Inside TravelStore: Poised for Luxury Leisure Growth

TravelStore, based in Los Angeles, has a unique structure that makes it stand out from many other travel businesses and it’s a structure that’s kept it thriving for years, even through the pandemic. 

The agency, which earned $385 million in sales volume in 2019, is employee-owned; that’s the business model founder Wido Schaefer set up in 2005, 30 years after founding TravelStore. The ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) structure gives workers ownership interest in the company in the form of stock and certainly keeps them vested in terms of the company’s success.

All told, there are 93 employee-owner advisors at TravelStore, with 148 independent advisors. This mighty-sized group was kept particularly busy with a very special project for a full year starting April 2020 through April 2021, just as the onset of the pandemic was decimating business for many travel agencies across the country.

The task at hand? The State of California engaged TravelStore to manage accommodations for California’s healthcare workers. “Though immensely challenging, this gave us meaning and value at a time when travel ceased, and enabled us to keep almost all our team employed,” says Dan Ilves, senior vice president, leisure sales and marketing, who has been with TravelStore for 29 years. At the height of the pandemic, the TravelStore team was handling 5,000 phone calls a week, seven days a week, morning till night. “It really helped us maintain our business to some degree,” he added.

It was no accident the agency was awarded the travel account of the State of California. TravelStore is known for its service levels, its resources, and the high caliber of its advisors. It’s also now acclaimed as the largest independent travel company based in California. It has five branch locations throughout the state, plus an office where it handles the State of California’s travel.

Osvaldo Ramos

Osvaldo Ramos, the president and CEO of TravelStore, joined the company in 1985. He has the overall responsibility for leading the company. 

The tenure of TravelStore’s employees says it all; the average is close to 20 years. “It’s a testament to the strong culture Wido has fostered and that’s what drives us,” said Ilves.

And while the business mix skews 70 percent business travel, 30 percent leisure, TravelStore is known as a top-producing agency for most luxury hotel companies, cruise lines, tour operators and DMCs.

“In the luxury space, we definitely skew toward luxury cruise and upscale custom FITs and hosted and incentive groups,” Ilves says. “In leisure, we cater to travelers who appreciate the best that life has to offer them and have earned the privilege to enjoy it, and likewise who appreciate the value we provide in handling their travel.”

A bit of background. Wido Schaefer, who founded the company in 1975, is now TravelStore’s chairman, overseeing a board of directors to manage the company. This board comprises six executives (see information below) as voting members and two additional non-voting members. 

Osvaldo Ramos is the president and CEO of TravelStore; he came to the U.S. from Argentina in 1979 as controller, Western USA for Argentine Airlines and joined TravelStore in 1985 as the sole member of its accounting department. He moved up the ranks to EVP/CFO before being promoted to president and CEO five years ago. Ramos also manages TravelStore’s airline partnerships.

Dan Ilves joined TravelStore in 1993; he oversees and manages TravelStore’s leisure operations and marketing. Although he is no longer a selling advisor, Ilves had been a cruise specialist for some years and still keeps up with the cruise sector and the company’s land suppliers. 

We caught up with Ilves to see how he and his team of managers operate the company’s luxury leisure business. He likens the scenario to a dining experience.  

“Our managers and their team of advisors are the meat and potatoes of our leisure business, and at best, I try to set the table and maybe provide some of the spices and help us get through the meal,” he says. “Because there’s too much to bite off and chew for any one person, we try to divide and conquer and support each other.”

Reporting to Ilves is Katie Cadar, the director of leisure sales, who joined the company in 1998. She is the company’s point person for its preferred hotel relationships and stays in tune with hotel developments.

With their combined experience and knowledge, Ilves and Cadar and their colleagues form a bit of a dream team for luxury leisure, both serving as members of a number of advisory boards, such as Travel+Leisure and many luxury hotel and cruise line companies. They are both well known within the luxury leisure travel industry, which puts them in a good position to deal with TravelStore’s affluent clientele.

Those clients tend to be educated professionals or retirees who are California-based, but TravelStore’s strong online presence and its wide scope of advisors located throughout the country also fuel a healthy international clientele.

This clientele is based on long-standing relationships, but TravelStore is also looking ahead to the next generation of travelers.TravelStore’s honeymoon team, managed by Florence Brethome, makes it a point to connect with Millennials who are engaged and looking to plan honeymoons or destination weddings. “It’s a great way to prove our value to younger travelers who have not worked with travel advisors previously,” says Ilves.

