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Thornton's career path leads her back to the family business

Kendra Thornton took over her father’s company, Royal Travel & Tours, on Jan. 1 after previously working in public relations.
Kendra Thornton took over her father’s company, Royal Travel & Tours, on Jan. 1 after previously working in public relations.
Kendra Thornton's childhood was steeped in the travel industry. Her parents, Larry and Kay Berke, would often forgo babysitters, bringing their young daughter to their agency, Royal Travel & Tours. But despite the early exposure to the business, as well as traveling extensively with her family, Thornton never expected to become an agent

Instead, she followed a career path to public relations. After working for a few companies, she found herself at Orbitz, where she eventually was named director of corporate communications. In 2005, she struck out on her own with Thornton Public Relations, where she kept working with a variety of travel technology companies.

But on Jan. 1 she came full circle when she officially took over at Royal Travel.

About three years ago, Thornton was still running her PR agency, but also had three young children (Declan, Dylan and Karys, now 9, 8 and 5, respectively). While she wanted to continue working, she said PR no longer inspired her like it had in the past.

Her father was in his early 70s and said he was considering retiring soon. Berke thought that Thornton would be a great choice to replace him as the head of Royal Travel.

"It was like a light switch went on," Thornton said.

Kendra Thornton, the president of Royal Travel & Tours, with her children, Dylan, Karys and Declan.

She jumped at the chance, shadowing her father for a few years before taking over the Chicago-area agency, which focuses on family and luxury travel.

Thornton brought with her a mix of experiences from her past, both from observing her parents at work and lessons she learned in public relations, a career she discovered at Northwestern University, where she double majored in English and French.

Her first PR job was with the Milk Processor Education Program's "Milk Moustache" program, after which she transitioned to technology PR. When a job at Orbitz opened up, Thornton competed against around 1,500 people for the spot and won the position.

"It was really an incredible experience for me, because I was working with some of the best and brightest," Thornton said.

Some of her co-workers moved on to other travel companies over the years and later worked with Thornton when she started her PR firm.

Now, she is applying some of the lessons she learned at Orbitz to Royal Travel. One of those is about branding, working on furthering Royal's.

"Professional, intelligent, worldly, approachable, friendly, fun; that's what I want our brand to be," she said.

Another lesson learned at Orbitz was the importance of melding younger generations into a staffing mix.

"You can be young, but that doesn't mean you're not super smart and really knowledgeable and really good at your job," she said.

"I learned that this is an industry that will always be challenged and evolving."

While Thornton isn't specifically looking to hire millennials, she seeks agents of all ages who will fit the criteria for the brand she's building: well-traveled, passionate travel advisers.

Thornton also learned another skill at Orbitz: how to speak on television as a travel expert. She regularly does guest spots on news programs to promote both Royal Travel and travel agents overall.

Thornton remembers well the occurrences that most shocked the industry in recent years — airline-commission cuts, the birth of online travel booking, 9/11, the Great Recession — and is happy to promote agents, a community she sees as being on the upswing.

"I learned that this is an industry that will always be challenged and evolving," she said. "But I guess the good news is it's one that will always have clients, because it's human nature to want to explore and see the world."

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