The fact that Sharon Carr has spent her career planning excursions for other people—booking airline tickets, reserving hotel rooms, escorting tour groups, dealing with the minutiae so they don’t have to—could help explain why she prefers to keep a recent breakfast outing a no-fuss affair.
When I invite her to share a meal at any restaurant of her choice, she opts to meet me at Starbucks and orders only a latte. Her simple manner causes me to feel a bit of a glutton when I ask for a thick slice of banana walnut bread to accompany my iced mocha.
We take our seats at a table in the only quiet corner of a coffee shop that’s buzzing with activity at 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. Most of the prime tables have already been claimed by men and women hunkered down with laptops. A parade of frequent patrons files through the line, with the staff filling orders before they’ve even been officially placed.
Carr isn’t among the regulars. Normally she’d get to the office of her eponymous travel agency along the Dallas North Tollway at about 6:30 a.m., and breakfast would be a cup of coffee and an apple. The early hours enable her to appear frequently on local morning radio shows, through which she sells group tour packages to the stations’ listeners. Deals like these are the specialty of her agency, and they have been ever since she got into the business after marrying her first husband 35 years ago.
He “stepped off the end of the world” and left her to run the agency—and raise their two children—on her own since 1984. Now it’s truly a family business, with both her daughter and son working with her, and a third generation already learning the ropes. “My granddaughter, Hannah, she’s 5, and she’s been to Walt Disney World four times and been on four cruises. I mean, she talks the language,” Carr says.
These days Carr herself is out traveling about a third of the time, mostly accompanying tour groups, on trips for as long as three weeks at a stretch. She has been all over the world, on every continent. The highlight of her travels has been going on an African safari. “Being so close to a lion that I could reach out and pat him on the head,” she says. “It really does change your life when you see nature in its most raw form. I get cold chills every time I go and every time I talk about it.”
As I tear piece after piece from the bread and sip the mocha, I ask Carr about how the travel business has changed during the past 35 years. To me, the abundance of information readily available via the Internet makes the idea of booking a trip through a traditional travel agent seem unnecessary. But Carr emphasizes that there are plenty of situations when having someone local working on your behalf can be helpful.
“If they book on the Internet, and it’s a company they don’t know, there’s a chance that they’ll get burned. And if they want a travel agent to pull them out of the problem, we can’t do it,” she says. “We want people to use the Internet as a tool, but hopefully they’ll come to someone who’s been in business a long time to actually book the travel.”
Airlines have also made the business tougher. They used to pay agents a commission—as much as 10 percent—for the tickets sold on their behalf. These days, there is no commission, and some carriers have considered charging agents for the privilege of selling their seats. “So we have to make it up on cruises and tours and better pricing,” Carr says.
To help combat these changes, Carr merged with a larger firm—Journey House Travel, based in Oklahoma City—four years ago. The bigger agency’s contracts with American Airlines gave her access to more favorable fares. But the economic downturn of the last two years has also made it more difficult to maintain the $6 million to $7 million in annual revenue that Sharon Carr Travel has been doing. People are still traveling, she says, but vacation packages have to be better tailored to the times.
“In the past, when we would [announce a group tour] on the radio, it would sell out in 20 minutes. Now it takes two or three days,” she says. “[People are] still traveling, they still want to travel, but they think about it a lot more.”
In response, her agency has cut trips down to shorter stays and offered more domestics trips, rather than the usual European tours or Caribbean cruises. Seeing more of our own nation is something Carr looks forward to doing herself. “I’ve never really [traveled in] the United States—I’ve been all over the world. I’ve never seen my country,” she says.
She and her husband (Carr remarried about 13 years ago) have taken to RV road trips during their own vacation time. But Carr has no plans to hit the road full time and retire from the work she’s done for decades.
“It’s too much fun,” she says.