He says most of TravelStore’s business is done by phone, email and even text.

“Personal contact with a client is of key importance to us, and we’ve continued to shy away from online booking engines,” he notes. Ilves says he is excited by a new text tool for advisors that will also handle credit card payments. It’s being developed by the Signature Travel Network, which TravelStore belongs to. (More on that later.)

The company also has a strong groups division, mostly focused on trips hosted by radio hosts and other “celebrity” pied pipers. Ilves says this strategy helps TravelStore extend its reach to other audiences, which helps it extend its client base.

Of the 241 advisors, 70 are in house at TravelStore’s branch location, and 171 are home-based. Independent affiliates (there are 148) are welcome to work in house or from home. Advisors range from generalists to those with very specific niches. “I admire travel advisors who have a very limited specialty and aren’t just generalists, and who have succeeded focusing on a smaller piece of the pie and being really good at it,” Ilves says. “At TravelStore we certainly have advisors that specialize, though by the nature of our business [and] our strong client relationships, we are also generalists. For example, Katie is an East and South Africa specialist and travels there at least every other year to stay sharp. My Egypt expert, Maha, is Egyptian and brings more of a local’s insight and experience. My U.K. expert, Catherine, has a house in Wales and visits there. My Fiji, Maldives and Tahiti expert, Susanne, has traveled to each destination a number of times and is on the Travel+Leisure A List. One of our France experts, Florence, is from France and used to work for the tourism office there before moving to the States. A couple of our experts worked for cruise lines prior to becoming travel advisors.” 


The experienced trio: Ramos, Cadar and Ilves are shown on the garden rooftop of TravelStore’s new headquarters. 

Luxury travel advisors at TravelStore are certainly encouraged to travel. “In fact, we are rather disappointed if they don’t!” said Ilves. “We see it as part of their job description to travel. Pre-pandemic our employee-owners earned fam days and a fam allowance, plus two weeks’ vacation, and after five years have three weeks of vacation. With the pandemic we’ve cut back on how much travel we can support out of pocket, but we’ll get back to that,” he notes.

“Certainly, one reality is that a number of advisors may not have the financial means to afford the luxury of traveling, and we have supported them as best we can. In addition to suppliers who occasionally offer FAMs, Signature also has organized (pre-pandemic) a number of fam trips each year that our advisors could apply for.”

TravelStore’s credo is to encourage advisors to discover their travel passion and become experts at it, and to promote their specialty on their personal website page on TravelStore’s site. They can also post on the company’s travel blog and establish a presence on its social media pages.

Having a strong base of travel experts who have toured the world is part of TravelStore’s success. “The benefit of being part of a larger agency such as TravelStore is that we have a complement of human resources that are traveling and experiencing the world; we network with each other and share our experiences,” says Ilves. “We do this on daily and weekly ‘huddles’ virtually and in person. Having daily staff meetings has been a part of our culture for many years. We share our knowledge and also are building a database our advisors can access of who has been where and done what, so we can better network with each other.”

In fact, having a strong collective firsthand knowledge of the world is a core value at TravelStore, whose tagline for many years has been “we’ve been where you want to go.”

TravelStore is also keen to bring along the next generation of travel advisors, and has done a good job of that by amping up its hiring techniques and developing training programs, says Ilves. 

And while the company hasn’t been hiring new employees during the pandemic (the focus instead has been on independent contractors), TravelStore does have a mentorship program managed by Florence Brethome. “We look for every opportunity to get these new advisors to travel and experience what we sell,” says Ilves.

TravelStore is a member of the Signature Travel Network and has been for 14 years. 

“We have never looked back and we have several of our team that have been active in various Signature committees,” Ilves says.

One memory stands out in his mind when it comes to the network, which puts a strong focus on engaging with its agency members.

“I vividly recall quite soon after we joined Signature, and I was reviewing their tools, I made a suggestion for an enhancement, inquiring if it would be useful to Signature to do that,” recalls Ilves. “Within a day I had a reply that it would be completed shortly for us.” Ilves says he was a bit embarrassed, wondering if the suggestion had come off more strongly than he meant to imply. The follow-up reply he got was along the lines of: “If it helps your agency, we’ll make it happen.”

