The fire started on a Thursday in September, in the restaurant next door. “We smelled smoke and, in five minutes, we were on fire, too,” said Neelie Kruse.
But thanks to a helpful community, a team of young and eager agents, and a business plan that recognizes that you have to spend money to make money — not to mention a good backup plan that kept things humming along for the six months that the office was closed — 2018 turned out to be a record year for Cary Travel Express. Two new independent contractors came onboard and annual sales at the Chicagoland agency grew 10%, from $10 million to $11 million.
As the smoke turned to flames that fateful day, “our first call was to the fire department — and the second was to our IT guy, who remotely turned off the servers,” Kruse told Travel Market Report. “That was a God-send. We didn’t lose any data.”
Over that first weekend, Kruse had 11 phone lines forwarding to her cell phone. A neighboring business invited her to set up temporary quarters in an empty showroom; others donated desks and food. By Monday, Cary Travel Express had a new brick-and-mortar location and was back to work helping customers.
Sticking to the plan
Through it all, Kruse kept to her business plan, which calls for attending three (and only three) local bridal shows a year, allowing her to really focus on the people she meets there and do more follow-up. “In the travel business, you really are selling yourself,” she says. “If you make a personal connection with 10 or 15 brides-to-be, it’s really worth it.”
She also kept up her focus on education, for herself and for her 19 employees and independent contractors. She does two or three trips a year to new destinations, and in 2018, she had her younger agents schedule more “Come Along” groups of their own.
“It’s important to spend the money for fam trips,” Kruse said. In the past year, she’s been to Thailand, Poland, and Broken Hill and Byron Bay in Australia. In the coming months, she will take a group to Antarctica and go on a fam trip to Morocco, “trying to branch out to these unique destinations. I started my career taking groups to Cancun, but now our clients have graduated to those bucket-list trips, so I do those and let the other agents do the others.”
(And indeed, even younger customers are looking for more upscale and unique trips, said travel professional Jan Calahan. Rather than an all-inclusive in the Caribbean, for example, a pet groomer recently booked an over-the-water bungalow in the Maldives.)
Domestically, Kruse has been doing a lot of trips to Newport and Cape Cod; and to the wineries in Portland, Oregon. Her first trip to The Canyonlands, two years ago, was a great success. In 2020, she will visit Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands, and go on an African safari. In addition to seeing new destinations for herself, the trips are fodder for the travel column she writes for a local magazine.
Great service, above all
In the end, though, it all comes down to great service. Kruse recalls the time when a group of 38 customers headed for a Spring Break cruise got snowed in, in Milwaukee. She called a Funjet contact, who called his contact, who got them a bus. She pushed her way to the front of the line and demanded that the airline rebook them at another airport, which it did — and after a 10-minute stop at a McDonald’s, with a liquor store next door, they were off. “I spent $5,000 on that bus, but my Travel Guard insurance paid me back immediately,” she said. “Everyone bonded on the bus. And the kids said it was their best Spring Break trip ever.”
Last month, Cary Travel Express reopened in its original location, with the interior totally gutted and renovated from the ground up.
Kruse and her team are hoping for another year of million-dollar growth, come fire or high water.