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!