Santa Cruz Travel is a survivor: a traditional, full-service, brick-and-mortar agency whose roots in its namesake California beach town run deep. The agency is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, a significant milestone because the business weathered not only the industry's ups and downs but also a natural disaster: the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Jeanne Epping, who opened Santa Cruz Travel in 1964, is well known in the industry for her long association with ASTA, serving as president in 1996-97. In 1998, she turned over the agency reins to her son, Scott Pinheiro. Epping enjoys her semiretirement, keeping a hand in the business by handling travel for a couple of groups each year.
For Pinheiro, the agency has been a second home since childhood. He recalls doing his homework there after school. Then, through his high school's work-study program, he would spend a couple of hours at the agency.
"The day I got my driver's license, my first duty was to come back to the office and deliver tickets," he said.
Pinheiro went away to attend the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was a member of the ski team.
He expected to stay in travel: With his mother active in the industry and his stepfather, the late Dick Epping, a sales rep for National Airlines and later Holland America/Westours, there was talk of little else around the dinner table.
In the 1990s, as Epping got busier with ASTA duties, she needed a manager for the agency and asked Pinheiro to join her.
It was the beginning of many changes for Santa Cruz Travel. When Pinheiro returned from Reno, the agency's business was largely corporate and university, with just 20% leisure. With the elimination of airline commissions, the agency closed a number of satellite offices and switched its mix to 80% leisure and 20% corporate.
The agency still handles travel for departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz; the county and city of Santa Cruz; and a local community college, but most of its business is Hawaii, cruise and FITs.
Then, in 1989, the agency faced its biggest challenge: the earthquake that devastated downtown Santa Cruz. The agency building was almost destroyed.
Fortunately, no one was hurt. The shaken staff moved to temporary quarters four blocks away as city leaders planned the reconstruction of downtown.
"We thought we'd be there six weeks or so, but it took us four-and-a-half years to rebuild," said Pinheiro. "The community opened its arms, and we found a place to rent nearby." The agency paid "a pittance" for rent, he said.
The agency used a loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild the office at the same location. It was one of the first Santa Cruz businesses to reopen in a new downtown that today is bustling with restaurants, cafes and shops that draw university students, tourists and beachgoers.
The agency is one of only a handful in Santa Cruz. Of the two dozen or so brick-and-mortar agencies that thrived in town 20 years ago, most have closed.
However, Pinheiro is bullish on the future for full-service agencies. "We have undertaken some cuts this year with our agents working a few less hours. But we're staying busy, and we've been marketing the heck out of our client base."
He's optimistic that young people who have grown up using the Internet will use the services of traditional agencies. The proof is at his office, where university students enter each day to buy travel.
"They like the convenience and the face-to-face meeting," he said. "You've got to be able to compete, and we can do that through service."
He's followed in his mother's footsteps and become active in the industry. He's been president of Westa, a West Coast consortium. The agency funnels almost all its leisure travel to the preferred operators of the member-owned group.
Pinheiro also serves as Northern California ASTA chapter president, as chapter representative to the ASTA board of directors and chairs the ASTA Foundation. "It's too early to say" whether he will also seek a national position," he said. For now, he's giving the chapter role another go and running for a second term.
"Say what you will about the travel agency industry, but I'm living it and it's profitable," he said.
"It's not easy," he continued. "My mother told me it's a nickel-and-dime business. When you get that commission check and, even if it's only $2.83 from a one-night stay at an airport hotel, it doesn't matter. Take it to the bank. Watch those nickels and dimes.
"In the end, we're successful because we have a solid place in the community and are doing the right things by our clients."
Cruising the Norwegian coast
Scott Pinheiro of Santa Cruz Travel, Santa Cruz, Calif., created the following Northern European itinerary for a family of seven. A 21-day Regent Seven Seas cruise of the Baltic Sea is the centerpiece.
Day 1: Arrival at London Heathrow Airport and private transfer to Le Meridien Piccadilly at London's Piccadilly Circus for a two-night stay.
Day 2: Morning pickup for a private London tour followed by time for rest, exploring and shopping.
Day 3: Private transfer to Heathrow for the flight to Copenhagen, Denmark. Upon arrival in Copenhagen, transfer to the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, a 700-passenger, all-suite, all-balcony cruise ship. Group members are met by their personal butlers, who will assist with luggage and settle them into suites. The cruise departs in the evening.
Days 4 to 25: For the next few days the ship sails along the Norwegian coast. Port calls and shore excursions are scheduled at Hellesylt, Geiranger, Trondheim, Svartisen, Gravdal, Honningsvag (with a tour to the North Cape, where cliffs rise 1,000 feet above the Arctic Ocean), Tromso, Alesund, Hjorundfjord, Flam (with a daylong railway excursion), Gudvangen, Bergen, Nevlunghamn and Oslo, where the ship docks for two days.
Then, leaving Norwegian waters, the Voyager sails to Copenhagen; Visby, Sweden; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia (a three-day stay that includes a private day trip for the family to Moscow by air); and Helsinki, Finland.
Day 26: Arrive and disembark in Stockholm, Sweden, where the cruise ends. Enjoy a full-day, private tour of the city. The group later will be dropped off at the Radisson SAS Strand, a waterfront hotel.
Day 27: Private transfer to the Stockholm airport for the flight to London, connecting with the flight home.