At first glance, All Aboard Travel Agency looks like a casualty of the times — a small, unsuspecting shop trying to survive in the era of AirBnb and Travelocity. But things aren’t always what they seem.
“When people see our building they’re often surprised,” All Aboard Travel owner Christina Boyer said. “They often say ‘Wow. There’s a travel agent in town? I had no idea.’”
Passers-by frequently walk past All Aboard Travel’s two display windows without noticing them. The first one showcases a collection of Mickey Mouse and Star Wars figurines — far too small to fill the window — to advertise trips to Disney World. The other advertises Colorado, complete with a set of second-hand skis, fake snow, and a Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree.
Beyond the window, small desk spaces are scattered about to accomodate the business’s five employees.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the hiring of travel agents will decline by 12 percent from 2014 to 2024. That statistic, however, doesn’t apply to All Aboard Travel.
“We have been rising every year, which is extremely nice and very rare for some people,” Boyer said. “But we’ve been pleased with that. We even had to expand and hire another person this year.”
According to Boyer, All Aboard Travel’s sales increased by 21 percent from 2014 to 2015 and an additional 12 percent from 2015 to 2016. Boyer said her secret to success comes from capturing multiple, unique revenue streams. Having clients all over the nation is one example.
“Customer service, diversity, and niche markets are the keys to surviving as a travel agent in a world of internet travel,” Boyer said. “That’s the one thing that All Aboard Travel does differently.”
From day trips to Detroit, to customizing an entire around the world excursion for one ambitious customer caught by wanderlust, Boyer said they do it all.
While the majority of All Aboard Travel’s revenue comes from clients located in Hillsdale and neighboring counties, they also have a major involvement with Hillsdale College — along with other schools — helping them plan their numerous study abroad trips every year including the annual Collegiate Scholars trip and their Europe trips for prospective students.
“Every trip is different. Our escorted trips are customized to fit the group,” Boyer said. “The core vacation is planned for them, and all the particulars are taken care of by us. That’s something that can’t always happen with internet bookings.”
More and more people are going to the internet to plan their next vacation. According to a 2015 survey from TripAdvisor, nearly 50 percent of Americans book and plan their trips with a smart phone. Boyer said that while booking online is convenient, it can be misleading.
“Many people think that the internet is the cheapest way to buy things. That’s not true,” Boyer said. “Eighty percent of people who buy something online, are buying from an online travel agent. And they don’t even know it.”
Boyer said the expertise of her staff is what separates All Aboard Travel from every other website and app on the market. Of the five agents in the store, four of them travel extensively to research the best spots and values for their customers. Boyer herself is no stranger to the world, and said that is what motivated her to get involved with the business in the first place.
Boyer traveled frequently as a child and had the chance to study and travel abroad in college. In 1994, she approached Al Philipp, previous owner of All Aboard Travel, and began working for him.
“She’s honest, reliable, and comes to work every single day,” Philipp said. “She learned the business quick and knows how to connect with people. I knew she was going to be successful.”
In 2001, Boyer bought the business from Philipp, and just six years later bought the 10 S Howell St. building, the latest of its four Howell St. locations.
Philipp said a mixture of things lead to All Aboard Travel’s success, primarily the personal connection employees have with their clients’ trips but also the unique environment of Hillsdale.
“You have to experience every single thing you sell for yourself. If you don’t know your product, you won’t be successful,” Philipp said. “All Aboard also doesn’t have any competition in the nearby area, and we have very small overhead cost.”
Philipp, a native of Austria, still works for All Aboard Travel, specializing primarily in immersive European trips for school groups and individuals. He has traveled to every country in Europe at least once now. He said he enjoys planning out and customizing trips for customers, but knows that it can be a potential risk to future business if it goes wrong.
“If you screw up in the travel agency business, it’s a big deal. Your customer can’t get that precious vacation time back. That’s a lot of trust,” Philipp said.
But Philipp — the husband of Dean of Women Dianne Philipp — hasn’t made any mistakes so far, according to Professor of History Tom Conner. Conner said he has contracted with All Aboard Travel and Al Philipp for more than 20 trips in the last 25 years for his study abroad programs.
“Their reliability and attention to detail is exquisite, and their experience is amazing — certainly unrivaled in this area,” Conner said. “They are exceptionally good at the nuts and bolts of their profession, but also with the intangibles.”
Spending just 30 minutes in All Aboard Travel’s office makes Conner’s observations clear. On one day last week, Boyer said she received more than a dozen phone calls and more than 30 emails regarding bookings and follow-ups all before noon.
“I’m very proud of our agency and what we’re doing,” Boyer said. “There’s actually been an increase in the last few years of the travel agency becoming more professional. Brick and mortar is something you’re going to see more than just the online presence.”