Tragedy can send a person spinning downward, and inward. Or the centrifugal forces can release them outward, into new endeavors.
In the last seven years, Crystal Dyer has lost both her grandson, Devin, to gang violence and her own son, Christoph, through an accidental death. Instead of allowing these events to deter her spirit and her business, Dyer has repurposed that energy into a successful storefront agency and community nonprofit that is improving her Austin, Illinois, neighbors’ lives.
Dyer’s passion for helping others started in 1977, when she was a young woman applying to a local agency for bus fare assistance to get her to and from college. After speaking to a representative, she received a rejection letter in the mail. But a $20 bill fell out of the envelope, which also contained a note from the woman she had spoken to on the phone, telling Dyer that she wanted her to succeed in life.
“I will never forget what that gesture meant to me, and how I need to always think and do the same for others,” Dyer said.
After finishing school and working at the Social Security Administrative and CNA Insurance, Dyer landed her dream position at AT&T Communications. Now, as a single mom living in Austin, a West Side Chicago neighborhood, she could afford a home, autos and private education for her sons, Catrell, Chris and Curtis.
Her son, Christoph, struggled as a young man. One night, Dyer had to call the police on him. He was sent to juvenile detention, where he started to turn his life around, eventually getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and having a very successful business career.
Dyer’s life began its own transformation in 1999, while she was working as an AT&T database project manager in the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows. Dyer was so efficient at her role, she often found herself on her phone in her cubicle offering her family and friends advice about their vacation plans.
One day, an upset colleague in a nearby cube stood up and chastised her. “You know, Crystal, all you do all day long is give your friends travel advice. Why don’t you go be a travel agent?”
The outburst caused Dyer, an avid traveler, to research the process for becoming a travel advisor. She found a travel school in Palatine, Illinois, and one and a half years later Dyer graduated. But at that time, the travel industry was reeling from layoffs following airline commission cuts. “I told myself, ‘Crystal, you better keep your day job,’” she recounted.
Waiting for the right moment to take the leap, Dyer read every travel trade article diligently, learned about host agencies, and finally responded to an ad for a host agency based in Phoenix.
Now she needed a business name. She thought about how her own quarterly trips had caused her friends and family to repeatedly ask her, “Are you gone again?”
“Everybody loved hearing about my travels. It’s why friends were always calling me to plan their trips,” Dyer recalled.
Gone Again Travel & Tours was (established) incorporated in 1999 and was launched in her son, Catrell’s, onetime bedroom in her Austin home.
It was slow going at first. Dyer bought boxes of business cards, and began spreading them out all around her neighborhood, including handing them out at her local supermarket.
“I probably went through 3,000 business cards over three months before I got my first client,” Dyer said, a man who needed an airline ticket to Germany. She obtained a lower fare through a consolidator, charged him a markup, and the next time he needed to travel to Germany, he booked with her again.
The client calls started to roll in, mostly people looking for vacations at resorts in Cancun and Jamaica. (Dyer’s market is primarily African-Americans who live in and around Chicago and Atlanta).
In June 2000, Dyer accepted a position with AT&T in Atlanta, to be closer to her family. She took her home-based business with her, and living closer to Florida, Dyer found herself booking more group cruises. As a result, she moved to a host agency for their preferred cruise lines and cruise-specific training.
Dyer cemented her relationships with her group cruise clients by being her open and welcoming self as she accompanied her groups. “On some cruises, people would ask me, ‘What side of the family are you on?’ I think that is why my business is so successful. I’ve put myself out there and my clients make a personal connection with me,” she said.
In 2004, Dyer accepted an early retirement package from AT&T. Her travel agency business was booming, so she stayed in Atlanta, supplementing her income by working in the travel industry, including a stint at Delta Air Lines.
In 2011, Dyer received a call from her son, Catrell, in Chicago. Her grandson, Devin, had been murdered at a party five days after he turned 18, when a gang member started shooting. “My sons wanted me to come home. I thought about it for a while. I could feel God was trying to help me find something I could do to help this generation,” Dyer said.
She moved back to Chicago in 2013 and decided to open a storefront somewhere on Chicago’s West Side, renting an empty storefront in Austin.
Dyer opened Gone Again Travel’s retail location in September 2016, four blocks from where Devin was murdered. Following her formula of extending herself openly, she reacquainted herself with Austin’s community organizations and nonprofits, and took advantage of volunteer opportunities to market her travel business. In her first full year, Dyer doubled her sales.
In 2018, her sales nearly quadrupled, and Dyer has had to hire two full-time employees to keep up. She doesn’t believe her clients have to travel 5,000 miles by air to visit a destination that will transform them, and recommends places like the 250-acre Pheasant Run Resort in Saint Charles, Illinois; or Michigan City, Indiana, about an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago.
Restless about giving more back to Austin, Dyer started planning a nonprofit to get kids out of the community to learn about people, places and careers that they don't normally learn about in school.
In August 2015, she incorporated Chicago Austin Youth Travel Advantages, to mentor students and offer educational and cultural trips. In 2017, she expanded her offerings to after-school programs that include classes where children can learn about travel. She even bought tablets so students can log into her agency’s VAX VacationAccess account, to see how reservations are made.
“Growing up with online travel agencies, these kids didn’t even know travel agents existed. And now they are learning that this could be a career,” she said.
Today, even grandparents and parents can participate in her local tours. “You sit back and smile, watching the generations. Gone Again Travel is building a community,” she said.
Dyer also works with a program at Cook County Juvenile Detention, talking to youth about destinations worldwide, and encouraging them to explore a career in travel. And, she has served on the executive board of West Garfield Park-based Fathers Who Care, a community organization focused on fighting poverty, drug abuse, and violence.
As a result of her efforts both as a businesswoman and the works of her nonprofit, in 2017, Dyer earned the Community Service Award from the National Civil Rights Library. In 2018, she received an award from the West Side Women of Wisdom. And just this year, the Chicago Police Department bestowed her with a Partnership Award.
Tragedy strikes again … and still transforming others
Tragedy would befall the Dyer family one more time, last August, when her 39-year-old son, Christoph, died suddenly at home, after taking some powerful medicine on an empty stomach. The Sunday morning that she found out, Dyer was leaving for a trip to Africa.
“I had just spoken to Chris that Wednesday. It shows us how fragile life is,” she said.
Chris Dyer’s “Four Steps to Building Your Brand,” was published on Amazon about ten days before he died. All of the book’s profits support Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures. Dyer also donates 10 percent of her agency's profits to her nonprofit.
“I know that I can be a guide here on earth, to show people that even if you feel trapped, how a door is always cracked open, and if you want to step through it, you’ll see the world is a wonderful place.”