Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

It's become a predictable pattern when children follow their parents into retail travel: One generation finds success in a legacy model, the next often starts there, but finds the digital route a more natural path forward.

But in one family, that pattern got turned on its head. Terry Jones attended the Evelyn Echols Travel School in the early 1970s and then worked in Chicago-area travel agencies Vega Travel and Travel Advisors.  He went on to run the first-gen OTA Eaasy Sabre, then became founding CEO of second-gen OTA Travelocity; founding chairman of travel's most prominent metasearch engine, Kayak; and, until it shut down last month, chairman of WayBlazer, the most high-profile initiative attempting to bring artificial intelligence to travel planning.

His daughter, Vanessa Sawtell-Jones, has chosen the path of a more traditional travel agent. Her first post-college job was at Coastline Travel Advisors, a brick-and-mortar agency in Orange County, Calif., that later incorporated a hosting role. Now an experienced agent in her mid-30s, she has affiliated with Protravel International as VSJ Custom Travel, with a home office in Sherman Oaks and space in Protravel's Encino office.

How did this come about?

"I grew up in a travel family," Sawtell-Jones said. "When I was really young, I knew my parents worked for American Airlines." (Her mother, Cynthia Sawtell, also worked for Sabre, which was a division of AA at the time). "We traveled a lot. And when Travelocity was happening, I was aware it was groundbreaking, and it was a really exciting time for our family. I was gathering experience and knowledge without even knowing it.

"I wanted to be a classical vocalist; that's what I studied in college. But during my junior year, I went to Kenya on a study abroad program and got a tick bite, which led to Lyme disease, which collapsed my vocal cords."

She struggled to graduate. She eventually got her voice back, but her hopes for a singing career had been derailed.

Feeling she was back to square one, she took a post-college gap year and backpacked around the world with a friend.

"I came back really poor but with a lot more travel knowledge," she said.

Kayak was up and running by that time, and she was offered the option to begin her career there. But the job was in Boston. She was in California and wanted to stay there. Becoming a travel adviser "made more sense. With my background, this played to my strengths."

To say Sawtell-Jones took a legacy path is not to suggest she is a traditional agent, circa the 1970s. When she was at Coastline, one of her duties was to try to encourage older agents to embrace social media. There was, to put it mildly, resistance.

"With some, it was an uphill battle," she recalled. "They were stuck in their ways. But that's changed. If you don't use social media effectively, I don't think your business is viable. Sharing experiences and images based on your own travels is such a huge asset. It's crucial. I spent six hours [posting to social media] last night."

Before striking out on her own, she had also spent eight years working for Park View Travel Beverly Hills, planning trips for A-list celebrities and "the rich and anonymous."

But the book of business she's currently trying to build has less to do with an economic demographic than a generational mindset.

A founder of Millennials in Travel and the 2017 SoCal ASTA Millennial Travel Advisor of the Year, she's targeting millennials like herself who have been in the workforce for five or 10 years, have some money and are planning travel to mark the milestones of their lives: honeymoons, babymoons, first family trips.

She also has done a different type of advising, on a pro bono basis: When her dad was working on WayBlazer, a company some agents feared could put them out of business, he frequently came to her for advice on how agents think and work, hoping to gain insight into how a computer could mimic agent processes.

She was happy to help.

"It was fun," she said. "There's so much business out there that none of us are truly in competition with each other. I still have an old-school mentality. A computer might be able to give you information, but it can't experience and then tell you what it feels like to have sand between your toes. I could tell my dad what I do on a daily basis, but a computer can't experience travel and share that."

"I thought she was going to be a singer, and that was wonderful," her father said. "And when she decided to be a travel agent, I thought that was cool but also that I had been trying to put them out of business for a number of years. But it's been great to be able to talk with her and mentor her and learn from her. She was alternately helpful and scornful, but I learned a lot about how agency business is conducted today, which is very different from what I was doing 40 years ago."

Next week: The Joneses of Travel, Part 2: The backstory of why WayBlazer failed.

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