“Honestly, I was flabbergasted — but it’s basically how the Signature team operates — we are a family and we all care about each other, support each other, and we all want each other to succeed,” says Ilves. “I can’t recall any time in all these years when I didn’t get a prompt and appropriate or helpful reply to an inquiry from anyone at Signature.”

He said he hears the same thing from suppliers. “When they come to a Signature meeting, egos are mostly left at the door and it’s a love fest of sorts,” he notes.

Suppliers have also been vital to TravelStore’s 47 years of success and it’s developed many strong relationships.

“The travel business — especially in the luxury travel space — is all about personal relationships,” says Ilves. “Ours is not that large a universe, we are all part of a large family.” In fact, he knows that a number of TravelStore’s supplier relationships exist because of a personal relationship. “We want to work with a particular individual and so we elect to work with that supplier,” he says. “That’s often the case because you need to be able to call upon these relationships to ensure business is seamless and when problems occur — and as we all know they most definitely will occur — you have the people in place to call on that will jump to help you out.”

TravelStore works with Signature’s preferred suppliers and always keeps an eye out for other potential new partnerships. Ilves says that TravelStore doesn’t take these alliances for granted. “We have to prove our value to our suppliers every year and they have to prove their value to us, too. None of us can rest on our laurels. When a supplier lowers their standards or fails to live up to the caliber of service we expect, then it’s time to move on,” he notes.

TravelStore’s basic philosophy with suppliers is, “We all make mistakes, we’re only human, but what’s key for us is how a supplier responds when mistakes occur — that’s often what’s most telling.”

During the pandemic that became extremely apparent. “There are suppliers who have stepped up and have had our backs even if that was financially painful for them to do so and there are those that are only looking out for their own bottom line at the expense of being just and fair,” says Ilves. 

“We know these are challenging times for all businesses, and the pandemic has in some ways sharpened the focus on who your best partners are.”

The bottom line? “The most important thing to us in a supplier relationship is that our clients and our advisors are treated the way we’d expect the supplier to treat their own employees and their own personal clients. We are in this together as a partnership, and we get along best with those suppliers who understand and appreciate we are extensions of each other and part of the same team. We don’t grow and succeed in this business at their expense — we grow and succeed together.”


A New Address: TravelStore just purchased its own headquarters building in Los Angeles.

A Look Back

Dan Ilves got into the travel business early on. He trained in classical piano as a young man but decided to give that up. 

In college, he was a triple major and graduated with BA’s in Political Science, Philosophy and Russian Studies. It was the Cold War period, and he was interested in international relations and the diplomatic field. But the politics and gamesmanship soured him, he says. 

“When the Summer Olympics were scheduled in Moscow and Los Angeles awarded the 1984 Games, I applied and was a finalist to work with the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee, to be stationed in Moscow during those Games. It was my dream job. When the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics, that position was off the table.”

Ilves moved on and began a Master’s program at USC in Russian Studies and teaching Russian Literature and Language. He had thoughts of being a professor, but when he was approached by some colleagues who were starting a student travel service on campus, he jumped right in. He spent several years at USC Student Travel, eventually co-managing it with a colleague.

“We became one of the better-established student travel agencies in the country,” he recalls. “In those years when charter flights were quite popular we even were chartering our own flights to Europe and between the East and West Coasts.”

Wanting to move beyond student travel, Ilves became the western sales rep for Cosmos Tours for a year, making 25 sales calls a week on travel agencies. He later spent 10 years with Olson-Travelworld. “In its heyday it was one of the top tour operators, but eventually it went belly-up,” he says. “I was first working on planning one-off Special Tour programs, and later headed up the cruise division for AARP Travel Service. I had my own res team and some 50 cruise hosts escorting AARP groups on the major cruise lines.”

Eventually, Ilves was married with two young children and hit a period of unemployment. But then he was hired by Wido Schaefer at TravelStore “on a handshake” to help build cruise sales, and then to build TravelStore’s overall leisure travel division.

“I’ll never forget when I was first hired, two employees came up to me who I didn’t know at all and told me I would love working at TravelStore,” recalls Ilves. “It confirmed my decision to accept the opportunity, and it’s been a great ride ever since.”

