ALAMO — Travel agencies have headed down the halls of extinction. Ilene Ferguson, president and founder of Alamo World Travel is the first to admit that.
"When I tell people I'm a travel agent, they look at me like I'm a dinosaur," she said.
Much like independent book stores, family owned toy stores and video rental stores, competition from the Internet has been fierce. But Alamo World Travel isn't like other agencies, she insists. By being able to adjust to changing times and staying loyal to her customers, her company has kept the doors open for almost 29 years.
Even with a staff of just 15, Alamo World Travel has grown to become one of the most successful businesses in the Bay Area. The Business Times, which puts out its Book of Lists, rated it 50th on its list of the largest woman-owned businesses in the Bay Area. Its 2008 companywide revenue was reported to be $7.2 million by the report.
"There are so few of us out there now, but if you do it right, even a travel agent can survive," she said.
That survival instinct came to Ferguson from the start.
After leaving her job as a flight attendant, Ferguson started Alamo World Travel on Aug. 3, 1981. It was the same day that air traffic controllers went on strike.
"It put travel in chaos for a couple of weeks, and started an onslaught of different problems," she said.
Over the next two decades the industry would see its share of obstacles. Whether it was when airlines stopped paying commissions on tickets, the 9/11 attacks, or the boom of Internet, Ferguson has seen many of her colleagues close their doors when tough times rolled in.
"There are not that many of us still around," she said.
To succeed as a travel agency, Ferguson feels you need to have passion and understanding for travel that translates to the customers. It's hard to tell a customer the best places to go if you haven't been there yourself.
Often when Ferguson travels on her own, she'll do some investigation so she can bring personal insight back to her clients. A lifetime traveler, she has been to every continent except Antarctica. Her favorite place to go is Costa Rica.
"Once you get travel in your blood, it never leaves you," she said.
Also she has a very close connection to her customers. Boxes of See's Candy are constantly handed out to them as appreciation. And she's been to some clients weddings and funerals.
"Some of them have become best friends," she said.
Being a travel agent takes a thick skin. If something goes wrong on a trip, "the travel agent gets blamed for everything," she said. But, when they tell her that they've had the trip of a lifetime, it cancels out all the negativity.
"It's very satisfying when people are happy about the trip we helped put together," she said.
For Alamo World Travel, its niche has been group travel. The ability to come up with unique trips that can't be found anywhere else is something that makes Ferguson proud.
On a rack at her office there are dozens of trips, from Fall Foliage cruises to the Rose Bowl Parade that are a unique combination of activities and experiences.
When the Internet exploded and travelers began putting together their own trips, lot of travel agents didn't know how to handle it.
Instead of being turned off by it, Ferguson believes it can be a helpful tool in the process because clients can do research first about what interests them and give her team a starting point.
The one issue with the Internet, she says, is that often a person thinks they're getting a deal but might be unaware of the small print. One client, for example, found a bargain on a flight. However, they failed to realize until they purchased the flight that there was a two-day layover in Dallas.
"That is why you need a travel expert who knows better," she said.
One of the biggest misconceptions about travel agents, she says, is travelers think they can't get a good deal from them. She insists that's not true, because most of the money they make is from being paid commissions by the hotels and places they send their customers.
If a client wants to go on a cruise, a travel agent can often get cheaper rates because she can buy in bulk.
Overall, the number of travel agencies have dwindled. But she doesn't think good ones can't succeed.
"If the right person does it and has the right drive and passion for travel, I definitely think they could be successful even today," she said. "I truly believe that I'm going to be doing this until the day I die."
Company: Alamo World Travel & Tours
President: Ilene Ferguson
Address: 3201 Danville Blvd. Suite 255, Alamo
Web site: www.alamoworld.com