Kendra Thornton of Royal Travel & Tours

​​​​​​​Gen X Advisors: Kendra Thornton, president of Royal Travel & Tours, with Brittney Magner and Courtney McCarthy.

It’s been a most dynamic year for Royal Travel & Tours. The agency, based in the greater Chicago area since 1972, had a transfer of sales from Larry Berke to his daughter, Kendra Thornton, who had been shadowing her father for the past year to learn the ins and outs of the business, which was founded by her parents. Now in her role as president, Thornton is forecasting that gross sales for the agency will increase this year by 40 percent. Not a bad start at all for the new president.

“What’s most exciting is that luxury travel sales continue to grow,” Thornton tells Luxury Travel Advisor, noting that the agency is making a concerted push into this sector. “I love that Americans today want to enrich their lives with experiences and memory-making, which go hand-in-hand with travel. It’s exciting to see the research show how consumers today would rather spend their money on an expensive vacation versus on a luxury retail item like a watch or handbag.”

Not surprisingly, Thornton is bringing a fresh perspective to the business. She’s a Gen Xer whose career path has included overseeing public relations for Orbitz.com just after the OTA launched in 2002. “It was a terrifying thing to tell my dad that I was working for the very entity that was running the ‘mom and pop agents’ out of business, and I can remember with gratitude my father’s reply, ‘Well, at least you’re on the growth side of the industry,’” recalls Thornton, who says her time there was “an amazing learning experience.” Orbitz was sold to Cendant in 2004, and Thornton moved on to launch her own consulting firm, Thornton Public Relations. For the next 10 years, she worked with several major online travel brands, including Kayak, Expedia and Gogobot, and still sees a valid reason to use these sites at certain times.

“In my opinion, there are a lot of consumer conveniences that come from being able to buy travel online,” says Thornton. “That said, I can say with confidence that an OTA will never be better than an experienced travel advisor at selling luxury travel, which is why I’m focusing more on this segment for the future of our agency.”

And Thornton has certainly not put her public relations skills aside now that she is running Royal Travel & Tours. She appears frequently on TV (locally and nationally) as a travel expert, which attracts business to the agency. Overall, her role as Royal Travel’s president is to grow awareness of the company and expand in markets where it can attract new clients. On a more granular level, over the past year, she’s used her branding expertise to revamp the agency’s website, as well as its logo, which had not been changed for more than four decades, since her parents launched the agency. Still, she was careful to keep it familiar to her customers.

“The color and font needed to be updated to look more current,” Thornton tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I didn’t want to do a dramatic shift in branding, but I did want to put a fresh face on our legacy business. And, coming from an Internet travel background, I knew I wanted something very sleek and simple.”The website, royal-travel.com, on the other hand, was completely overhauled since Thornton felt it was too copy heavy and not user-friendly. Starting from scratch, she crafted a website with strong imagery on the homepage, which now has a clean navigation bar at the top displaying the company’s main product lines. An “As seen on WGN-TV” section promotes Thornton’s appearances on the local TV station, so viewers can easily find where to learn about the trips she mentions on the air. Another new section highlights the Royal Travel staff with their photos and their specialties.

As for the human element of agency operations, Thornton hired four women from within her social circles in the Chicago area to amp up luxury sales for the agency.

“I saw an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of travel consultants,” she says. “We aren’t a bunch of ‘order-taker’ librarian types pounding away on green screen computers. The women working at our agency are smart, sophisticated, well-traveled, passionate, fun and engaging people, who as a result, know how to handle the demands of luxury travel clients.”

Those Thornton recruited, all Gen Xers, had prior professional jobs that ranged from advertising and marketing to sales positions; all had also taken time off work to raise their young children.

“Joining Royal Travel was their entry back into the workforce, but it’s a great balance because they can still have the flexibility moms need,” says Thornton.

How did she find such a dynamic group?

“In some cases, I knew a market I wanted to enter so I tapped into my personal network and circulated a job description and then started interviewing interested candidates. In other cases, I was lucky that the right person heard through mutual friends about the exciting growth at Royal Travel and wanted to meet me to discuss a possible career with us,” she reports.

The new team additions complement the great work her existing advisors are doing, she says. “We have a foundation of amazing consultants who have been with the company for many decades and who are true pros at what they do,” she tells us. “They’ve pretty much dealt with it all.”

Today, the agency provides its clients with a variety of luxury travel itineraries, including cruises (both river and ocean), FITs and all-inclusive resorts. Destination weddings, family celebrations and multigenerational trips that include luxury villas are also specialties, as are the Caribbean and Mexico, which are popular with the Chicago market.

Family travel is also strong, particularly since Thornton and her colleagues are Gen Xers with kids.

“As a Gen Xer myself, I can say that it’s all about family discovery and showing your kids parts of the world that most Gen Xers didn’t get to see when they were kids,” she says. The generation also lends itself to couples trips and girls or guys group trips. “My peer group on Chicago’s North Shore is traveling a lot for a variety of leisure purposes and most of it is international and high-end,” says Thornton.

The agency draws its clients from where it has office locations, in Winnetka (where Thornton lives and works) and DeKalb, the storefront location where the company was launched. Business is conducted primarily through face-to-face meetings and phone calls, with follow-ups via email. “When it comes to luxury travel, you need to be interacting in person with clients to get all the fine details covered,” says Thornton, who notes that new clients also come from word-of-mouth and referrals, which has expanded the agency’s customer base to other states and even other countries.

