ALIVE AND KICKING! | TravelResearchOnline



Beginning her travel career at age 16, travel agent Jean Kuhn recounts her 35 years in the industry, moving from a store-front, airline oriented business to her current travel practice.

I lived in a small town in Westchester County, NY about 30 miles outside “the city” of New York. When I walked home from school, I would always stop and look inside the window of the one and only travel agency in town. I thought that would be a great place to work, and since I needed a job, why not ask if I could be of help? So, at the age of 16, I decided to apply for a part-time position and was hired. My job was filing brochures. So you think that’s boring and tedious? It certainly wasn’t to a 16 year old girl who hadn’t been anywhere further than the state of Pennsylvania. The office was an exciting place to be. I loved hearing the travel consultants sell trips to exotic destinations, and listening to the storytellers spin their tale about a unique experience viewing Wildebeest as they migrate from Tanzania to Kenya, or hearing a conversationabout planning an around the world cruise! Although my job was to file brochures, I could imagine myself in anyone of these destinations, maybe even traveling in a jeep along the plains in Africa following the wildebeest and snapping photos. I thrived in thumbing through the colorful and captivating brochures with beautiful pictures and envisioned myself jetting off from one exciting city to another!

At that moment, I decided, that I would take a journey down this road and become a travel agent so I could see the world too! So, upon graduating from high school, I took a course at a local travel school and I was ready to embark on my new adventure. What place better than New York City to learn the nuances of the travel business. So there my career began. Many of you may not know this, but years ago, you had to pay an employment agency to get a job. I did not hesitate for a moment; if that is what it takes to work in a travel agency, I would pay whatever amount was needed. The travel agency was looking for an agent in training and I was ready to do my part. I paid $200 to an employment agency and was hired for a weekly salary of a whopping $85.00. I didn’t care; I was living my dream. I resided in the suburbs at home with mom and dad, as I couldn’t afford much earning only $85 a week. I took the train which was a 45 minute ride, and happily walked every day up to 54th and Madison from Grand Central Station.

It was an exciting time back in 1968 when the city was thriving and the travel business was at its peak. At that time, we used dial up phones, hand wrote airline tickets, and believe it or not, there were only 3 classes of airfare: First, Coach and a 21 day Advanced Excursion. Simplicity at its best! The agents in my office worked with corporate clients, jet-setters such as relatives of the Aristotle Onassis’ family of Greece, luxury clients and cruisers. I worked long hours with no overtime pay. At times, 10:00 pm was the bewitching hour and I had to finally leave the office with calloused fingers from hand writing airline tickets, and a tired body. It didn’t matter, I would do it all over again the next week. Overtime was the norm to get things done -I never complained, I just absorbed it all up like a sponge!

Sales representatives from airlines would come in and bring us coffee and donuts and schmooze with us looking for business – those were the days. They offered us weekend “fam” trips to Europe, the Caribbean and many other exciting places. Fam trips would entail a grueling but fascinating weekend touring a city (one of my favorites being Paris) and inspecting about 10 hotels a day for two days and return Monday morning bright and early to work! Working in the “city” provided me with a wealth of knowledge, and after 3 years I was ready to return to the “burbs” for a new adventure.

I would work at one agency for a few years and move on to a better job and more money. In the 70’s, I worked for Andy Robustelli, the NY Giants football great. He owned Robustelli Travel in Stamford, CT and the family still owns it to this day. We were required to wear a blue & white uniform (of course the Giants colors) and we had a choice of a dress or pants suit. O.K., so it was interesting with fake grape vines and music playing as you walked in the front door (a little bit of the Italian flair) but clients loved it! I worked at small agencies, as well as large corporate agencies in all capacities. Throughout my career, I moved onward and upward, sales, marketing and management. At one point, I managed a staff of 22 for a corporate travel office and still juggled booking airline reservations.

In 1995, agencies were blindsided by the airlines. We would no longer receive commission on airline tickets. The Internet arrived. We thought that this was the end of the travel agent era. Many brick and mortar offices closed as their business worked with predominately corporate accounts producing 80% revenue from airline tickets. It was a tough time but as always we adjust and find another way to be creative. Agents would re-invent themselves in the area of a niche market such as cruises, or specialties in honeymoon travel or luxury travel to exotic destinations.

Many home-based businesses started to build. The overhead was less, commuting was not a factor and it was a great environment to work in. When I got married and gave birth to my daughter, I knew that I still wanted to enjoy my career but found it hard to leave her so I started a home-based business. We converted a playroom into an office and this became my workplace. I was very fortunate that my business gave me the flexibility to work and have the time to volunteer for my church, do my part as a girl scout leader and also work on various fundraising committees at school.

