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Her third-generation business is going places

Rochester Business Journal
November 30, 2012

Katharine Van Zile is president and owner of the company founded by Fayette Van Zile in 1911, but make no mistake: Van Zile Travel Service is not her grandfather's travel agency.
 
Van Zile, who is known as Kate, says there are many ways the family business has changed in 100 years, from the technological tools designed to customize itineraries and make every aspect of travel more convenient to the difference in management style.
 
"It was a different time when my grandfather owned the company," she says, describing an incident when her grandfather, then 90, did not approve of the late hours one member of his staff was keeping. "My grandfather happened to be driving by the house, and it was late. He saw her lights were on, so he called her and told her to go to bed; she had an early day and she needed to get to sleep.
 
"My grandfather was very much a micro-manager," she says with a laugh. "My father was not at all like that, though. He gave me free rein."
 
Van Zile is a third-generation owner of Van Zile Travel Service, having bought the company from her father, Cameron Van Zile, in 1994. She started working for the company in 1979, becoming a receptionist and working her way up in the ranks, taking over the management in 1984.
 
She enjoyed working with her father because he was always open to her new ideas.
 
"He encouraged me to bring new things to the agency," Van Zile says. "When I wanted to introduce corporate travel, he agreed. When I wanted to open a branch in Greece, he was on board. When I wanted to add automation, he approved. My father always let me explore new opportunities for the company."
 
The continual changes and adaptations Van Zile has made have kept the company competitive, which has not been easy in an industry that has been hit by 9/11, economic downturns and rising fuel costs.
 
"Today you're either a multibillion-dollar agency or you're a two- or three-person shop. There are only 200 companies our size left in the whole country," Van Zile says.
 
The firm employs 55 full-time staffers, including six who were hired in July.
 
"We added to our staff to ramp up for 2013 and 2014," Van Zile says. "We're very excited for the growth we're anticipating."
 
The company has seen a steady increase in business, even during the economic downturn. Total revenue for 2011 stood at $35 million, up from $30 million in 2010, Van Zile says.

Growth potential
She sees a strong potential for growth in the leisure travel side of the business. It makes up 20 percent of total revenue, with eight staffers dedicated to leisure bookings.
 
"We have clients who want a proactive agent. We navigate everything for them-the options, the insurance. We book the transaction, and then we are their ally," Van Zile says.
 
A $100 deposit is required upon contact to cover an agent's time in researching ideas and options presented to a client, Van Zile explains. Some agents were opposed to charging the deposit, fearing it would turn some clients away.
 
"The serious clients will stay, and they are the ones it pays to spend the time on," Van Zile says. "Others who have nothing invested could just be shopping us for ideas, and agents are better not spending their time on that."
 
The Internet could be seen as major competition, but Van Zile does not see it that way.
 
"I don't look at what comes towards us with fear. I just change our approach," she says. "The Internet has actually expanded the opportunities for our business in so many ways. We have been able to grow so much because of it."
 
The largest part of Van Zile's business now comes from corporate travel. It comprises 80 percent of the company's business with top clients such as Nixon Peabody LLP, Harris Interactive Inc. and SentrySafe.
 
"We have corporate accounts all over the country and some international business, including Canada, the U.K. and Bermuda," Van Zile says.
 
There have been so many changes in the travel industry that Van Zile's corporate clients see her company's role as much more than a booking agency.
 
"We have to manage decisions. We have to be a consultant and help them come up with a policy in some cases," she says.
 
Van Zile Travel offers many full-service options to corporate clients, such as automated tracking programs for unused airline tickets, online booking and quality control checks. There is a commitment to have every call answered by a live person in fewer than four rings and every email answered within 30 minutes.
 
Van Zile says her business's competition is not necessarily other agencies, because people have the notion they can manage on their own. That's fine if things go well, but travel does not always go as planned.
 
"Every change or cancellation we book comes back to us. It's good to have an agent to act on your behalf," Van Zile says.
 
