1964, Joe DiFranco was a young schoolteacher in Michigan shopping
for a vacation. He visited a travel agency, reeled off a list of
preferences for a Bahamas trip and got the quote: $680. The price
was out of his league, and the agent was a little upset when
DiFranco told her that he couldn't afford it.
or not, she advised him to charter a plane, which is exactly what
he did -- with a courage that astonishes DiFranco even
DiFranco hooked up
with Saturn Airways, emptied his savings account to hold a plane,
blocked 50 rooms at the Nassau Beach Hotel, then priced the package
by dividing the total cost by 99 so he could travel free. He
realized he had to sell every seat or make up the
The vacation price
for charter participants was half the travel agent's $680 quote.
This was in the days of affinity charters, and his affinity group
was the Parent Teacher Association.
DiFranco had a
couple of scares though. As he drove to the Detroit airport, he
realized that he didn't know whom to call if there were no plane.
The jet was there, but upon arrival at the Nassau hotel, DiFranco
was advised that while the rooms had been paid for, the 15%
gratuities were missing.
"I was sweating
bullets," he said.
DiFranco met with
the general manager, but when the GM realized the hotel had not
paid 10% commission to an agency, he called the deal
viewed the Bahamas charter as a one-time thing, but his fellow
travelers did not. So he launched a small, at-home, after-hours
charter business that became a full-fledged travel agency,
Corporate Travel Service in Dearborn, Mich. Despite the name, the
agency is a largely leisure-oriented business that handles a lot of
All about the kids
Over the years, the
group business has targeted younger and younger clients. Nowadays,
the bulk of clients are kids, from fourth-graders to high school
incorporated in 1969 after waking up one morning in a panic
thinking about all the personal risk he had been taking. He rented
an office the same year and left teaching in 1970.
He expanded by
soliciting other affinity groups for charters.
"I had the
reputation for the cleanest charters out of the Detroit area,"
DiFranco said. He added that if his charter business was better
than those of competitors, it was just because "I was
He named the agency
Corporate Travel Service to distance it from affinity charters,
which had a bad image.
School trips were a
natural for a former teacher, so the agency in 1971 began selling
high school senior trips to Spain. To get the student business
going, DiFranco recalled that he visited many schools and was
"thrown out of more than I can remember."
business comes via word of mouth. Most student clients are in
Michigan, but the state's poor economy has forced DiFranco "to
When he started
doing class trips, DiFranco required that each student provide a
refundable check to cover a one-way ticket home in case he or she
had to be sent home for disciplinary reasons. DiFranco said no
student was shipped home, but that "we came close."
The worst episode,
which occurred on the last day of a 1975 Spain trip, ended
DiFranco's involvement with class trips. He tried to quiet down
noisy students at a hotel, but the larger teens put him in a
rolling linen basket and ran up and down the halls with him in the
The agency then
turned to younger kids and added motorcoaches to the mix. When the
trips involve teens these days, DiFranco said, it is only with
bands and choirs.
In 1976, DiFranco
hatched a plan for one-day charters to Washington, priced at $76.
The agency filled four or five planes that spring.
School boards loved
the short trips because kids were out of school only one day, and
for an educational experience at that. Also, there was no luggage,
and teachers did not have to do nightly bed checks.
DiFranco said the
price was low because he was using planes that would otherwise have
sat in Detroit for light maintenance between weekend Vegas
charters, so he did not pay for ferry legs. He transported 2,000 to
3,000 kids a year on these charters through 2004, by which time
there were no planes available for charter.
He still offers the
one-day trips on scheduled air, at close to $300, and offers other
D.C. school trips of up to three nights, sometimes by motorcoach,
sometimes by air. He said the agency "moved into the coach end
heavily" four or five years ago. More than 10,000 students in the
fourth through ninth grades participated in last spring's various
the 9/11 attacks shot the bottom out of projected air trips to
Washington for the spring of 2002. Most schools in Michigan said
their kids were not only not flying, they were not leaving the
state, DiFranco recalled.
So he hatched a new
idea: spring coach trips to the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac
Island, just ahead of the hotel's regular season.
The agency arranges
for an educational element for the Mackinac Island trips. The first
trip featured three of Michigan's supreme court justices as
"teachers." Currently, his two guest educators are a
meteorologist/environmentalist and a former chief of the Detroit
Police Department, who is now a motivational speaker.
He expects to send
1,000 students to Mackinac this year at around $160 to $180 a head
for two days and one night.
Young students are
a large part of DiFranco's business, but the agency has other
niches: bands and choirs for older students, adult choirs and
When bands or
choirs travel, performance is part of the deal, and their events
have to be in a venue where there will be an audience, DiFranco
said. The agency helps organize the performance events.
For example, it
lined up additional acts to appear with client choir groups that
performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. DiFranco has Nashville in
his sights for possible venues.
In 2006 and 2007,
the agency organized Australia trips for student and adult choirs.
For 2008, it will operate an Aussie sojourn for an orchestra. All
singers and musicians perform at the Sydney Opera House.
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A concert trip
The following itinerary, called
"Voices in the House," was created by Corporate Travel Service in
Dearborn, Mich., for a group of singers and traveling companions
who made this trip to Australia last summer.
1: Depart for Australia.
2: Enjoy a few movies and a nap as you cross the
International Date Line.
3: Arrive in Sydney. From the airport, depart for a
half-day sightseeing tour of Sydney. The first stop is picturesque
Watson's Bay, located at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, where you
will have breathtaking views of the harbor and the South Pacific.
Proceed to Mrs. Macquarie's Chair for spectacular views of the
Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Transfer to your
hotel for check-in.
4: Rehearsal in the morning. After lunch on your own,
transfer to the jetty for a Sydney Harbour Cruise. Absorb the
magnificent sights, including again its iconic bridge and opera
house. Dine that evening at the revolving Sydney Tower Restaurant,
which is nearly 1,000 feet above the city.
5: Rehearsal in the morning. Then visit Australia's Opal
Discovery Center. You will be greeted by a member of the Costello
family, which has been mining, cutting and setting opals for three
generations. Learn how opals are mined, cut and polished to reveal
the brilliant color within. Enjoy lunch on your own and free time
to shop or sightsee. Dinner is on your own.
6: After breakfast, head west toward the Blue Mountains.
Stop en route at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where you'll see
native animals, including kangaroos and koalas. The afternoon
includes sightseeing outside the city at the Tobruk Sheep Farm or
in the Blue Mountains of Australia.
7: After breakfast, depart the hotel for the Sydney Opera
House. Move to the Concert Hall for set up and dress rehearsal.
Lunch will be in the opera house's Green Room before preparing for
the performance in Concert Hall. Following the performance, go to
the Little Snail Restaurant, one of Australia's friendliest places
to sample Australian and French cuisine, for a celebration
8: Breakfast and then rehearsal time or free time. Lunch
is on your own, followed by an afternoon or evening concert at Town
Hall. Enjoy dinner on your own.
9: Entire day free to enjoy Sydney, followed by a farewell
10: Board your return flight home, or head for another
Australian city for an extension tour.