Being of Italian descent and enjoying people and food, I embraced the home-based lifestyle. “Life is food and food is Life” our family motto! When my clients arrived at my home office, I would always have fresh brewed coffee and my home-made coffee cake on hand, or if I met clients in the evenings, wine and cheese. If a client was thinking of going to Italy, I would display a red & white checkered table cloth with a bottle of Chianti and well-aged provolone cheese to get everyone feeling at home as I spoke about my heritage and discussed the wonderful country of Italy. I lived in a small rural town and there were no home-based agencies other than mine. My local newspaper wrote a wonderful article on my day- to -day operations and when the reporter came to interview me, she also enjoyed my warm straight from the oven coffee cake with fresh brewed java! Over time, I built new relationships as I booked my new client/friend’s travel arrangements.

Years have passed, my daughter grown, time for my husband to retire and for me to relocate my travel business to new surroundings. In September 2005, we moved to Murrells Inlet, SC from South Salem, Westchester County, NY with our two cats, Pepper & Rusty. Our daughter is now 25, graduated college, working, and is married to her high school sweetheart. So off we went to our new location and started anew. I was one of the lucky ones who loved doing what she loves and was rewarded tenfold. I have been blessed with a wonderful family and over 35 years in a business that is my passion.

I find myself in beautiful South Carolina not knowing anyone except two lifelong friends that moved at the same time as we did. But my business has enabled me to start up a conversation about a fun subject such as travel. So, through my business, and social events, I have met many wonderful people in my community and along the Grand Strand. I have worked together with local businesses and hosted cruise nights. Most recently, I offered a raffle prize for the “Dragon Boat” at the Beach ladies luncheon. They are a wonderful organization in support of cancer survivors. I offered the attendees onboard credit on booking their next cruise and in addition a donation to the Dragon Boat at the Beach when they make their reservation. There are many ways to network with businesses and organizations in a slow economy – you have “pound the pavement” as they say.

The travel business has evolved with the Internet as a interesting competitor. The Internet is my friend. I welcome her vast knowledge of information. But, she cannot offer “personalized service” and build a working relationship. When people tell me that they can get a “deal” on the Internet, my response is, “did you read the fine print”, “what are the restrictions”, “who do you call if you need help while traveling”, etc, etc. When you book through an agent, we assume responsibility to provide you with our expertise along with competitive rates. Let’s take booking a cruise as an example. You can go online, look at the pricing and then get a quote. It can take many hours navigating through the myriad of information on cruise lines, cabins, categories etc. So clients should know – when you call a travel agent, they do it all! We provide personalized service with Internet Pricing! We keep in mind that the cruise line will not call you if the price drops, if there is a senior special or regional promotion for South Carolina residents, or a special balcony promotion, etc, etc. Get the word out that Travel Agents are alive and kicking – let your neighbors know that we live in your community and are here to help you plan a unique and stress-free journey!

I recently took a group of 30 people on a 12 night Mediterranean cruise, and look forward to returning to Europe this year. In April, I attended the Home-Based Agent Conference. It is important to embrace continuing education and learn new information every day to pass along to my valued clients. Educating yourself is very important in the “world of the Internet”. With webinars, specialist programs, cruise line accreditation and so many programs and on line information such as Travel Research Online will help you to grow in your business. It is necessaryto be informed and competitive with the Internet.

I have written travel articles based on my personal travel experiences for various community newsletters, started a travel group on Facebook, and is now working on my blog. Snorkeling is my favorite water sport, especially in the Caribbean. I enjoy water aerobics, bike riding and power walking. After over 35 years in the business, relocating to Murrells Inlet, meeting new people and making new friends, and being in South Carolina where one does not have to shovel snow is just what I needed. This is where I will move on in my next chapter in life. I will continue to offer personalized service and passion always remembering how it all started when I walked past that travel agency many, many, years ago.

Jean is a Destination Specialist for Italy, Hawaii, Caribbean and River & Ocean Cruise Lines. She is a home-based agent affliated with a host agency, Cruises & Tours Unlimited, (Outside Agents.Com,) a National Cruise & Tour Company out of Jacksonville, Florida. Jean has traveled extensively through the U.S., Europe, Latin & South America, Caribbean (she is an avid snorkeler), and Hawaii. Her last visit to the island of Maui she renewed her wedding vows on a bluff at sunset. She has been to the islands of Hawaii 6 times and can’t wait for # 7!

  10 thoughts on “ALIVE AND KICKING!

  1. Margaret says:

    Felt the same way growing up in the Bronx and then heading north to work in Westchester.
    Times have certainly changed but we stuck it out -for the love or travel and our clients

    PS Alive n Kickin is alive and kicking and still playing Tighter n tighter

  2. Susan Schaefer says:

    Great article Jean!!

  3. Laura says:

    What a great article!

  4. Tracee says:

    It’s great to meet you and learn more about you and your business. I also was sold on travel at an early age, went to travel school, and started in the biz 28 years ago. It seems like yesterday. Your article resonated in so many ways for me. Similarities in our “growing up” years early on, and continued growth and love of the industry. I am happy to read another old schooler who values the internet as a resources, and embraces continuing education. Best of luck with continued success!

