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Home is where the travel agent is

Foreclosure crisis forced many to close storefronts

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Home is where the travel agent is

Ina Douma and her husband Ronald have run Ina’s Travel Center out of their Ripon home since 2000. Home-based agents are the norm in an industry rocked by the foreclosure crisis about five years ago.

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POSTED May 7, 2013 2:22 a.m.

When the foreclosure crisis leveled the local economy, June Hum knew she was in for a bad trip.

Cal Travel – and the greater welfare of the travel industry – was in trouble.

People were vacationing less, and the sudden drop in interest and bookings forced Cal Travel, a downtown Manteca staple for so many years, to close as a storefront business in November 2008. Hum moved indoors, relocating the business from its corner lot at Main Street and Yosemite Avenue to a home office.

She had to let go of staffing, completing Cal Travel’s transformation to a one-man, part-time, home-based operation.

“When the bottom dropped out we had to close as a storefront,” Hum said. “We weren’t the only ones.”

Five years later, Hum is still booking dream vacations to places near and far, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The industry has rebounded, insiders say, but not enough for Cal Travel to enjoy the spoils of yesteryear.

“Things have really picked up because Manteca’s economy has picked up. I hear about houses selling over asking price, which is always a good sign,” she said. “People are calling about travel, so it seems like it’s picked up.”

Home-based travel agents are the norm, said Ina Douma who has run Ina’s Travel Center out of her Ripon home since 2000.

Douma recently returned from an industry seminar in Dana Point, where a majority of the membership was home-based agents. The movement began in the late 1990s, she says, when airlines pre-empted the foreclosure crisis with one of their own: They cut commissions to agents.

“That was a huge, huge part of travel agencies,” Douma said. “The travel agency business has changed from what it was 15 to 20 years ago. You see more home-based travel agents now. They by far outnumber the storefront agencies.

“As long as you got a computer and a fax machine, you’re all set up. You can do your business from anywhere. Cutting overheard and moving the business home is such a huge advantage.”

These days, Hum deals mostly with regular clients. When the market crashed around Cal Travel in 2008, she was forced to take on another job – she works as a teacher’s aide for special-education preschool – and hasn’t had the time or resources to develop new clients.

Her marketing and advertising budgets evaporated, and her visibility in the downtown corridor vanished.

“Those that call me are a little more serious about traveling,” she said.

Still, through all the trials and tribulations, the uncertainty and downsizing, Hum and Douma continue to deliver the best possible deal.

They understand their role in the process: They are dream weavers, turning fantasy and whimsy into a real-life, affordable experience for their client.

“It’s such a fun job. When they come back from vacation it’s so much fun to listen to their stories,” said Douma, who was born in Europe and began traveling at an early age.

“I’ve lived through my clients’ trips. I’ll be researching and be like, ‘OK, this is a place I want to go, too.’ Traveling the world is amazing and there are some incredible places to go.”

Though the season for summer bookings began in January, Hum and Douma are still fielding requests for warm-weather getaways. Popular destinations include Hawaii, Disneyland and Disney World, New York, the Caribbean, and despite negative press, cruises.

So far, Douma, whose venture celebrated its 13th anniversary in April, has noticed a marked difference in the market. There is more activity, more interest and a stronger passion to see the world.

“I think it has definitely bounced back. I think the first few years – 2008 and 2009 – people backed off of spending extra money on travel. They help off for a few years, so now they feel like they need to go somewhere,” she said. “It’s been a steady increase in bookings. We’re back to where we were before the decline in the economy.”

Cal Travel isn’t, but Hum’s content with her reality. A smaller business has allowed here to develop stronger relationships with her clients; has allowed her to develop the best possible vacation packages.

Being a home-based agent has its perks, she says. For one, she isn’t limited by office hours. She is available at all hours of the day, including weekends.

“When people come back and say they had the absolute best time of their life, of course, that makes you feel good,” Hum said. “They’ve had these dream vacations and that’s a nice feeling to know you helped them do that.”

That kind of service has helped the travel agent – home-based or otherwise – emerge from the rubble created by a collapsing market and an onslaught of travel websites.

“People realize the knowledge a travel agent has,” Douma said, “and they want that. A lot of people don’t want to deal with it themselves. We’re able to shop prices and places. We have all the knowledge at our fingertips and we provide service. You don’t get that online. You take a chance.”

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