When 89-year old Connie Burke entered the industry there were few travel agencies in Houston, she had never had a paying job, and she had to ask her husband’s permission to work outside the home.
That was in 1970.
Since then Burke has created a thriving business around safaris and cruises, traveled to Africa more than 65 tines and—although an independent agent—works every day in the offices of Universal Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Houston’s Galleria.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning though. Although Burke had traveled extensively and thought it would be good to work in a travel agency, nobody would hire her without any experience.
She got a lucky break, however, when someone who lived in the same apartment complex invited her to work for her agency and she accepted.
Learning on the job
There weren’t any travel agent training schools in Houston at the time, so Burke learned the business on the job.
“I went to work for Travel Unlimited,” she said. The then owner of the agency told Burke, ‘Just come in and sit next to me, and I’ll teach you everything I know,’ said Burke.
A year later, while still learning the business, Burke took a trip to Africa that she said changed her life. Her husband, who had hunted birds in the U.S., wanted to go hunting in Africa, and her agency was just getting into the safari market.
On that trip Burke’s husband went hunting, while she watched from the car, an experience she quickly tired of.
“The first time we went to Africa we didn’t know anything about Africa,” said Burke. “We didn’t own a gun, didn’t have a camera. We had to rent a gun and a camera and had safari clothes made when we got there.
“In those days, you had to get out of the car, and if you didn’t have a gun you couldn’t get out of the car. That’s why I started to hunt. I got tired of sitting in the car.”
Although female hunters were few and far between, Burke took to the sport and became the first woman member of the Houston Safari Club.
Through hunting and traveling to safari camps around the continent, she fell in love with Africa.
And that type of travel, which soon switched from participants toting rifles to those carrying cameras, became a cornerstone of her business.
Today her upscale clients range in age from 40s to 70s and come from around the world, mostly through referrals by her original Houston clients.
Although much of her business is based on her knowledge of safaris, Burke also sells more than her share of cruises, specializing in such luxury cruise lines as Silversea, Seabourn and Regent.
“You can’t survive just selling safaris,” she said.
But while she sells FITs to Europe and elsewhere, Africa remains her first love. She visits the continent every year, traveling to several countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, and Namibia.
Burke celebrated her 70th birthday and her 80th birthday in Africa.
“I will also have my 90th birthday there next year. I’m going to East Africa because that’s where my husband’s and my dog’s ashes are.”
When her husband died 16 years ago, she placed his ashes in his old hunting hat on the top of an escarpment. “I had a vision of a Maasai wearing that hat all over Africa,” she said. Her dog joined her husband, and she planted trees to mark the location.
Now Burke visits the site every year, and the members of a local Maasai tribe call her Mama Safari.
“One year the whole village was waiting to welcome me and they dressed me in native clothes and made me an honorary Maasai,” she said. “Whenever I come the whole village comes down to welcome me when I arrive.”
Although she started late in life and she’s been in the business for more than four decades, Burke has no intention of giving up the career she loves.
“I’m going to die at my desk. I don’t ever intend to stop working,” she said.