A Journey in the Travel Business
Photographs by ChiChi Ubiña
Tell us about yourself and your family.
I grew up in Bronxville, NY and swore I would never move back or join the family business. Note to self, never say never! I did both. I graduated from Bronxville High School and Bucknell University. I married one of my best friends from Bucknell, but we didn’t start dating until after college. We are so proud to be Bucknellians and cherish the memories of being at college together. We have two wonderful children. Andrew (21) and Ashley (17) and we got a COVID puppy, Tusker, who is named after a Kenyan beer because it represented freedom, diversity, and travel. A Kenyan safari was our last family vacation before COVID.
We recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and we still live in Bronxville. Oh, and I turned 50 during the pandemic. No fanfare and not what I had always imagined (no parties, travel, jewelry, etc.). So, I joked I would stay forever 49 since we didn’t celebrate.
Tell us about Valerie Wilson Travel.
We lived in London in the late 70’s and that was where my mom’s love of travel took hold. She couldn’t find a travel professional to service our family’s travel needs the way she expected. She did it herself, making relationships with hotel General Managers, restaurant owners, tour guides, etc. When we returned to New York, she started Valerie Wilson Travel in September 1981 with a team of three people and goal to be an exclusive agency selling high end leisure, mostly to Western Europe, with sales of about $10 million. In 2019, we had grown to a $350 million 2nd generation family business, with 15 offices across the US, handling business and leisure travel as well as meetings and incentives. Our tagline is The Power of Access® and we deliver personalized, high touch service combined with high tech.
My sister, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, joined in 1991 and I joined in 1995. Both of us thought we were joining as a stepping-stone in our careers. Little did we know! While we are both involved in all aspects of the business, we had an imaginary grey line between our role as Co-Presidents. Jennifer oversees corporate, meetings, airlines, technology, and operations. I oversee leisure, cruise, marketing/branding, VWT Suite Access and human resources.
Tell us about having an entrepreneur/working mom growing up.
One of the greatest gifts my mom ever gave me was to watch her start a business and manage her career. She was 39 years old when she started Valerie Wilson Travel. For my 11-year-old self, I saw my friend’s moms playing tennis, having lunch with friends, and being home when school was done. I had a mom who was putting everything she had into building a company. She worked hard, commuted to the city, and traveled the world. While she wasn’t home when I got home from school or on the sidelines cheering me on at sporting events, instead she taught me about hard work, integrity, and commitment.
She still commutes to work and travels the world!
How have you put your stamp on Valerie Wilson Travel?
I love marketing and branding. My creative mind never stops. I think that has been one of the biggest contributions that I have made at Valerie Wilson Travel. I have helped to take our brand to a higher level with great press and worldwide name recognition.
How has the company changed since you started working there?
Change is the most constant thing we can count on! I joined in 1995 and developed our first website, just as the “world wide web” was beginning. And, now today, we can’t imagine a non-digital world. We used to hand write airline tickets and use a telex machine and typewriters for hotel vouchers and VIP messages. Happy those days have changed to emails and Microsoft Word!
I think the biggest change is the shift within the travel space and experiences that we sell. Luxury travel has exploded and brand names that were just starting are household names like Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Seabourn, etc. The experience of travel has changed so much in 26 years, and I can only imagine what the future will look like.
You have reached the pinnacle in the Travel business. What are your goals?
My motto is to travel with an open heart and open mind. I truly believe if we had more compassion and understanding, the world would be a better place. I try to live this daily. I focus on grace, gratitude, and faith. I like to believe the best years are yet to come and I am excited for the future of the travel industry.
Tell us about the competition in your business.
We think about the competition all the time. As a company culture, we focus on trying to do better today than we did yesterday. Solid competition is good for everyone because it makes you better, stronger, more creative, adaptable, and focused.
Tell us about combining efforts with Frosch and how the new company is going to work. It sounds like you both will benefit from the merger/takeover/buyout (let me know the best wording to describe it). Tell us about the Leibmans and their roles in the company.
The travel industry was devasted by COVID-19. In 2020, the travel industry lost approximately $4.5 trillion in revenue and 250 million jobs disappeared. It was truly a black swan with no playbook. We went from having the best year in our company’s history to refunding more money than we had coming in and downsizing our team by over 50%. We learned to pivot and adjust. While 70% of our business was international, we focused on domestic travel for those who wanted to travel. We upgraded our technology platforms. We hosted client events virtually to keep “arm-chair” travel alive.
As a family business, we had to make heart wrenching decisions, but knowing that keeping the brand and business alive was critical. We knew that Valerie Wilson Travel would be stronger if we merged with another business. So, on April 30, 2021, we sold Valerie Wilson Travel to Frosch International Travel (FROSCH). FROSCH is another family business and joining the Leibman family is a great honor. Originally from South Africa, Richard Leibman (Chairman) moved his family to Texas, and they acquired FROSCH. As another 2nd generation family, the two families clicked. With similar core values, it has made the integration easier. We believe that both brands are better together, and we are committed to restoring confidence in travel.