  5. Stacey Cox says:

    Your article was inspirering. I am new at this just started and was feeling over whelmed to say the least. I have marketed my buisness but this is a new thing so much to learn but so exciting at the same time. I am also Italian decent Giovanni is my madian name. I am so looking forward to going home even though I am from Chicago. You know what I mean. Thanks for the inspiration
    Great Traveling

  6. Anonymous says:

    I would love to know your thoughts on supplier relationships. 10 years ago I started working full steam in the tourism industry and enjoyed so much building relationships with every tourism company you can think of. 90% of the time people were pleasant and would converse and were open to ideas/possibilities. 5 years ago this was still the case but there seemed to be a lot of turnover of employees happening and great contacts I worked with and who were open all seemed to leave. Now I don’t know if it’s a new generation or what, but most of the people I try to deal with are not nice. Tour operators for example are the most difficult for me to deal with. They seem to believe they must control everything and they are less open to outside opportunities. For hotels, it’s easier to deal with individual properties with more openness from them then to get large chains to even listen to opportunities from what should be more interest from a corporate standpoint. Tourism boards have become so bureaucratic as for example Dominican Republic and Mexico have a mandate any opportunities must go through an agency and the agency typically has their own preferred angles and are unopen/unresponsive. The worst thing is that people lack respect for other’s times and don’t care if they miss schedule calls or just don’t return calls and emails. I love the gems in the industry that are pleasant and open. But they are harder and harder to find. It’s worrisome to me how technology has made the new generation that is starting to lead tourism so unopen and lacking warmth. How can you sell travel and bring consumers to your destination/hotel/trips when you fundamentally lack a welcoming open spirit. Here is hoping that the current college students who in 5-10 years will be leading tourism sales and marketing will truly value tourism at its fundamental core – have a proactive open spirit!

  7. victor says:

    jean, you have made my day, this a welcome story, we need people like you to strenghen some of us to move on in this interesting industry, I have been in this industry for twelve (12) years, but you know in africa, people find it very dificult to go on tours, so we only depends on inbound tourism. and the airlines are always changing their mode of operations, in ghana for instance the airlines has just started cutting commissions, that zero commission, the travel agent need to charge service charge, which also increase fares, but you need sell yourself and sell your package in a very convincing way. I love your aticle

  8. Shelley Morse says:

    Thanks for sharing your history Jean. I began my career as a travel agent in 1995 and I have too have seen many changes. I will be doing travel for as long as I live… it’s in my heart, I love what I do and I value my clients.

  9. Ray Wilson , CQC , ACC , DS says:

    Great article , Jean. I began in travel with American Airlines in 1954 and my wife and I opened our agency in 1957.We went thru ” Hell Day ” when the airlines started automated tickets and the systems went down… I was the only agent in town that still had ” Hard Stock ‘ and we hand wrote hundreds.I was involved in ASTA and ARTA , one of the first few in GIANTS/Ensemble. We held out until July 2002 and then ‘ moved home ‘ and rented out our office space , kept our IATAN/TSI #
    and also affiliated with a Travel Leaders ‘Host Agency”. It isn’t as much ‘ fun anymore ‘ though. 44 trips to Hawaii and 42 cruises and being a ” Destination Specialist in many areas of the World keeps me active. I ‘fear ‘ for the new agents wanting to ‘ try ‘ this is always a factor and Sales jobs depend more on individual initiative… that seems to be missing many times. ” You Can’t Beat Experience ” has been our motto and THAT is one thing that the Internet can’t provide the clients…. Keep on keeping on ( SMILE)

  10. What a coincidence!

    I, too, have been in this industry since I was a teen; 14 to be exact! My parents opened the office then and I worked here after school all the way through high school. When I attended UC Riverside full-time, I still worked here part-time and delivered airline tickets and documents to our accounts at the various university departments.

    In High School ROP, I took a travel agency training course. We learned how to read the OAG (WTH is THAT???), write tickets, type itineraries and deal with clients and various problems that arose with the ARC. They were scary back then…

    So many changes! Remember PSA? Republic Airlines? Western Airlines? Air Cal? PanAm, Braniff, Peoples’ Express, etc. etc. The list goes on and on. We have all of the invalid plates from the defunct carriers over the years in a frame.

    I, too, remember calling on rotary phones, handwriting tickets and MCOs. I was here the day our first computers were delivered. What a time that was.

    One thing hasn’t changed; my love of the industry. Even though I have to glue in my hair every evening, I still can’t think of doing anything else. I so enjoy seeing people I’ve known for so many years, and the first-time cruisers that walk in the door. I can’t imagine working from home at all, but perhaps some day I’ll be faced with that choice, too.

    Nice article!

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