Following in the Family Footsteps: One Agent's Path to Success

by David Cogswell
Following in the Family Footsteps: One Agent's Path to Success

Kim Schneider of Unique Travel.

Kim Schneider’s mother would not set foot on an aircraft.

“My mother never, once, rode in an airplane,” Schneider told Travel Market Report. “She was absolutely petrified to fly.”

Odd, then, that Schneider would choose travel as a career. It seems Schneider and her mother were polar opposites. Schneider’s adventurous spirit gravitated more toward her mother’s younger sister, and from an early age, Schneider ‘s Aunt Martha became her role model.

Aunt Martha was a flaming presence streaking across the canvas of Schneider’s childhood.

Schneider grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, “Chocolate Town,” known for the Hershey chocolate company there. But the “unincorporated community and census-designated place” with a population 15,000 couldn’t hold a candle to the mighty metropolis where Schneider’s Aunt Martha operated her own business, and where Schneider longed to go.

“My aunt owned a travel agency in Philadelphia,” Schneider said. “I used to visit her, and I would stare at the posters on the walls. She was very glamorous and always traveling, and I just really loved her so much. She was the inspiration for me to get into the travel business.”

Schneider visited Aunt Martha as often as she could.  

“I remember, vividly, taking the train down to Philly and going into her office,” she said. “She would give me posters for my birthday and I would put them on my wall, pictures of all the Caribbean islands. I always loved the beach. I always remember TWA as the big airline and I remember TWA Getaway packages, in the late ‘80s before that stopped.”

Schneider identified Aunt Martha with Marilyn Monroe, like a movie star in real life.

“She was so beautiful. She was my mother’s younger sister, and my mother and I were like oil and water. My mom was a mother of four kids and always harried and crazy. My aunt never had children. She was a go-getter.”

To the young girl growing up in Hershey, Aunt Martha represented the family’s streak of wildness and adventure, and it was the way she wanted her life to be.

“She was the opposite to what my mother was, so of course, I was drawn to her,” said Schneider. “I’ve come to appreciate my mom for everything that she gave me, but at the time my aunt was very influential.”

Aunt Martha moved her travel agency to Las Vegas and operated for a few more years before moving to California. She lived the last years of her life in Scottsdale.

“After she left the Northeast and moved west, we didn’t get to see much of her,” said Schneider.

Schneider had intended to visit Aunt Martha when she attended Virtuoso Travel Week last year, but just before the week of the conference, Martha died.

“I just kind of relived a lot of this last year,” said Schneider. “I was going through her old warehouse. I found this old TWA hatbox with the old TWA logo, old note pads from her travel agency. There were all these memorabilia. I stumbled upon her notebooks and call logs from the late ‘70s and early ’80, with her two agency addresses in Las Vegas, which I didn’t even know. There was so much mystery in her world.”

First came France
Although Schneider’s mother was afraid of flying herself, she did not stand in the way of Schneider’s chance to travel to France and Switzerland with her high school French class. She was 16 and she had the opportunity to spend 10 days in Europe. It was her first airplane flight.

“Can you imagine my mother, who was afraid of everything, letting her oldest child fly?” she said. “We all had to board the bus at the high school, then they drove us to JFK. I remember her trying to be so strong and not cry. But I’m sure she was totally freaked out to let me go.”

The flight was to Paris out of New York on Pan Am. It was her first trip outside of the U.S., and it instantly exploded her world view and opened it onto much wider vistas.

“I remember being so impressed with the history and the culture and just the coolness of it,” she said, “kind of like, wow, there’s a whole world out there and I want to see it all.”

The seed that dropped from Aunt Martha onto the fertile soil of Schneider’s youthful imagination, came to full flower during the trip to France. The travel bug was firmly implanted.

When teenage growing pains and family friction led teenage Schneider to seek counseling, the counselor threw her a challenge: To take responsibility for her own life.

“You’ve got to figure out your life,” he told her. “You can’t blame your parents for the rest of your life. What are two things you’d be interested in?”

Without a blink, she said, “Travel and being a hairdresser or a makeup artist.”

When she did some research into those two alternative career tracks, she settled quickly on travel. She needed to get out.

“I picked the travel gig because the school I could go to had dorms or apartments and that would get me out of my parents’ house,” she said. “That was what made the decision for me. I had to get out of my parents’ house. It was not a happy scene. I had to figure something out.”

Career kicks off
Schneider completed the travel program at Central Pennsylvania College. She passed over an offer to work as a res agent with Continental Airlines and took her first agency job at Boscov’s Travel Center in Boscov’s Department Store in Reading, Pennsylvania. The agency specialized in charter trips to Disneyworld, New York City bus tours, and cruises to Bermuda out of New York. Part of her job was to lead some of the groups.

“We would take our group, however many there were, 40 or 50, and ride the coach to New York, to be there in case they needed us. I don’t remember much, I was so young. I don’t know how I would have handled any problems. Thank God there weren’t any.”

Schneider got her basic training working for four or five years at Boscov’s; then accepted an offer to join a mom-and-pop agency in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for better pay. She worked with them for 10 years, and then moved to Liberty Travel in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In 2011, she moved to Florida. 

Today, Schneider lives in Sarasota. She works as a mobile agent out of Unique Travel of Palm Beach, Florida, a Virtuoso agency. Sometimes she works from home, sometimes she drives into the office to meet with suppliers or clients. She travels somewhere practically every month. 

FITs and referrals
Her favorite work is putting together complex FITs for her high-end travelers.

With solid business practices, over time, her client base just grows and grows, organically. She’s so busy now that she doesn’t take any new business except from referrals, and there are many of those.

“They keep coming back,” she said. “I’m very fortunate that they come back, and they refer friends, and their friends come back and refer their friends and family. The wedding group I just did came as a referral from my oldest friend since I was four years of age. I have family history with some of them. I had not met the bride in person, but I know her mother.”

Most of Schneider’s clients are younger, more mobile retirees. Europe is always her biggest destination, but lately, many of her clients are looking to Asia and Africa, which are trending big for her for next year. River cruises continue to boom. And Schneider still loves the special FITs the best.

“I love to do the customized, creative FITs,” she said. “That’s the best part about my job. You pick up the phone and you never know who wants to go where next. If it’s some place I’ve never been, I love to do the research. And I have such a huge network of people who can tell me what I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for my Virtuoso contacts. The biggest thing is the FIT. They are the most time-consuming, most satisfying trips to book.”

At one juncture, Schneider wondered if she had made the wrong decision at the outset, when she decided on travel for a career.

“There was a point in time after 9/11 when business completely dried up, and I had to get a job at Coles just to put food on the table,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why am I in this career? I wish I’d been a hairdresser of makeup artist or something.’ I didn’t love this for a very long time. I rediscovered it when my husband and I moved to Florida and I got affiliated with the agency that I’m with now, because they are wonderful. The Virtuoso network opened my eyes to a whole new world out there.”

It seems that Schneider gravitated to the opposite pole of her flight-phobic mom, but even though she favored her aunt, there are still some traces of her mom in her personality.

“I still don’t like flying,” she said. “I still don’t love it. I have a ritual I do before I get on a plane. I tell my clients, you have to put your hand on the outside of plane and say, ‘Fly straight and true,’ then step on plane with your right foot first.

“I always do that. So, if I’m maneuvering my carry-on and coffee, I’ve got to make sure my right hand is free so I can touch the outside of the plane, and I say that. It’s so funny. One of my girlfriends gave me that idea many, many years ago, and ever since then, I always do it. And I tell everyone. I have all my colleagues doing that. It’s kind of a funny joke.”

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