Karen Schragle Transforms Wayland Travel Into a Luxury Office

SUCCESS MANTRA: Karen Schragle’s Wayland Travel focuses on luxury FITs, custom safaris and high-end cruising.  She is shown here on the Lexington Green, in the Massachusetts town where she grew up and still lives today.

Travel advisors at Wayland Travel are expert “puzzle builders,” creating complex FITs around the world, says Karen Schragle, owner and president of the Massachusetts agency, which has 18 advisors and garners $25 million a year in sales.

Case in point: Long-time clients requested Schragle and her team to put together a luxury birthday trip for a party of 10. The challenge? It was for Southeast Asia, where private experiences were not immediately available. She and her team put their collective experience together and crafted a trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Hong Kong. Every element of the journey was customized, from the aircraft to handling every detail of accommodation, sightseeing, dining, special requests and spa arrangements.

“It took three of us but we got the job done. After many conversations with the travelers and over 1,000 e-mails, we were able to complete a very complicated puzzle,” says Schragle. “The birthday celebration was a great success.”

Her agency, which also has a division that focuses on safari, wildlife and adventure travel, is located in Wayland, one of Boston’s wealthiest western suburbs.

“We’re next to a very popular breakfast and lunch restaurant and over the years we’ve doubled our space,” notes Schragle. “Although much of our business is nationwide, we’ve always had a good local following too, and lately we have seen a significant rise in walk-ins and people making appointment to come in.”

She has a broad range of clients — many are affluent couples and families across the country (with some international to boot) — who are looking for added value and highly responsive service.

“They text more and look for ongoing conversational engagement,” Schragle tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “They’re firing off quick questions and expecting responses outside traditional business hours.” She admits this can be challenging, even for savvy advisors accustomed to multitasking.

To keep these digitally savvy customers constantly in the know, the agency now uses the Axus travel app, which provides real-time itinerary changes to their clients. “The learning curve for both agents and clients was a bit steep but it has been a major success,” she says.

The carriage trade agency, which works strictly by referral only, sells all kinds of travel, right down to train tickets. Its major focus, however, is on luxury FITs, custom safaris and high-end cruising. The agency books a lot of suites and is a top producer for Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Rosewood, Starwood, Belmond and Jumeirah. It also manages mileage upgrades and tickets for its clients. It also constantly monitors air and weather situations around the country to track clients. “We’ve saved many a trip this way,” says Schragle.

Wayland Travel morphed from a corporate agency into one focused on luxury leisure, which means it can handle air with ease. The corporate experience also gives her advisors a good operations backbone. “Early on I realized that the strongest agents were corporate agents that converted to leisure because I was so successful with that formula,” Schragle tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “They knew the GDS really well when they were corporate agents, so they’re used to being strong, fast computer bookers.”

She’s finding today’s luxury landscape to be quite dynamic. Apart from the Marriott / Starwood merger, “hotel rebranding announcements seem to happen daily, it takes constant attention to keep current,” she notes. Also exciting? Watching the growth of luxury options in the Galapagos and Latin America, and the expansion of air service out of Boston via several Middle Eastern carriers.

STAYING OPTIMISTIC: Karen Schragle plans to build on momentum and move forward.

New markets are opening up fast and clients are much more interested in ‘exotic’ travel when they can get there quickly in comfort,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor, noting as well that “Japan is proving to be one of our top emerging destinations for 2017.”

Her high-net-worth clientele comes via word of mouth only; she also generates new business by sponsoring major Boston-area philanthropic organizations, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Children’s Hospital League, Team Impact, The Ellie Fund, AIDS Action Committee and several African wildlife organizations. “It helps build local business,” says Schragle.

Even as an agency owner, she is extremely hands-on and works directly with many high-end clients for at least some of their travel. “I couldn’t do it without my support staff and without the ability to have my advisors take on a lot of the clients once they’re comfortable with our team approach,” she adds. “I never could have done this without building up around me the strong, caring, qualified people that love this business as much as I do. Enabling them has enabled me.”