We asked Thornton for a taste of the type of travel her team is booking for their peers.

Courtney McCarthy just planned a five-star, four-city luxury vacation to the Middle East for a client. “This area of the world is growing so rapidly and the level of luxury and service at the hotels there is unlike anywhere else in the world,” McCarthy notes.

Advisor Brittney Magner created a weeklong Hong Kong/Singapore trip, which might seem like a straightforward task, but in this case, it was all done in less than 36 hours prior to departure, including all air, tours, dining reservations, appointments with a tailor and airport transfers. “I used a Signature destination specialist, A&K Hong Kong, as well as booked properties through our Signature Travel Network preferred program. It turned out to be one of the best trips I have planned,” says Magner.

Advisor Kim Launer reports that she recently planned a 15-day custom vacation to Italy for a family that wanted to show their children all the different types of accommodations and experiences available in Europe. As a result, the itinerary included five-star accommodations in different locations, villas and small boutique hotels. Private cars and drivers, walking tours, mopeds, trains and even ferry service were also on tap. “The family focus was to have each person see and do one thing from their bucket list while touring for the 15 days,” says Launer.

The agency has been a part of Signature for the past five years, and while Thornton says she is still getting her arms around all of the offerings, she’s been wowed by the network’s technology, marketing capabilities and print publications that can be customized for the agency and sent out to clients.

She also loves Signature’s culture. “It’s such a positive, proactive, warm and engaging group; nothing motivates us more than getting together with our friends at Signature for the annual, regional and owners conferences,” she says.Moving Forward

Future plans include finding new markets around Chicago and throughout the U.S. for the agency to have a presence and to continue the strategy of finding great advisors to support the growth of the affluent markets around Chicago and other major metropolitan areas. Thornton and her team will also continue to cultivate the Gen X client, which she sees as being fairly untapped and full of potential, particularly because they have rising incomes and less time than ever to plan travel due to the pressures of work and active family lives.

“Gen-Xers are an important customer target for Royal Travel because they are at the sweet spot where they still have many earning years ahead of them, so travel is not draining on their lifesavings as it may to a Baby Boomer. They’ve also achieved wealth to a point where travel is an important and expected expenditure for them, plus they have children getting to the age where travel can be a fun family adventure,” says Thornton. And while this group may not be immediately inclined to use a travel advisor since they grew up in an online world, she believes that if travel consultants prove that they understand the client’s needs because they’re from the same generation and have children who are the same age, then the conversion rates among first-time clients are going to be quite favorable.

“Generation Xers have been considered the ‘forgotten middle child’ between the bigger Millennial and Baby Boomer generations that sandwich it, but they earn substantially more money than their parents did at the same point in their lives,” says Thornton.

A Natural Fit

When you look at Thornton’s childhood, it seems natural she’d now be leading the agency her parents founded the year before she was born. In fact, she had an IATA card before she had a driver’s license.

“I literally grew up in this industry,” she says. “I can pinpoint a life moment that coincides with every major change this industry has gone through,” recalling she was in college when the airlines first cut commissions. At the time, she could see how devastating it was on her parents and their business. 

But there are many, many happy memories, of course. “As a child, I remember the glamour of flying; we would never wear jeans or track pants, I would eat ice cream sundaes in first class, hang out with the pilots in the cockpit and help the flight attendants hand out mints to earn my ‘wings.’”

Her first trip, too early for memories, was to the Bahamas when she was just three months old. But Thornton does recall vividly growing up in airports and the magical places she and her family visited around the world.

“I remember racing my brother onto airplanes to be the first one to ask for a free deck of playing cards. I remember that because my father loved London we would often take a family vacation there after Christmas and stay in the most beautiful two-bedroom suite at the Dorchester. I remember my mom and I would visit Paris almost every fall as a mother-daughter trip and where our favorite place was Le Grand Intercontinental Hotel. I remember the first time I had tea at the Peninsula Hong Kong, drank sangria in Buenos Aires, visited the Sphinx in Egypt and crossed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, which was long before anyone could climb it. I’m so grateful to this business for providing me with childhood memories that are so varied and multicultural.”

As she moves Royal Travel & Tours forward, Thornton will keep this love of the industry close while she builds on the legacy started by her parents.

“Not many people get the chance to be a second-generation business owner, especially at a time when the industry is experiencing an upswing,” she says.

 Thornton’s father, Larry Berke, is grateful his Gen Xer will keep the legacy going. “Kay and I are ecstatic about Kendra taking over the family business. Having started Royal Travel nearly 44 years ago from scratch, and to think it will continue with one of our children is very rewarding. Kendra will take the agency to a level we never dreamed possible.”

Signature Travel Network is likewise keen on Thornton's strategies. “Royal Travel is a wonderful success story in so many ways. The foundation Larry and Kay built has been fantastic and now to see it transition to Kendra, is exciting,” says Alex Sharpe, Signature’s president and CEO. “Kendra has been such a positive influence, bringing renewed energy, new consultants and an even stronger luxury focus. This is the way succession plans should work, taking something great and making it even better.”

ROYAL TRAVEL & TOURS

Offices: Greater Chicago area; Winnetka and DeKalb, IL
President: Kendra Thornton
Founder: Larry Berke
Manager: Sue Emberson
Number of advisors: 15 full-time employees
Annual volume of business: $5 million anticipated for 2015
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network, IATA, CLIA, ASTA
Agency website: www.royal-travel.com