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Family-Run Travel BusinessApril 2, 2007 By: Debbie Strong Travel Agent
How families are happily running some of the most successful companies in the industry
Running a travel agency or a hotel company is no easy task, but how do the challenges change when you throw mothers, fathers and siblings into the mix? Travel Agent spoke with families running some of the most successful companies in the travel business to see how they manage the delicate balance between family and work. Here they share their thoughts, advice and memories regarding life in a family-run travel business.
Following the Family Path
"Growing up, the company was like another sibling at
the dinner table," says Jaime Stewart, the managing director of Sandals'
Royal Plantation and the only daughter of Sandals and Beaches Resorts founder
Gordon "Butch" Stewart. Her father founded the company in
1981, and it has since grown into a multi-brand, multi-billion-dollar hotel
empire. Though Jaime says that it may have been "a hard conversation to
have with my dad if I'd wanted to be a vet or a lawyer," she feels lucky
that she "fell in love with travel at a very young age." She points
out that travel is a fun industry where you can find use for many different
talents. "Whether it's business, or engineering or design [that you're
interested in], there is a space for it," she says.
Her younger brother Adam Stewart similarly recalls getting
the travel bug as a young kid. "Growing up in the house with my dad, we'd
end up at all these industry events," he recalls, noting that since age
13, he has worked in many facets of the company. Adam, who is just 26 years
old, was named CEO of the company in November 2006. "You can't force it.
If you live it and you feel it and you love it, you're very lucky."
Some sons and daughters we spoke to didn't decide to join
the family business until a bit later in life. Take for example Kimberly Wilson
Wetty, who along with her sister Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, is co-president of
Valerie Wilson Travel, which was founded by their mother Valerie Ann Wilson in
Kimberly says that at first, she wanted to pursue other
career aspirations. "I was quite adamant that I'd do something
different," she says, and first started a career at a hotel company. She
recalls that her mother was completely supportive of her outside interests but
also thrilled when she decided to join the company in 1995, heading up the
cruise division (Her sister had joined in 1991).
For her part, Valerie Wilson admits that she is grateful to
have both daughters working with her, and named them co-presidents in 2001,
calling them her "greatest assets."
"It's a dream come true; the company would not be the
success that it is without them. They give one thousand percent all of the
time, and are equally capable of handling any subject [of the business] at any
time," says Valerie, who remains her company's CEO and chairwoman. Today,
the company includes 300-plus associates and more than 17 affiliate and branch
Benefits From a Business Standpoint
Families we spoke with did not think it was a coincidence
that theirs were among the most successful in the field, and offered thoughts
as to why this was the case.
"Being a family business gives us a wonderful freedom
to take a longer view," says Robin Tauck, the president and CEO of Tauck
World Discovery, perhaps one of the longest-running family-owned tour operators
around. The company was founded in 1925 by Robin's grandfather, Arthur Tauck,
"When you can take a longer view, you can do what's
right for your guests and earn their repeat business. Most businesses, on the
other hand, have to take a short-term focus and make decisions based on impact
to the bottom line—as in, 'What do we have to do in order to make our profit
projections for this quarter?'"
She used the example of the days following 9/11, when the
company took 11,000 cancellations and provided 100 percent refunds, "even
though we weren't obligated to do so. A company driven solely by the bottom
line would have resisted issuing refunds, but we never hesitated. And although
we took a sizeable hit in the short term, we earned a lot of lifelong Tauck
guests in the process," she concludes.
The long-term family benefits also mean that the business is
taken more seriously in the corporate world.
"There's a credibility factor," says Jennifer
Wilson-Buttigieg. "The fact that Kim and I are here brings sustainability;
there's an infrastructure in place. I think most people see it as a huge
Adam Stewart points out that families can sometime be more
frank and honest with each other than non-family colleagues. "It's helpful
because I'm not trying to steal anyone's turf; I have no agenda, no secret
mission. I'm able to go in there and really criticize and get a lot out in the
open" that he perhaps wouldn't if he had to worry about protecting his job
security like a non-related employee.
Which brings up an interesting point—do children of travel
business owners ever feel like they got their jobs handed to them just because
they are family—and are they treated that way by other employees?
Not at all, says Adam."It takes mutual respect. At no
time is [Sandals] expected to be handed down within the family. It will always
stay within the hands of the best people for the job, whether they're related
or not. It's always been that way." Indeed, Robert Stone, who has worked
at Sandals Montego Bay, the company's flagship resort, since its opening in
1981, says of his new boss, "So far as CEO of Sandals, Adam has shown a
level of seriousness that ensures that their father's legacy is well
protected." Butch Stewart himself also echoes that sentiment. "You're
very lucky if you have kids that have the aptitude to take on big roles within
your company. The young have energy."
