From DNA to CTA: Third generation joins an elite group of certified travel industry professionals
Change is often considered the only real constant in the travel industry and 2020 is yet another example of the many crises the industry has survived over time. Yet two family travel businesses, Ambassador Tours in San Francisco and Brentwood Travel in St. Louis, have stood the test of time through countless industry changes over the past 60+ years and believe this too shall pass. How have they survived—and thrived—despite so much change and challenge? Guided by shared values—relationship building, customer service, and old-fashioned hard work to name a few—these industry-leading, family-owned businesses are also passionate about the value of education. And, with their third generation joining the elite group of industry professionals certified by The Travel Institute® in the last couple of years, both continue to invest in education as an investment in success, passing on more than simple DNA from one generation to the next.
From Career Crossroads to Two Family Legacies
A one-time jack of all trades, Stan Pollard, CTC, unexpectedly found himself spending more and more time selling travel and so starting Ambassador Tours “just seemed like a good idea.” Needing help with the books, Stan recruited wife, Leone Pollard, and together they founded their travel business in 1955. Setting up shop at a simple desk in the lobby of San Francisco’s Ambassador Hotel, their first reservations were for the Strawberry Lodge near Yosemite National Park. Fast forward, the business focused on transcontinental itineraries for the wealthy. Then, seeing an opportunity to make global itineraries affordable for the masses, Stan negotiated with a cruise line to offer an 80-day cruise for under $1,000, a price unheard of at the time. “People were literally lined up around the block,” Stan recalled. And for the entrepreneurial couple, “We found the need we wanted to fulfill.”
Two years later, more than 2,000 miles away, PR exec Bob Lurie decided, after encouragement from a friend, to start a travel career and founded Brentwood Travel in 1957. A year in to his new venture, Bob asked wife, Ruth Lurie, CTC, if she’d like to join him in the office. Running a business was something they could do together and Bob thought it was a good idea for Ruth to have a career “just in case.” Intent on offering the best in travel to the St. Louis market, the two found their niche hosting group tours to Israel, combining Bob’s experience as a business traveler with newly gained industry knowledge and personal passion. “Just in case” came earlier than expected when Bob became ill in the early ’70s. Stepping in and stepping up, Ruth taught herself to run the parts of the business Bob had once led, quickly becoming a well-rounded business leader in her own right.
While their paths to industry success differed, there have been many parallels for these families. Today, both agencies continue their legacy of success with second- and third-generation travel professionals. Stan and Leone’s son, Gary Pollard, CTC, has been in the industry since 1981 and leading Ambassador Tours, heralded as the oldest established travel agency in San Francisco, since 2003. His son, Bryan Pollard, CTA, joined the business in 2010. Meanwhile, Bob and Ruth’s daughter, Stephanie Turner, CTC, has been president and CEO of Brentwood, the oldest and largest full-service travel agency in the Greater St. Louis area, since 1996. Stephanie’s daughter, Stacey Acree, CTA, first came on board in 1991 and, after an extended leave to raise her family, has been an executive leader at Brentwood since 2011. While industry dynamics constantly change, these families believe key success factors, including the importance of education, never will.
‘Much More than Simple Hype’
Gary learned the travel business over many years and through many roles, the first of which was the agency’s mailroom. He doesn’t know if it was unusual for agents to be certified years ago but he knows it wasn’t unusual for his father, Stan, to seek higher learning as a man driven for excellence in everything he did.
Gary, who has been quoted in publications from The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle to Travel Agent Magazine, Consumer Reports and more, says it was his own certification in 1988 that gave him a greater understanding of how to work with others while also providing a greater level of confidence—for himself and for others working with him. “Over the years, those [CTC] letters have been critical to my credibility, demonstrating my capabilities before I say a word in some cases and giving others confidence to work with me. It’s amazing how many times my CTC credentials have opened doors that may or may not have opened otherwise with travelers and with industry contacts. Suddenly, the walls come down, it’s a bond, and it’s a ‘wow’ thing. From that starting point, we just work well together,” he says, about certification for him and so many other industry leaders. Well established in the industry today as a member of various advisory boards for travel organizations, including The Travel Institute Ensemble Travel Group, for which he is currently chairman of the board, and more. “You get to a place in your career and you look for a way to give back. I’m at that place and I want to be there for others the way so many were there for me,” he explained.
