Eschewing the usual travel agency business model, two travel companies on the Inc. 5000 list are enjoying significant success by providing highly curated itineraries and hiring staff with specialized expertise. Their approach is clearly resonating in today’s on-demand culture.
What does the successful leisure travel agency of the future look like? It could well be one that bears little resemblance to a traditional travel agency.
That is certainly indicated by the success of Audley Travel U.S. and Indagare Travel, which both made Inc. Magazine’s 2019 list of the top 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S. Each focuses on providing highly customized itineraries and does so with a business model quite unlike that of most travel agencies.
Audley Travel U.S.
Founded in the UK over 20 years ago, Audley Travel opened an office in Boston in 2014 and formed Audley Travel U.S. Since then the U.S. operation has steadily expanded to 260 employees and posted over 300 percent growth in just the past year, according to the Inc. 5000 list where it ranks at 1,336.
What makes Audley different from most travel agencies? For one thing, it does not seek out generalist travel advisors or work with independent contractors. Instead, the company hires “travel specialists,” people who may have little or no experience as travel advisors but who do have a deep interest or knowledge pertaining to a particular country or region.
“At a traditional travel agency you tend to have people who will handle a broad range of destinations for their clients,” said Jacqui Lewis, president and managing director of Audley Travel U.S. “We don’t do that here. Instead, we hire travel specialists who focus only a specific corner of the world. It might be a region like Southeast Asia or one or two countries in Europe that complement each other.”
While each client is matched with a destination specialist who designs the trip and remains the point of contact during the process, that specialist may not be the one who handles the client’s next trip.
“If the client wants to visit a different part of the world on their next trip, then we put them together with a specialist who knows that area,” Lewis said. “Although close relationships develop between specialists and clients, expertise comes first.”
With “a passion for travel” as one of its key hiring criteria, Audley sends new employees on a six-week fam trip to their specialty destination and expects them to return there for at least a month each year.
“We invest heavily at the onset, so people get thorough training on the country and really get under the hood of the destination,” Lewis said. “We also want think it’s important that they experience the products as our clients do. Someone is always coming back in the office, sharing what new information they’ve found.”
While some of the travel specialists work remotely, the vast majority work in the Boston office and all are full-time employees.
“We don’t use independent contractors because you can’t control when someone is available for the client,” Lewis said. “We are very customer centric and feel that this makes for better customer service.”
Lewis describes Audley’s focus as “tailor-made travel,” with each itinerary customized according to the preferences of each client. While some is high-end travel, a variety of budgets are accommodated. Few trips involve pre-set itineraries from tour operators or other off-the-shelf products.
“We really look for boutique hotels and places that are more experiential and less mainstream,” she said. “It’s about getting the best drivers, guides and really curating good experiences in each country. We put a lot of effort into finding the hidden gems.”
Since opening in 2014, Audley Travel U.S.’s client base has mushroomed, starting with those familiar with Audley in the U.K. and then growing largely through word-of-mouth. The company does a brisk business among empty nesters who have the time and money to travel, with multi-generational travel a particular demand area, Lewis said.
Lewis believes that demand for highly customized travel will only continue to grow, the result of a culture where so much is available on-demand.
“People have become accustomed to being able to have everything the exact way they want it and when they want it, whether it’s the TV they watch or the music they listen to,” she said. “Why shouldn’t travel be the same?”
Founded by former magazine editor Melissa Biggs Bradley who now partners with magazines like Vogue and Architectural Digest in creating specialty tours, New York-based Indagare Travel grew by 97 percent last year, according to the Inc. 5000, which ranks it at 3,609. It’s the company’s third time on the Inc. list.
Bradley, a former editor at Town & Country who launched Town & Country Travel magazine, the move from journalist to travel entrepreneur came in 2007 when she left parent company Hearst Corp. to start a website providing digital content about travel. Her plan was to create a community of like-minded passionate travelers willing to pay for vetted information.
“Within three months of launching, we had people calling and saying this is great, but can you help me plan my trip?” Bradley said. “We didn’t want to say no, so we took things from content and community to commerce.”
Starting with a small team of travel journalists, Indagare now has a staff of 85, none with a travel agency background. Like Audley Travel, Indagare calls its staffers “travel specialists” and invests heavily in on-the-ground training, having sent staff out for a total of 1,500 days last year to over 70 countries.
“We don’t look like a travel agency,” Bradley said. “A lot of our travel specialists came out of fashion, finance or journalism. They tend to be young, natural planners, detail fanatics and obsessed with traveling, but none started out to be travel advisors. We are creating something that didn’t exist before.”
Like Audley Travel, the company does not hire independent contractors.
“I felt the IC model was contrary to what we want to do,” Bradley said. “It’s impossible for one person to have expertise about the whole world. We need to have a team concept to serve the lifetime travel needs of our members.”
Indagare also differs from most travel agencies in that it uses a membership model. Customers choose among three-tiers of membership with an annual fee starting at $395, gaining access to newsletters and other travel information on up to the services of a travel specialist.
The company provides both customized trip planning for individuals as well as small group tours, many of these designed and marketed in partnership with magazines. These have included tours of Marrakech and Lebanon in conjunction with Architectural Digest and tours to Rome with Vogue. Tours with Architectural Digest of Brazil, Istanbul, India, Mexico City, Cape Town and Tokyo are in the planning stages.
“We are able to jointly promote the tours with the magazines and through the editors’ contacts we gain special access to private homes, gardens and fashion houses,” Bradley said.
While Indagare has grown some of its business through digital marketing, over 50 percent is generated by word of mouth. The repeat factor is significant, especially from those who do the small group tours and want to travel again with people they met on the trip.
“Incredible friendships are ignited on these trips,” Bradley said. “There seems to be a real craving for connecting with others who are passionate about travel, especially to places that are not overtouristed.”
In engaging with members, Indagare Travel produces a wide range of content and information, including glossy print magazines and weekly newsletters. The company stages events for members with presentations on various destinations.
“We also interact with people during the trip planning stages, suggesting packing and reading lists, and engage them with follow-up sessions,” Bradley said. “We want them to be thinking about travel all the time, even when they’re not doing it.”
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Photo Credit: Indagare Travel founder and CEO Melissa Biggs Bradley in Rwanda in 2017. Indagare provides highly customized itineraries and has a membership model quite unlike the business model of most travel agencies. Marina Pursel / Indagare Travel
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