We love how the team of travel advisors at Valerie Wilson Travel knows their customers. Tell us how you hire people to work in your luxury leisure business.
The relationship between client and travel advisor is critical for success. We are part therapist along with travel planner because you need to understand client preferences and personality nuances. Hiring a travel advisor is 90% about personality. It must be someone who listens, is organized and detail oriented, engaging, and of course, passionate about travel.
Do your travel advisors and associates get to travel a lot?
We are committed to sharing personal travel experiences, so we always have team members on the road. With the increased ability to work remote, it is easier and easier for advisors and associates to be traveling.
How often are you traveling? Do you get to enjoy your trip or are you working most of the time?
The honest answer is I travel more than I prefer. COVID reminded we how much l love my family and being home. But I love traveling too! That balance is hard. Being a working mom and business owner, I am never off duty. When I travel, I am always “on,” even on vacation. I often joke that I wish I could travel and be anonymous!
Tell us about your children.
Andrew is a junior at Georgetown University, but sadly his college experience has been more virtual than on campus. One of the many causalities of the pandemic. He is at the Business School and on the Club Swim Team. His side passion is video games (since he was a kid) and he is turned it into a business with a nice following on Twitch. Ashley is a senior at Bronxville High School. She is a basketball player and golfer. We are excited to see where she goes to college. It is hard to believe we are going to be empty nesters. Thank goodness we have Tusker!
What do you do with your free time?
Free time. Hmmm, what is that? I work too much. Exercise grounds me for sure. I am a happier person when I am swimming, spinning, and running. I try to work out 4-5 times a week. That is my “me time.” I also love to cook and bake. I find it very relaxing to be in the kitchen and LOVE to throw a good party. I am passionate about giving back. I recently rolled off an 8-year term on the Bucknell Alumni Association Board of Directors, and the last two years as President. I am also on the Board of Directors for Swim Across America, an organization committed to beating cancer through trial funding. I do a 2k open water charity swim in the Long Island Sound every summer. Over the last 13 years, our team has raised over $350,000. Super proud of that and I am committed to making a difference where I can. Life is short and each day is a gift. I want to find more time to discover new hobbies and share of my talents.
Tell us about your work/life balance and how you managed when your kids were younger.
My work/life balance is terrible! I struggled (and still do) with mom guilt. I was more focused on quality vs. quantity of time. Not sure if my kids would agree, but I tried my best. Despite traveling 100 days a year and commuting to Manhattan, I did try to make as many swim-meets, basketball games, award ceremonies as I could. Our house is the place for friends to hangout, so I tried to be “present.” But always with my laptop near by or phone in hand. Both Matt and I are products of divorce, so we wanted our home to be a safe haven with honesty, fun and respect. I am so grateful that my kids have had the same nanny for 20 years. She too became a casualty of COVID. When working from home full time with grown children, it was hard to justify. She will always be a member of our family. Matt also has a demanding career but thankfully he never had to travel for work, so that gave me the freedom to do what I had to do professionally. We are a team and blessed that it works.
What do you love about having your own business?
I am a very driven person and putting in the blood, sweat and tears is more meaningful when it is our own business, especially a family business. Blood is thicker than water and I always felt like my mom, sister and brother-in-law had my back. It’s been an amazing journey.
Are there any negatives?
Of course! There is no taking a mental health day. You try calling in sick and instantly it is a family affair. Joking aside, you need to commit the time and energy on the “family,” not just the family business. Family dinners can’t just be about the business. It’s not healthy. We had some dark days. So, we sought out family counseling and business coaches. So valuable. We learned how to communicate better, support each and find separation between family and business, while embracing the joy of being in a family business.
Who are your mentors?
My mom for sure! Several executives in the travel industry who have taken me under their wing and helped my fly. I also have college professor who has been a sounding board for 30 years.
What/who are your biggest influences?
I am a visual person. I have “an idea” book where I pull clippings that speak to me or write down ideas. This helps to get my creative juices going. From a personality standpoint, kindness is a big one for me. I believe in treating people with respect and kindness. That has influenced my entire life. I also believe that you can choose to be happy or not happy. Hands down, I choose happy. Takes too much energy to be angry all the time! And, lastly, gratitude. I try not to take anything for granted.
• Favorite domestic travel spot: Stone Harbor, NJ – it is my happy place. I just returned from my first time to Wine Country in California and can’t wait to return to Sonoma.
• Favorite foreign country: Africa (Italy is a close 2nd followed by the Caribbean and Mexico)
• Favorite family trip: Anywhere! I LOVE traveling with my family.
• Favorite beach: Stone Harbor, NJ though I also love the beaches in the British Virgin Islands
• Favorite airline: Delta Air Lines
• Favorite brand of luggage: Bric’s for checked luggage, Tumi for carry on, and never travel without my Louis Vuitton Tote.
• Do you pack light or heavy? Heavy…shoes are my downfall
• What is your must have on every trip? Snacks (Pretzels, crackers, granola bars…yes, I have a carb issue)