One of the many people Gary wants to pay it forward with is his son, Bryan. Bryan was a natural to join the family business, using a printed map as a young child to follow his grandparents’ adventures, listening to regular business talk around the dinner table, and born with a knack for history and geography. He earned his CTA in late 2019, finally making time for the program after some not-always-gentle encouragement from his dad. “I knew certification meant a lot to my family but still, it is amazing how quickly it has made a tangible difference for me in business—in both the level of confidence I have now and the level of respect others have for me,” he shared, explaining new “softer skills” such as listening are also making a real difference in his sales numbers. Recognized as a “Top 30 Under 30” agent in 2015, Bryan believes his credentials will become even more important as travelers become more discerning about the credentials of the agents they use. Next up, Bryan says, is continued learning as he pursues his CTC.
“Just fix it—and do it fast.”
-Stephanie Turner, CTC, Brentwood Travel, on resolving customer concerns
“[Certification through The Travel Institute] is much more than simple hype,” agrees Stephanie, who sits on various industry boards and advisory groups and has countless industry and business accolades including top agent and top agency honors on more than one occasion and most recently, 2019 Travel Agent of the Year by Ensemble, which recognize Brentwood as an “Ensemble Elite” agency. About why it matters, “Running a business is challenging. Time is money and we need to ensure we have the capabilities and confidence to make quick but solid decisions every day. Certification helped me understand the business holistically, from operations and sales, from marketing to finance and everything in between,” Stephanie explained. Experiencing certification’s benefits first hand, Stephanie is now working toward her CTIE, The Travel Institute’s most advanced designation, while Brentwood pays half the tuition cost for employees to become certified.
Earning her CTC in the mid ’80s alongside Stephanie, Ruth retired from Brentwood’s day-to-day operations more than 25 years ago. Last August, she passed away after celebrating her 100th birthday months earlier. During her retirement, she still loved to talk business, always proud of her certification as an important differentiator for travel professionals. “Certification helped a lot back then and it helps a lot now,” she said during a 2019 interview.
Learning from both Ruth and Stephanie, Stacey, feels fortunate she “learned from the best,” and is now working toward her CTC. Also recognized on the “Top 30 Under 30” agent list, she says today’s travel professionals have “no excuse” with certification more accessible than ever. “Obviously there was no internet, no webinars, and no online learning in the ’80s. Classes were small, in person and in the evenings, with everyone reviewing a printed booklet together,” she says, recounting her mother and grandmother’s experience of traveling to California to take their certification course. “Technology advancements make education easier and harder at the same time,” she reflected, citing the ability to log-in wherever and whenever but how that accessibility raises expectations to pursue education and to always be current with real-time, constantly changing information. “Everything is fast tracked and more complex but certification is still within reach for anyone willing to work hard and go for it!”
No Shortcuts for Sustained Success
While both Gary and Stephanie view continued education as table stakes for travel professionals, they attribute the longevity of both their careers and their organizations to a few other factors, the first being the relationships their teams build with travelers for repeat and referral business as well as their continued partnerships with suppliers. “You’ve got to be educated but you’ve also got to know people. I can pick up the phone and call any organization for help because I’ve put the time and work in to ensure we’ve built those relationships,” reflects Stephanie.
“We never say no. It’s truly that simple.”
-Gary Pollard, CTC Ambassador Tours, on fulfilling customer requests
And, those relationships are built on honesty, Gary emphasizes. “If you’re honest in business you never have to worry about what you say because it’s always the truth. While people don’t always like the truth, they always respect you for sharing it.” And, he says, his parents stressed the importance of honesty AND knowledge as equating to professional credibility. “Credibility is the most important thing you have. We’re in a service-oriented business and if people can’t trust you as credible in your business, you have no business.”
“Education and customer service—you cannot have one without the other,” Stacey agrees. “You have to know what you’re doing first,” she explains, “but from there it’s all about how you treat people—customers, employees, suppliers, and everyone you come into contact with to get the job done.”
With relationships for both organizations built over three generations and 6+ decades of hard work, transparency and respect, both agencies emphasize simple mottos to keep customers as their top priority day in and day out. “We never say no. It’s truly that simple,” explains Gary, whose industry credentials include repeat recognition as an “Ensemble Elite” agency with Ensemble Travel Group for Ambassador’s leading sales performance, a “Top 25 Agent” for Travel Agent Magazine. “We may need to help a client understand how saying ‘yes’ impacts price or an itinerary but if it’s important to our customer, it’s important to us,” he said, noting referrals from satisfied customers drove the business in the 1950s and continue to drive success today.