People are Van Zile Travel's greatest resource, and she says one of her biggest challenges is finding great people who want to enter the field.
 
"There were 48,000 agencies in this industry nationwide before 9/11. Now there are about 16,000," Van Zile says.
 
To address this labor challenge she start-ed her own travel "boot camp." It is a six-month program to seek out and then train the most qualified and energetic people to be on her staff.
 
Just as Van Zile constantly is looking for the strongest new employees to add to her company, she also is thinking of the continuation of her company. At 50 years old, she has no plans yet to retire, but she realizes the importance of a succession plan.
 
There are three key executives in charge of major areas of the company: Michelle Arney oversees meetings, incentives and leisure; Rebecca Mineo handles corporate travel; and Julie Santino is in charge of finance and technology.
 
"I'm still overseeing the overall strategic vision, but these three key executives have come up with many new initiatives in technology and creative marketing. They are the next generation moving forward," Van Zile says.

Competitive fire
It was through a seminar on succession planning for family businesses that she met her longtime colleague and mentor, John Doyle, president and CEO of Doyle Security Systems Inc.
 
"Kate is a natural leader. She has boundless energy and enthusiasm. She also has a bias for action and getting things done. She really enjoys competing," Doyle says.
 
Doyle jokes that Van Zile's competitive nature extends beyond business and applies to other aspects of her personality, even card games.
 
"It doesn't do any good to win a game, because she will make you play until she wins," Doyle says.
 
That same relentlessness applies to her goal setting and drive to achieve them, says Van Zile's sister, Christine Van Zile-Stabins. She has worked at the travel agency for 33 years and today is one of the lead leisure travel counselors.
 
"Kate is incredible at setting lofty goals and then breaking them into manageable pieces so they are not so daunting," Van Zile-Stabins says.
 
The two sisters were on a trip to New Zealand together when Van Zile-Stabins learned how inspirations come to her sister and how she keeps track of them.
 
"I woke up in the middle of the night to find Kate writing and writing. It was 3 a.m.," Christine recalls. "I asked her what she was doing up at that hour, and she said she woke herself up with a good idea and if she didn't write it down she wouldn't go back to sleep. Her brain is going 24/7."
 
Life is not all work for Van Zile, though. She recently earned her captain's license from the U.S. Coast Guard and helped navigate a boat from Nantucket to Annapolis, Md.
 
"One stretch of the journey was 36 hours straight on the ocean, and being it was in pitch dark in the commercial traffic zone, I had to tap in to what I had learned," she says. "It wasn't easy."
 
Van Zile, who attended Pittsford Sutherland High School, earned a GED certificate and took a few classes at Monroe Community College, calls herself a self-learner and is learning to speak Spanish. She also earned a WSET Level III wine certification.
 
She and her husband, Thomas Bayer, 52, have been married for 26 years. Bayer is an independent business owner who maintains buildings. They live in Brighton and have three children: Jessica Harrell, a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, is married and living in Seattle. Alexandra, 18, is attending Virginia Tech. Son Jack, 16, attends Brighton High School and is considering Virginia Tech as well.
 
"I would like that," Kate says. "It would be great if all three went to Virginia Tech."
 
When you work in the travel industry, people always ask about your favorite place to visit, and for her there are many. She and her family have vacationed all over the world.
 
"There are so many great places; it's hard to pick a favorite. My top spots range from an African safari to a surf camp in Costa Rica to the Galapagos Islands. We have enjoyed so many wonderful experiences," she says.
 
Many more experiences lie ahead for her, both on the job and in her personal life, she says. "You are never fully done mastering the world."

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Kate Van Zile
Title: President, Van Zile Travel Service
Age: 50
Education: Attended some classes at Monroe Community College
Residence: Brighton
Family: Husband Thomas Bayer; daughters Jessica and Alexandra; son Jack
Interests: Learning Spanish, boating, travel, platform tennis, sailing and gardening
Quote: "Move with a sense of urgency, act with a sense of purpose."
 


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