It’s not surprising that Schragle, who hails from Lexington, MA, still keeps a strong presence on the front lines; she’s been at this since she was 18 years old.

“After 40 years, I still love my job,” she tells us. “When I was in high school, I flew to Paris on my 16th birthday and knew after a week in France that I would spend my career in the travel industry. I arrived home and told my parents I was going to be a travel agent.”

That was it for her; she attended the Travel School of America, which was run by Garber Travel in Brookline, MA. The agency made it a practice to hire its top students and Schragle was brought on board at the age of 19. She worked as a “floater” among their various offices in New York, Vermont, and Brookline and Newton in Massachusetts. The goal was to teach her all aspects of the business. Within two years, Schragle was managing the Waltham, MA, office, which was a high-volume corporate office and the first of the Garber branches to automate on Sabre.

With the job came big responsibilities, and it had its heady moments as well.

“One of my earliest trips was last minute, to Israel. Bernie Garber called me on a Thursday to ask if I had a passport and was interested in going to Israel the following Monday. It turned out I had a first-class seat on Swiss Air’s inaugural DC10 flight to Tel Aviv,” she recalls.

She spent a glorious week touring on her first trip as a single traveler. She also garnered a good life lesson.

“I learned early on that traveling often and well was just a matter of being ready and saying, ‘Yes!’” says Schragle.

Her career in full swing, she worked for seven years, only taking time off after her daughter, Kim, was born. When Kim went to daycare, Schragle went back to work, this time for Wayland Travel for a man who was negotiating to buy the agency. When he backed out, the agency was left in limbo. Schragle knew she could run the operations but didn’t have the $100,000 to purchase
the business.

Serendipity stepped in when Schragle nearly immediately met her future business partners, Ian and Marilyn Scott. Marilyn came in to the agency to purchase tickets to Virgin Gorda and mentioned that her husband, a former partner at Price Waterhouse in Rio, was only 50, retired and was used to being away for a third of the year. He was driving her nuts, she said.

“Great! Does he have $100,000?” Schragle asked her.

The deal was simple. Schragle would run the agency and the Scotts would travel. Ian was drawn to the business and did training as well. When he fell in love with Botswana after his first trip there, Wayland Travel launched an Africa division.

The business was clearly booming and although she already had a lot on her plate, Schragle realized there was something else she still needed to do.

“I had an epiphany that I needed a college education because I felt academically deficient and wanted to improve my writing and accounting skills,” says Schragle. She went back to school and continued to grow the business, primarily as a corporate agency. After nine years of night courses, she graduated from Framingham State University. 

The Wayland team celebrates the New England Patriots: Front row, from left to right: Barbara Creegan, travel consultant; Karen Kristen, travel consultant; Gail Hendricks, FIT manager; Mary Zimmer, travel consultant; Karen Schragle, owner; Lynn Kessler, travel consultant; Denyse Lizotte, travel consultant; Denise Lettiere, accounting manager and Mary Pat Bushart, travel consultant. Back row: Kim Stewart, travel consultant and Joyce Barsanti, travel consultant.

Her tip for getting through such arduous times? “Many years ago, Janice, an office assistant at Wayland Travel who was raising two kids on her own, said to me, ‘You get up at 6 a.m., work until 11 p.m., sleep for seven hours, get up and do it again.’ It’s a simple formula really; you have to have stamina, a great work ethic and a passion for people and places,” says Schragle. “My family, especially my Mom, Ian and Marilyn, and all the people who worked here through the years, helped us to develop a strong, sophisticated team. But our strongest advocates are our loyal clients who not only stayed with us through all the industry changes but sent their friends and families.”

The Shift to Luxury
Through the years, the agency stayed largely focused on corporate travel and mid-market vacations. That all switched after 9/11 when Schragle realized that to survive, they would need to adapt quickly. Wayland Travel downsized from 20 to six people to ride out the storm. In the process of building it back up,  it brought on new advisors slowly, based on changing client demands and interests.

“We saw a developing trend in multigenerational and luxury leisure travel and steered our development efforts in those directions,” says Schragle. “I knew we needed to focus most on the work that clients would always need help with and to develop valuable expertise within our office.