Bryan says serious agents understand how hard it is to do their job well, adding he’s hopeful about recent, renewed appreciation from the traveling public as consumers are looking beyond price and becoming more discerning about agent credentials. “I understand price matters but you do get what you pay for,” he asserts. “I’m never surprised to hear the horror stories from travelers who got a great deal online or from a person dabbling in travel and somehow things are not what they thought they’d be, or something goes wrong and they don’t have an agent to help them,” he continued, citing an important part of his job is traveler support when things don’t go well.
Stacey agreed, “I don’t just sell the trip and wish them well. I’m there before, during and after the trip to make sure my travelers are satisfied.” And if things don’t go well, “Just fix it and do it fast!” is Brentwood’s guiding principle. “Just fix it,” along with listening and learning what a customer wants from a travel experience, has been Brentwood’s mantra from the beginning. “We get acquainted and we learn what people want and need, what they can afford and what they expect. We make sure we communicate with people and that they are happy so that they can tell other people about their experience. And, if something ever goes wrong, our fault or not, we make sure it’s corrected so our travelers have a good experience. They are trusting us to do just that.”
Last but not least, Gary says, communication skills are a cornerstone for business success. “It’s intangible yet it’s priceless. My dad always emphasized the need to listen and make sure each client really feels how important they are to us, based on the questions I ask, how I listen and what I deliver. Fast forward, I’ve told Bryan the same thing: you don’t need to have all the answers in every conversation but you do need to really listen.”
A Legacy of Loving What They Do
Ultimately, a career in travel is not an easy path with guaranteed success, Gary cautions, even in a long-standing, successful family business. “If you think you want to get into this business, you need to think of it as a business, get an education, apply it and be willing to learn ongoing about constantly changing options. There is no instant gratification or instant success,” explains Gary, who says critical thinking and problem solving fill his days.
While Stephanie describes her 1973 start in travel as “unintentional,” simply helping Ruth temporarily during a TWA strike, her days now are full of purpose as she has found great personal and professional reward in her career choice. “My mom told me way back when that the office was not a playground but truly, I’ve been having fun ever since that very first day,” she smiled.
Stan, a wealth of knowledge still, loves talking shop with Gary and Bryan. Stan’s brain is “still young,” Bryan says, despite Stan being retired from day-to-day operations for 25+ years now. Stan loves drinking champagne, smoking cigars and reminiscing with countless travel stories his family continues to love listening to him tell. “He’s also still got plenty of business ideas,” Gary laughs.
Ruth’s last business trip was in 2008. She remained “sharp as a tack” in her later years, Stephanie and Stacey agreed, welcoming her frequent, and at times unsolicited, business advice. Ruth often said she felt “blessed she got to work with her daughter every day for 25 years,” and she loved that Stephanie and Stacey have experienced that same joy. Stephanie, who talks to Gary about their shared business interests, understands Ruth’s sentiment in more ways than one. “Gary and I are blessed we have Stacey and Bryan to carry on for us,” she shared.
And carry on they will, assures Stacey. “More than ever, so many people have really needed our guidance. We are working harder than ever to help clients understand the appropriate travel protocols, book, rebook and more. We have survived many difficult changes in our industry from airline commission cuts, terrorist attacks including 911, and more. Although this has been a very difficult time, we remain hopeful. Travel looks different yet again but airports are still busy and travelers still need us.”
With a continued solid foundation rooted in education, service and more, it’s clear that Ambassador and Brentwood’s leaders plan to continue doing what they love long after the end of the pandemic—making the explanation for three generations of success in the travel industry really quite clear: “It’s passion—plain and simple,” Gary says. “Passion about travel and passion about making people happy. But it’s passion. You either have it or you don’t and that is one thing you can’t teach.”
Two Family Legacies Live On by Giving Back
While Ruth Lurie passed in 2020, Leone Pollard passed in 2015, and Bob Lurie passed in 1989, their families are ensuring their legacy continues. Both Ambassador Tours and Brentwood Travel have further demonstrated their belief in the value of travel agent education and the future of the travel industry through scholarship funds, in honor of their founders, intended to help further build the next generation of travel professionals.
The Stan and Leone Pollard Scholarship was established in 1984 by Stan and Leone Pollard. Two scholarships are awarded annually for students enrolled in a travel and tourism curriculum in either a recognized proprietary travel school or a two-year junior college.
In 2007, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brentwood Travel, Stephanie Turner established a scholarship in honor of her parents. The Brentwood Travel Robert and Ruth Lurie Travel Scholarship Endowment Fund for Travel and Tourism is awarded each year to a student pursuing a degree in Hospitality Management through the SLCC-Forest Park program.