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Front & Center: Travel agent reflects on journey of change

Longtime travel agent Cathy Nystrom, owner of Edwards LaLone Travel in Spokane, operates one of the top 50 agencies in a North American consortium. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Longtime travel agent Cathy Nystrom, owner of Edwards LaLone Travel in Spokane, operates one of the top 50 agencies in a North American consortium. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

In 1897, the New York Journal erroneously reported that celebrated author Mark Twain had died. The newspaper’s London correspondent, it seems, had confused humorist Samuel Clemens with his seriously ill cousin James Clemens.

Twain famously responded, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Cathy Nystrom can relate.

“When I tell people I’m a travel agent, they say, ‘Oh. You guys are still around?’

“And I say, ‘We sure are. We’re alive and kicking, and busier than ever.’ ”

Nystrom owns Edwards LaLone Travel, among the top 50 agencies in a North American consortium. Located on the Skywalk level of downtown Spokane’s Parkade, Edwards LaLone specializes in leisure travel – helping individuals, couples and groups get somewhere exotic and back with as few hassles as possible.

During a recent interview, Nystrom discussed biology, bucket lists and one of her best Christmas presents.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Nystrom: I was born in Spokane and spent 10 years in St. Paul, Minnesota. My dad was with the railroad, and several times we took the train from St. Paul to Spokane for Christmas because our family was here. I remember crossing the snowy plains in winter. My dad passed away just as I was starting high school, so we moved back to Spokane.

S-R: What were your interests?

Nystrom: Sports. I played softball, basketball and golf at Mead High School.

S-R: Do you recall the first big trip you took on your own?

Nystrom: By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d saved enough money to go to Hawaii with a couple of friends. That experience made me eager to travel.

S-R: How about college?

Nystrom: I went to WSU planning to become a high school biology teacher. The biology was great, but after taking a teaching course and talking to my counselor, I changed my mind and took some business classes before ending up in the hospitality program, which turned out to be the perfect fit.

S-R: Then what?

Nystrom: While in college, I did a six-month internship with Marriott in Southern California and loved it. After graduation, I wanted to go back there, so I took a job with Hyatt, and loved that, too. But my boyfriend had moved to Minneapolis after graduation, so eventually we agreed to both relocate to Seattle, and I took a foot-in-the-door job with United Airlines reservations. A couple of years later, we moved back to Spokane to get married and start a family. Jobs here were pretty tight – particularly airline jobs. That’s how I fell into working at a travel agency.

S-R: What skills did you bring to this job?

Nystrom: At United, I learned the reservation network system we still use today for airline tickets, hotel bookings, car bookings – all kinds of things.

S-R: When you joined Edwards LaLone in 1991, how many travel agencies were there in Spokane?

Nystrom: My guess is around 10.

S-R: And now?

Nystrom: Maybe a handful. Both 9/11 and the recession were hard on our industry. Some agents work independently from home now.

S-R: Are there more travelers today?

Nystrom: Far more. Back in the early ’90s, people traveled for work and maybe took one big trip every few years. Now travel is a way of life rather than a luxury.

S-R: What else has changed?

Nystrom: When I started, airlines paid us a 10 percent commission on ticket sales. After the internet’s arrival, those commissions gradually disappeared, and it became nerve-wracking trying to stay in business. We’re still paid commissions on everything but airline tickets – hotels, cars, cruises, tour packages. And we charge clients fees on some services. But instead of booking someone’s flight to Seattle – which sometimes can take as long as booking a cruise – we focus on bigger, more complicated trips for people.

S-R: For instance?

Nystrom: Say someone wants to spend six weeks in Europe, go on a safari or visit Tahiti, we can arrange lodging, ground transportation, air transportation and guided tours. We primarily arrange trips for couples and families, but also work with everyone from single travelers to parties of 30 or more – school groups, athletic teams.

S-R: When traveling, do you prefer guided tours or exploring on your own?

Nystrom: Both have their appeal. But if you go somewhere like the Vatican, you won’t have the same experience on your own as with a guide. The content is too overwhelming.

S-R: Do people sometimes pick your brain, then book themselves through the internet?

Nystrom: That’s happened for years. And sometimes those same people call us when something doesn’t work out. Unfortunately, at that point we can’t jump in and solve their problem, whereas if you book through us you have support both before your trip and while you’re traveling. We get calls, texts and emails from all over the world, whether because of an emergency or people just wanting to change plans midtrip. Some people prefer working with a travel agent for the same reason they don’t cut their own hair. And they don’t mind paying a fee of, say, $25, to have us book their tickets.

S-R: Did you have a mentor?

Nystrom: Yes, Leslie Edwards, who sold me the business.

S-R: What wisdom did she pass along?

Nystrom: Always be willing to go with the flow, because if there’s any constant in this business, it’s change.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Nystrom: Hearing from people who’ve enjoyed a great trip. Sometimes we hear second hand. They’ll come back from a trip, and all of a sudden we’re getting calls from new clients. That’s the best form of marketing, because Spokane is definitely a word-of-mouth town.

S-R: What do you like least?

Nystrom: (whispering) Working with airlines. They’re very unpredictable.

S-R: What perks come with this career?

Nystrom: Free travel – “familiarization tours” – is, of course, the No. 1 perk. They went away from 2001 to about 2010, but they’re back. I’m going to South Africa and the Mediterranean in December.

S-R: Any downsides to this job?

Nystrom: You can do this 24/7 if you’re not careful. One challenge is reining in the research, because sometimes we overdo it. We’re trying to work smarter, not harder. I no longer work weekends, but I still probably put in between 50 and 60 hours a week.

S-R: Do you have a motto?

Nystrom: “What’s best for our customers is best for us.” Some travel agencies only work with certain providers, but we never look at where we’ll get the greatest return. We seek the best fit for our clients.

S-R: What are some unusual requests?

Nystrom: We book a lot of “bucket list” trips – Galapagos, Mount Kilimanjaro, Antarctica. When they come back, we typically see more interest in those destinations.

S-R: What’s on your bucket list?

Nystrom: Hmmm … the South Pacific.

S-R: Can you share some travel tips?

Nystrom: Sure. When booking a flight yourself, pay close attention to details. Make sure the date is right, and the flight doesn’t have an overnight layover. Discount flights often come with huge restrictions regarding changes and refunds.

S-R: How about luggage?

Nystrom: Be aware of the allowable size and weight of carry-ons and any baggage fees. Those can vary among airlines.

S-R: Do you recommend getting local currency ahead of travel?

Nystrom: A little, but always be very careful traveling with cash. And make sure your bank and credit card company know where you’re going and when so your card won’t get shut down and if you need to get more money, you can.

S-R: How about bringing items home?

Nystrom: Liquids are a big issue. Don’t buy that superexpensive bottle of Scotch and then try to carry it onto the plane. Don’t pack your expensive perfume in your carry-on.

S-R: Anything else?

Nystrom: Don’t do anything suspicious at an airport, even joking around.

S-R: As a seasoned traveler, have you ever experienced a disaster?

Nystrom: Almost. (laugh) I hesitate to tell the story, because I don’t want to ruin my luck. But once we were heading to London at Christmastime for five days – very extravagant – and taking two of our kids along. After we boarded our flight, a light in the cargo hold indicated a problem. With such a short timeline, our options didn’t look good. But they found us another flight that afternoon, and the only way they could accommodate us was to upgrade us to business class. What might have been a disaster turned into one of our best trips ever!

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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