RUDI STEELE'S STORY BEGINS IN EUROPE AND ENDS, like so many others looking for opportunity and fortune, in America. Now approaching his 70th birthday, Steele isn't showing any signs of slowing down as the owner and president of Rudi Steele Travel in Dallas, TX, which is now in its 28th year of operation. His agency has become one of the preeminent sellers of luxury travel in the United States, but his success Stateside can be traced to his days learning the travel trade abroad.
Steele was born in Germany, but got his first taste of travel as an apprentice in Zurich for HotelPlan, the travel division of Migros, which is one of Switzerland's largest enterprises, owning everything from supermarkets to gas. There, more than 45 years ago, Steele did a three-year apprenticeship that showed him the ropes of the travel business, from working with suppliers to closing bookings.
Upon finishing his travel education, Steele was shipped to Montreal to work for Guy Tombs Ltd., a travel company for which he was responsible for housing during the 1967 World's Fair. "I couldn't speak any English," he says, "so they sent me there." (Steele is fluent in both French and German.)
Making It Big in the U.S.
Eventually he learned English and decided to pursue his dreams in the U.S. "The North American lifestyle was better," he says, noting that Europe was still depressed after World War II.
His experience and willingness landed him his first job in the States with Thomas Cook in San Francisco. Steele was there for four years until the company shipped him to head its Dallas operations in 1971. He's been in Dallas ever since.
After leaving Thomas Cook, he accepted a position with Neiman Marcus Travel, where after five years his clients convinced him to start his own agency. "They actually gave me start-up money," he says.
Rudi Steele Travel was born on June 5, 1978, and from day one Steele has catered to the luxury market. "All my colleagues back then told me that if I didn't take on commercial accounts, I wouldn't make it," he says. "Now they are all gone, and I'm still around."
And he's not going anywhere. "I feel healthy and I love the business too much," he says. When he does decide to hang up his travel agent spurs, he says he will leave the business to his staff, an altruistic gesture he feels is right. "They've stuck with me," he says.
Steele's agency is small, with a staff of only 10 agents, but they are at the top of their craft and are, above all, loyal. (Vice President Tom Froehlich has been by Steele's side for more than 20 years.)
Steele's success can be chalked up to his dealings with both suppliers and clients.
On suppliers: "I play it straight and fair, no games," he says. "I'm also loyal to them and they reward you by treating your clients well."
As for his clients, it's all about personalized service. "Each one of my clients is different, so the way I treat them all is different." Steele recounts handling Ross Perot's travel back when he was making a bid for the White House. "He'd say to me, 'Rudi, why don't you handle our in-house travel, it's a mess.' I told him that's exactly why: I don't enjoy running a factory."
What he does love is making travel dreams reality. He makes sure to thoroughly know each of his clients' likes and dislikes, their lifestyles, even the restaurants they prefer. "It gives me an idea of what they are looking for," he says.
One destination many of Steele's clients are looking at is Europe, although he is amazed at the disparity between the dollar and the euro. "People are still spending money though," he says. He agrees that doing Europe via a cruise is wise for first-time visitors because it can be less of an economic burden. However, Steele is still a bit leery of cruising, because many cruise lines don't do overnight visits. "Port towns are different at night," he says. He recommends an overland European vacation the second time around.
The airlines remain his biggest concern, not only because they don't pay commissions. "The airlines are starting to make money again, but I wish they'd bring back better service," he says. "It hurts me to have to be apologetic to my clients."
One decision he's never had to regret is his affiliation with Virtuoso, which he calls "one of the best collections of travel agents in the upscale travel business." (He also praises other networks such as Signature for their work.) Steele is one of Virtuoso's veteran clients, having joined back in the 1980s. He has served on its advisory board, which he calls rewarding because "they really listen to you," and currently sits on its hotel committee.
Still Logging 100 Days of Travel a Year
At an age when most people are planning or already enjoying their retirement, Steele is still chugging along. He says he still travels almost 100 days out of the year and enjoys staying at hotels where they don't know who he is. That can sometimes prove difficult for one of the giants in the travel profession.
Like most travel agents, Steele has compiled a bulky list of destinations visited over his illustrious career. And, as many agents will say, one location usually trumps another. We asked Steele what his favorite destination is, and his response was closer to where he began his career than where he will finish it. "If I could take that last trip," he says, "it would be the British Isles. It's the people. Even in the most remote of areas, the people are civilized."
RUDI STEELE TRAVEL, INC Headquarters: 100 Highland Park Village, Dallas, TX 75205 Phone: 214-522-2777 Web Site: www.rudisteele.com Affiliation: Virtuoso Gross Revenue (2006): $20 million