains, and with the loss of Lou 5 years ago, Lee really shined and developed the business into what it is today,” she said. “We did something right to survive the pandemic and were able to get a storefront with four agents and six independent contractors.”
This is an understatement given that the company expects 2022 to be the most successful year in the company’s history.
“We’ve always worn a lot of hats, but we’re wearing a lot of them now,” Israel said. “Travel is very hot right now. Now that the Covid restrictions are lifted, people are ready to go. They are tired of just sitting around and want to experience global and domestic travel. It is exciting to see their enthusiasm.”
Marsha Pledger is the opinion and contributing editor for the Florida Times-Union. She can be reached at [email protected]