Plus, as the son or daughter of the owner, "You also
have to prove yourself in a different way," says Kimberly Wilson Wetty.
"If anything, you have to work that much harder to overcome the stereotype
that your job was handed to you. And you're also seeking parental
satisfaction," she notes, which she says brings a different psychological
aspect to working hard and striving for excellence. "You feel like you
can't ever rest in your position; I think it's why a lot of family-business
members seem to rise slightly above the cream of the crop."
Rules for Success
"The number-one rule is communication," says Jaime
Stewart, who says she speaks to her brother and father on the phone anywhere
from five to 50 times a day. "You can't get emotional about work issues,
and the way to avoid that is with lots of open communication—even if it's as
simple as calling someone to have them back you on a decision before you make
"Also," says Jaime, "you can't take things
personally; you can't take it home. Humor is key. One of the biggest lessons my
father has taught me is that you have to learn to laugh. At the end of the day,
you're not going anywhere in life if you can't learn to laugh."
Other families also cited communication and humor as two
main ingredients for success. Valerie Wilson pointed to communication as an
important tool both within her family and throughout her entire company.
"Everyone has equal access to share their
feelings," she says, noting that many of her associates appreciate the
open and close-knit family atmosphere at VWT, choosing to stay within the
company even after relocating or making other life changes.
"And, you've got to be able to laugh," adds
Family Must Come First
"Keep family above everything else," advises Marc
Casto, president and COO of Casto Travel, a California-based agency that his
mother, Maryles Casto, opened in 1974. Marc recalls that his mother was
supportive of her only child's decision to first follow a career as an
accountant before joining Casto Travel, which did $135 million in sales last
"Try best to remember that you are a family above
anything else, and remember what that means," he advises.
Marc says the Castos make a point to spend quality family
time together, though "it's utterly impossible to ever completely leave
business at work, much to the chagrin of other members of the family." He
jokes that it's hard not to spend Christmas dinner rewriting the company's
mission statement ever year. "We have to make a real effort. My wife likes
to sometimes change the subject for us," he laughs.
Adam Stewart says that though his family does get together
for fun and relaxing activities like sport-fishing, "Our company is like another
family member. I don't know if we ever really switch it off. It's really a
"It's so easy to talk shop around our husbands,"
says Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg. "We've made a real effort not to. It was a
challenge at first, but we've gotten very good at it." She adds that it's
easier to leave family out of the workplace, because there is simply too much
work to do. "There aren't enough hours in a day," she says.
Jennifer also mentions that she and Kim bring in their
children to the offices maybe two or three times a year to see their
grandmother and mothers on the job. "It's a rare treat," agrees
The sisters are also careful to treat each other, and most
of all, their mother, with the utmost professionalism on the job—constantly
addressing their mother as "Valerie." The closeness between the
Wilsons is overwhelmingly apparent—they appear to know what each other is
thinking with just a shared glance, and many things seem understood, like who
will answer which question. And though all three are adept at finishing each
other sentences, both sisters are careful to always let Valerie speak first.
Remembering that you are a family above anything else seemed
to be the mantra for all those to whom we spoke.
Jaime Stewart recalls a particular moment where this truth
shone through more than ever. Last fall, she was enjoying her honeymoon in
then her dad. During the second call, her father asked if Adam had told her the
big news, and she was baffled. She had spoken to Adam just moments earlier and
he had mentioned nothing. "Your brother is now your boss!" announced
her father, and Jaime remembers being shocked and ecstatic.
"I started doing cartwheels and screaming, and called
Adam back right away, saying, "How could you not tell me?' He just said
'Jaime, this is your wedding. It's all about you right now. I didn't want
anything to get in the way of that.' It was just so telling of how selfless my
brother is. Here was my kid brother becoming CEO; it was huge news. And he
wanted to wait until I came back from my honeymoon before sharing it. He didn't
think twice about it."
Sharing the Rewards
When a family-owned business is run well, the potential for
successes, closeness and rewards multiply. Childrens' respect for parents was
apparent. It was clear that all sons and daughters we spoke to felt a deep
sense of appreciation for their parents' talents as businesspeople.
"I've really learned from my mother's boundless
optimism," says Marc Casto. "Even in tough times (like during the
aftermath of 9/11), she is able to stay optimistic, always finding
Adam Stewart says of his father, "Every now and then
I'm blown away by his generosity. He never forgets where he came from, his
"I've learned from Valerie about loyalty and the
importance of integrity," says Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg. "An example
is always being set," adds Kimberly. "She has a true passion for what
she does and lives every day fully. No matter what, she ends every day with a