Twenty-nine years later, Ilves still loves working at TravelStore and points to its unique quality as an ESOP, a financial structure that Schaefer put in place 16 years ago. The move essentially made all the employees owners of the business in that they all have shares of the business that are provided to them based on their seniority and position within the company. Ilves says that this has certainly enhanced and enriched, literally and figuratively, the strong culture TravelStore already had in a number of ways. 

“We’ve also been a multi-year winner of ‘Best Places to Work in Los Angeles,’ ‘Best Places to Work in Sacramento’ and ‘Best Places to Work in Orange County,’” he says.

Until the pandemic, the value of those shares had gone up significantly; they took a hit during COVID but not as much as the executive team had feared. 

“The return on those shares has been very strong and will continue to be as business returns,” said Ilves.

Dan Ilves

Looking Ahead: Dan Ilves is excited about the future of luxury travel and his optimism stems from the fact that there will always be a need for it.

A recent strategic move has also added to the company’s bottom line. After years of renting premium space in Los Angeles, TravelStore just purchased its own headquarters building in the city, which it moved into this past October. 

COO Brian Crawford spearheaded the massive project of renovating the building, installing an elevator and building out a usable rooftop space. “The equity in the building helped preserve some of the loss in share value we probably would have seen otherwise,” said Ilves.

And then there is the fact that the business is coming back. At the end of last year TravelStore’s cruise and tour sales exceeded the same-month sales in 2019. 

TravelStore has great faith in the future but it’s also being realistic as COVID continues to hit peaks and valleys, and more peaks. But executives can be confident that behind the scenes, its infrastructure is strong. 

“While we remain very optimistic, it’s impossible to predict what’s waiting for us around the bend,” says Ilves. “We are a bit leaner, but positioned quite well; for example, we recently launched a new website — so we feel we are well positioned for both our leisure and corporate growth. We are cautiously moving forward and hope to continue to grow our business once again.”

Luxury Travel Advisor always asks its cover subjects what is most exciting to them in the world of luxury travel, i.e., what new development is making them the happiest about getting out of bed every morning? That’s a tough question to answer when you’re in the midst of a pandemic that just keeps on giving, but Ilves sees the silver lining in it all. 

“The resiliency and passion of affluent travelers to travel in the face of risk and adversity, while not surprising, has certainly been encouraging,” he said, bringing up an interesting point. “While the pandemic first was reported on a cruise ship, luxury cruises have also been the first segment to bounce back for us in a big way.”

He’s excited for the future and he loves his job, that much is clear.

“I hate to say this, but if I take a vacation day and I’m not otherwise traveling, I kind of miss not going to work! I know, it’s an obsession for most of us. While we are using the ‘luxury travel’ nomenclature in one way, of course, its definition is in the eye of the beholder as to what it really means. Travel in many respects is a luxury onto itself. What is a luxury to one person isn’t to another.”

His optimism for the future of luxury travel is fueled by that fact that it will always be in demand.

“There will always be those who need to fulfill themselves by experiencing other destinations and other cultures in comfort and style, who want to engage with other members of our human race who are different than they are, and who refuse to live in a vacuum,” says Ilves. “Our world is a beautiful and amazing place and clients will always want to appreciate the best the world offers them, whether in accommodations, in exploring the best of its cuisines, or in the unique activities available. They will always be the ones to stretch the boundaries — whether it’s discovering unexplored regions of our planet or even outer space.”

The fact is, the growth in affluence has been enormous, he says, and travel is now much more desired than commodities. “Ours is a sweet spot of sorts,” said Ilves.

Up Close With Katie Cadar, TravelStore’s Director of Leisure Sales

We caught up with Katie Cadar, TravelStore’s director of leisure sales, to get her take on the current travel landscape and to get the vibe on what’s happening with the company’s agency network.

Cadar joined TravelStore in 1998; she had been working as an independent contractor at a boutique agency in Santa Monica when Wido Schaefer, the chairman and founder of TravelStore, recruited her to manage an office he had purchased in Malibu. Schaefer then had the idea to create a Platinum division focusing on the luxury market and asked Cadar to manage it. She later became director of leisure sales based at TravelStore’s headquarters in Los Angeles, where she manages the leisure team. 

“I’m the point person for our hotel relationships, keeping track of our preferred programs and reaching out to our agents to go over the program benefits,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I act as a resource for our advisors in travel planning, discussing itineraries, properties, suppliers, booking strategies. I teach, counsel, and cheer them on. I also have a large book of business and really love planning trips for my own clients.”

