From bank to upscale agency

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The exterior of the building occupied by Will Travel of Langhorne, Pa., is an impressive sight: Built in 1902 as a bank, the granite structure commands a stately presence in a town that dates to the late 17th century.

The agency, which has inhabited the building for five years, completed a major overhaul of the interior last summer "to achieve an upscale look" that's in keeping with the building's historical atmosphere, said agency president Vicki Richards. "Given the way it looked before, we certainly were able to accomplish that," Richards said.

collage Gone are the metal desks separated by bulletin-board dividers. Clients entering the building are greeted by the sight of agents sitting at sleek, cherry-wood workstations with matching bookcases and lateral files.

The agency shares the two-story building with New Zealand Tours, a wholesaler with two small corner offices on the ground floor. "Before, we didn't have curtains on the windows, just blinds," said Richards. "None of the furniture matched. And we had old bookcases like the kind you'd find at Caldor." Preserving and highlighting the building's features was a top priority for the agency. Carved wood trim, a rare sight in modern-day structures, is found in abundance throughout the building. The trim was painted white to stand out from the periwinkle blue walls.

One of the most expensive components of the $20,000-plus renovation is the deep-burgundy-colored carpet, which the agency had custom made. Richards and agency owner Donna Thomas wanted a floor covering that held up like commercial carpeting but did not look like the commercial variety.

At the same time Will Travel was renovating this office, the company was shutting down its nearby Churchville branch and consolidating operations. The closing meant transferring files, computers and other necessities to Langhorne and discarding unwanted items such as old furniture. The Langhorne renovation also produced furniture that needed to be discarded. Total cost of the move and discard operation: $0. "We didn't hire movers," Richards said. "My husband has a pickup truck, and my kids helped. The agents were great, too. Every one of them wanted to help out."

Old furnishings were donated to local charity groups. In addition, the carpenters and electricians hired were Richards' friends, which meant reduced costs for the renovation work, as well.

Renovations challenges

The former bank building that now houses Will Travel posed some unusual challenges for the agency during its recent renovation. "Most of the walls have bulletproof glass in them or are nine inches of concrete," said agency president Vicki Richards, who became aware of the problem a number of years ago. "When I had Worldspan come in here originally to do our install [of CRSs], installers couldn't get through the walls. I don't know how many drill bits they broke."

For the renovation, Richards had most of the rewiring done through the ceiling tiles. The wiring was particularly tricky in a small room that contains the agency's ticket printer. That area once had been the bank's vault, so the walls are impenetrable.

Other interior changes were less difficult to accomplish. A knee-high wall that ran through the center of the ground floor area and a countertop laden with electrical lines were easily removed by a carpenter and electrician, respectively.

The building's elegant structural features, such as the wood trim, are made to stand out by keeping other decorations to a minimum. With the exception of two original Disney lithographs, nothing hangs on the agency's walls. Will Travel's many industry awards sit atop lateral files. Anything displayed on the walls "would just take away from the look," said Richards.

But that doesn't mean the agency is drab. Colorful silk-flower displays, made by several Will Travel employees, sit prominently on each windowsill. One of the goals of the renovation was to make the agency more user-friendly for employees and clients alike.

All leisure agents are located on the ground floor; upstairs is reserved for corporate business, nearly all of which is conducted by phone. "We made it so that when the phones ring, they ring upstairs first," said Richards. "This enables the agents downstairs to meet with clients uninterrupted."

The agency president also wanted employees to be facing clients when the customers walked through the doors. Because Will Travel has both front and rear entrances, half the agents face the front of the agency and half face the back.

The pluses of professional advice

Will Travel president Vicki Richards and owner Donna Thomas knew what they wanted to achieve in the renovation of their Langhorne, Pa., office but found a decorator really simplified the process. "At first, we went to different people for the furniture and different people for the carpet and paint," Richards said.

Then, Richards met with a decorator who had refurbished the agency's former location. She found the carpet, desks and window valences, which feature old-fashioned steam-engine trains, ships and cars. "We asked her if she could get materials that [had a travel theme], and she knew just what we were looking for," Richards said.

Renovation perils

It took six weeks for Will Travel to renovate its Langhorne, Pa., office. During that time, agents booked trips and consulted with clients as painters, carpenters and electricians worked around them.

As many employees as possible were moved to the unrenovated second floor while first-floor alterations took place. "Walk-ins had to use the back steps," agency president Vicki Richards said. "We explained to our clients what was going on. We had signs everywhere that said, 'Please excuse our appearance while we renovate.' "

She added, "A couple of walk-ins actually left. They weren't comfortable, and I can understand that. But I don't think we lost anyone because of it. And when [clients] come in now, they say, 'Wow, it really looks nice in here.' "

Is Anyone Home?

by Robin Fetsch

Most of the benefits of working in a home-based agency are well known and include flexibility, comfort and the avoidance of a long commute. But there are some wonderful advantages to working at home that I didn't realize until Iactually faced certain situations. For instance:

  • The washing machine breaks down. It's no problem if you work at home. You don't have to take time off from work to wait for the repairman.
  • Bad weather. The sun is shining when you leave in the morning, but in the early afternoon, crackling storms hit your area. Are your windows closed? Are your pets inside? If you work from home, you can take care of these problems immediately.
  • Your child is sick and needs to be picked up from school right away. When you work at home, you can run right over and make everyone -- from the school nurse to your child -- happy. You feel better too that you can be at home with a sick child and keep working at your computer.
  • Airlines announce sale! Believe it or not, some airlines announce super sales on Saturday mornings. If you have a CRS in your home office, you can go into the system and book flights for your clients that might not be available on Monday morning. This also works well with situations such as hurricanes, mud slides and terrorist attacks -- all times you can make the changes to your clients' bookings as quickly as possible.
  • Robin Fetsch operates Specialty Tours from her home in Falls Church, Va.

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