All great superheroes emerge from the narrative of their lives. Batman swore vengeance against criminals when he witnessed his parents’ murder. Wonder Woman was the avenger of justice, who left the Amazon to fight the Nazis.
For travel agent Stefanie Katz, being a geek and helping her daughter battle and overcome cancer has been central to a personal and professional story that helped her launch her own travel agency, and recently spurred her to rebrand herself as the Travel Superhero.
Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Katz had a very average childhood. As a little girl, she idled away hours with Archie comic books and realized a little early on that she was “a bit of a nerd.”
Her family moved around a lot and she was always the new kid in class, trying to fit in. She buried her inner geek. But then came Star Wars. Katz remembers the premiere of the movie, May 25, 1977. “It was incredible. I had never seen anything like it before. I was so in love, I went back and saw it 20 times,” Katz remembers.
While the Star Wars trilogy stirred her “inner geek,” as an adult Katz followed the lead of so many superheroes who came before her, hiding her super powers behind the façade of an average life.
Despite the fact that she had visions when she was a little girl of one day being a travel agent, Katz went to college, graduated with a marketing degree, got married (to an engineer) and had two children (one boy, one girl).
She took on average jobs, including 24 years as director of operations for an educational publishing company. “We are taught to put away the capes and wear navy blue suits. Get a corporate job, bury the passion,” Katz said.
Then, her daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 12 years old. With a series of complicated treatments (including a bone marrow transplant), and time-consuming travel to specialists, Katz quit her job so she and her husband could care for their daughter. (Her employer would close its doors soon after anyway, as digital competition put them out of business.)
Katz’s daughter beat the cancer, despite it coming back several times, and by January 2015, Katz was looking to return to the work world. A middle-aged business woman who had taken time off for family, Katz took a step back to assess her journey.
Seeing how courageous her daughter had been through the trauma of cancer treatments, and realizing her own inner strength as a parent who could endure such a trial, Katz knew she couldn’t just go back to a mundane office job. She needed to unleash the superhero within.
She remembered her younger days of wanting to be a travel agent and researched the industry. She took some courses and started her business, Travel by Stef, on May 4, 2016 —what geeks like Katz refer to as “Star Wars Day,” because it hints at the famous movie phrase, “May the Force (Fourth) be with You.”
Not-so-quick costume change
Operating from her home-based office in Lake Mary, Florida, Katz started to build the typical agency clientele. There were friends and families, cruises and Disney trips. While she loved her business, Katz wasn’t entirely happy with her branding. It didn’t rally her full super powers when she got up in the morning.
She often found herself tapping into her inner geek for social media posts and would highlight for her customers special “geek” events that might encourage traveling, but that was the extent of it. Then, she attended the Star Wars Celebration Expo in April 2017, at the Orange County Convention Center, in Orlando, Florida.
At the show, Katz was able to unleash all those years of love and emotion for Star Wars and superheroes. “Being there with thousands of people who shared my passion, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. These are my people. I can truly be myself here.’ That is when I went full-out geek,” Katz said.
Her courage found a vision later that year when she attended an online webinar with industry icons Mike Marchev and Stuart Cohen. Cohen asked the attendees, “When people ask you what you do, do you tell them ‘I am the best travel agent in the world?’”
“Sitting alone there in my office, I knew I couldn’t honestly answer yes. I wasn’t being my authentic self. I’ve been shy my whole life, fearful of judgement about my nerdiness. It’s amazing, those little things happen to you throughout a lifetime, so that you are still hearing that voice asking, ‘Are people going to sit with me at lunch?’” Katz explained.
“But I realized that Travel by Stef didn’t tell my customers anything about me. My brand gave them no reason to join my tribe,” Katz said.
A travel superhero is born
Katz contacted some of her favorite travel agency branding experts, including Jacob Marek, another self-professed nerd who fully brands his agency that way. They talked about her love for Star Wars, comic books and “nerdy” pop culture.
“We realized the potential for my rebranding. Most people, even at our age, when they see Superman, your eye is drawn to it. That’s what I wanted, what my business needed,” she said.
Katz farmed out the drawing of a new logo (to Fiverr for $21) – herself dressed like Wonder Woman – purchased a new domain name and designed a new website that screams her inner nerd. Earlier this year, mild-mannered Travel by Stef disappeared, and “The Travel Superhero” emerged, standing for truth, justice, and the way to vacation fun. (She even wears a cape at business networking events.)
Forever changed by her daughter’s cancer, Katz also has incorporated charitable giving to her business model and website. She now raises funds for BASE CAMP Children's Foundation Kids Beating Cancer, Runway to Hope, Make-A-Wish and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
With only a few months under her belt, it is too early to tell what the rebranding has done, but like any superhero, Katz is forging ahead. “Taking the middle road, you are available to the average travel customer. I learned as a marketing student in college, you don’t want to alienate anyone. Now I want to only speak to certain people, and have them as my core clientele,” Katz said.