That’s a huge task for anyone, and when she’s not traveling, Cadar can be found in the office, working with advisors, her clients and meeting regularly (virtually for now) with suppliers.

“I also collaborate regularly with Dan Ilves, our senior vice president,” says Cadar. “We have a daily huddle with our leisure advisors on Teams, including those working from home. It gives us an opportunity to network and share issues with each other.”

Africa is Cadar’s travel passion and she goes back every year.

“There is something about it that makes me feel more alive,” she says. “For sheer beauty and peacefulness, I go to French Polynesia. I’ve been there so often it feels like going home.”

Europe is also on her annual hit list, but really, Cadar is a global traveler at heart and open to most things. “I love adventure travel, discovering new places, meeting people and making connections all around the world,” she says. “Travel opens minds and hearts, enriches, challenges and teaches us how little we really know.”

She takes her earned firsthand knowledge of the world to create memories in the itineraries she plans for her clients. “I try to include special experiences for my clients to make their trip more meaningful, richer, and perhaps transformative.”  

Even with the recent challenges in travel, Cadar managed to take eight trips in 2021, including Kenya; France (twice); Switzerland; Bend, OR; the Bahamas; Mexico and Las Vegas for the annual Signature sales conference. “I love getting out there and exploring a new destination or revisiting a favorite one as I always learn something new,” she says.

Katie Cadar

A Wealth of Knowledge: Katie Cadar, TravelStore’s director of leisure sales, acts as a resource for the company’s advisors in travel planning, discussing itineraries, properties, suppliers and booking strategies.

On the frontlines, Cadar observes that clients want to travel, but they are cautious. That stems perhaps from the ever-changing travel scenarios. 

“There is a lot of frustration on both our side and from clients with the cancellations by cruise ships as well as airline issues. Flights have been canceled; schedules changed,” she reports.

This means TravelStore’s advisors have to re-work trips on a daily basis. “The work often must be redone due to changes beyond our control,” says Cadar. “We are the advocates of and for our clients and are constantly updating, changing, and dealing with the constant changes in travel requirements.”

The ride has been a rocky one, but TravelStore has been taking the opportunity to make the most of things.

“COVID has thrown us all off balance,” she says. “We think it’s winding down, then another variant comes up. We are holding our own, but emotionally, it takes a toll.”

She points to the huge opportunity TravelStore had during the pandemic to work for the State of California to book travel for the essential workers in the healthcare field. “Every employee in the company participated,” she says.

During the slow down, the team also took time for additional training for TravelStore’s advisors. 

“I even taught a basic class in Sabre with two of our managers, Florence Brethome and Tanya Bryant. Being a former teacher, this came naturally!” said Cadar.

In all, she is looking for a return to “normal,” and got a dose of that when she attended ILTM live in Cannes last December.  

“I was excited to once again meet suppliers face to face, learn about new products, see some of the new hotels recently opened, and talk travel nonstop for four days straight. There is nothing like making personal connections,” says Cadar. 


Headquarters: Los Angeles, California
Top Executives:

  • President & CEO: Osvaldo Ramos
  • Executive Vice President & COO: Brian Crawford
  • Sr. Vice President, Leisure Sales & Marketing: Dan Ilves
  • Sr. Vice President, Corporate Sales: Jim Wright
  • Sr. Vice President & General Manager, Northern California: Trudy Flores 
  • Sr. Vice President & General Manager, Orange County, California: Doris Reiss

Number of travel advisors: 93 employee-owners, 148 independents         
Annual volume of business: $385 million (2019)
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network, BCD
Advisory board positions: Travel+Leisure Advisory Board (Ilves); Travel Corporation’s Signature Committee (Ilves); bedsonline Advisory Committee (Ilves); ASTA Premium - ASTA CAC Committee (Crawford and Reiss); Delta Agency Advisory Board (Ramos); BCD Affiliate Members Board (Ramos); Travel Elevates (Signature Foundation) Board (Ramos); MILUX – Inner Circle Committee (Ramos); AFAR Advisory Board (Cadar); Coral Tree Hospitality Advisory Board (Cadar); Signature Destination Specialist Committee (Cadar); CBTG Board (Flores)
Agency website:

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