“We vowed to seek out the most difficult travel work and get good at it,” she says.

Luxury cruises and FIT became a main focus and the agency also continued to build its safari expertise.

That strategy worked. Today, Wayland brings in $25 million in sales a year and works closely with top luxury brands. Schragle sits on The Ritz-Carlton Inner Circle, the Starwood Luxury Advisory Board and the Intercontinental Luxury Advisory Board.

She also sits on the Signature Luxury Advisory Council; the agency has belonged to the Signature Travel Network for seven years. She says being with Signature has enabled Wayland Travel to maintain its individuality while taking advantage of the network’s buying strength. “We particularly like their great marketing and the technology platform that supports it,” she adds.

Her 18 advisors, who average about 25 years in the business, have the chance to travel four times a year, which is part of the agency’s success. Collectively, they’ve ventured to hundreds of countries on all seven continents. “We have a passion for fine accommodations and have all become extremely attuned to design, ambiance and regional sensitivity,” says Schragle.

They each specialize to some degree, she notes. “We have a cracker-jack Disney agent, three Africa / adventure specialists, a dive-travel specialist, several European travel pros, a couple focusing on Latin America and Asia and, of course, several cruise experts,” she says. Schragle also keeps current on what’s hot; in the past year alone, she visited Dubai; Abu Dhabi; Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve; Hong Kong; Bali; Singapore; Turks & Caicos and Morocco; she also took a short fam on a Viking Ocean ship.

Front row, from left to right: Valerie Paul, ATD manager; Samantha Smith, travel consultant; Sherine Hayden, travel consultant; Debie Isroff, travel consultant; Karen Schragle, owner; Marilyn Scott, travel consultant; Pat Feige, travel consultant; Stacy Smith, concierge; Paula Hoffman, cruise consultant and Kim Vetere. Back row: Beth Goldberg, air manager and Carla Lallensack, receptionist.

Wayland Travel’s model is for advisors to be on salary, earning benefits and vacation time. And while some of them work remotely at times, most prefer to be in the office where it’s easier to share knowledge and collaborate.

“We find that the old-fashioned model of working together in the office is beneficial for agents and clients,” says Schragle.

She expects the business to continue to flourish; she bought out the Scotts four years ago (Ian Scott sadly passed away in June 2015). She’s just hired two travel advisors — one with planning experience and the other an all-around strong agent — and will bring another on to the agency’s adventure division.

“Our main challenge is to stay abreast of current technology; the next five years are likely to see more rapid changes in how we communicate with our clients and suppliers,” says Schragle. But that just means that clients will continue to be flooded with information, and that will make travel advisors all the more valuable, she says.

“We plan to build on our momentum and move forward. We’re excited!” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “We have to expect disruptions in this uncertain world but at the end of the day, our wealthy clients still expect to be able to travel in style and they won’t stay home for long,” she says.

She’s ready to heed that call and continues
to enjoy the intricate aspect of planning the complex FIT. “I love the challenge of bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together and getting that two-word message from the beach or the presidential suite: ‘Perfect, thanks,’” says Schragle. 

WAYLAND TRAVEL

Headquarters: Wayland, MA

Owner / President: Karen Schragle

Vice President / Manager of Accounting: Denise Lettiere

Air Division Manager: Beth Goldberg

Manager FIT Services: Gail Hendricks

Manager Adventure Travel Desk: Valerie Paul

Number of Agents: 18 agents, 3 support — all salaried in-house, one independent contractor

Annual volume of business: $25 million

Affiliations: Signature Travel Network, ABC Corporate Services, Ritz-Carlton Stars (two Constellation advisors), Four Seasons Preferred Partners, Rosewood Elite, Starwood Luxury Privileges, Belmond Bellini, Jumeirah Passport
to Luxury

Currently: Signature Luxury Advisory Council, Ritz-Carlton Inner Circle, Starwood Luxury Advisory Board, Intercontinental Luxury Advisory Board 

Agency website: www.waylandtravel.com