DeKALB – Larry and Kay Berke met when they were 12 years old while ice skating on a lagoon in DeKalb County. Now, 68 years later, they are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their travel agency, Royal Travel and Tours.
The Berkes, both 80, have since retired and passed the company on to their daughter Kendra Thornton, 48. She has owned and operated the company with offices at Winnetka and 122 N. First St., Unit C, in downtown DeKalb for the past six years.
The family celebrated the 50-year milestone with a reunion on October 6 at the Whiskey Acres Distillery in DeKalb.
“In the early ’70s we wanted to start our own business and we came up with a lot of different ideas,” said Larry Berke. “And that kind of appealed to us. [Kay had] traveled a lot more than me, but that was the start.”
Thornton was born after the Berkes opened their first office in downtown Sycamore in November 1972, Kay said. Maybe it was a calling your daughter was born into.
“She used to lie on a blanket under my desk on the floor a lot when she was a baby,” Kay Berke said. “She grew up in the travel industry.”
As a young girl, Thornton, who lives in Winnetka with her husband and three children, said she would pretend to have her own travel agency in her bedroom, complete with her own typewriter and fake airline tickets.
Thornton, a Northwestern University graduate, bought Royal Travel from her parents in 2016, a few years after Larry and Kay proposed to Thornton and their brothers Jeff Berke and Andrew Berke.
“All three have worked in the industry,” said Larry Berke. “And like seven, eight years ago we were all together as a family and I was like, ‘Well you know mom and dad are getting older, if any of you guys are interested let us know. We have to start thinking about what we’re going to do.’ ”
However, the business initially had no customers.
Kay said her sons were doing their own thing and Thornton was busy making a name for himself in the travel industry. At some point, Thornton left the family business to work for Chicago-based company Orbitz, a direct competitor.
“She said the hardest thing she ever did was call her dad — it was just when online travel agencies came along — she had to call her dad and say, ‘Dad, I got a job at Orbitz,'” Kay said Berke.
Despite competition, the Berkes were excited about their daughter’s job.
Thornton spent four years as Head of Corporate Communications at Orbitz and made a name for herself before opening her own travel and lifestyle focused PR firm.
Thornton regularly provides travel advice on WGN-TV in Chicago and has also provided expert commentary for MSNBC, Fox News and other cable news networks. In 2019, she was named to Travel + Leisure magazine’s A-list. She is also a member of the Magazine Advisory Board and British Virgin Islands Travel Advisory Board.
Despite all of those career milestones, Thornton said it wasn’t until 2013, when her father asked her to work for the family business again, that she started thinking about the next step.
She said she’s been thinking about acquiring Royal Travel and Tours and what it could mean for the company to evolve into a second-generation company.
“It was at that moment that I realized that everything I had done in my career led me to become a second-generation owner of Royal Travel,” said Thornton. “It has been such a gift to own and grow this traditional family business.”
Since Thornton’s acquisition, Royal Travel’s revenue has grown to $13 million, a 500% increase, according to a company press release. The company was also recognized by luxury lifestyle magazine Condé Nast Traveler as a Top Travel Specialist for 2021. Thornton said this award “confirms once again that Royal Travel has some of the best travel consultant talent in the industry”.
At one time, Royal Travel had 11 offices spread across northern and central Illinois, including some in downtown Chicago. The company now has 12 employees from across the country working from home.
Thornton, who has traveled to 69 countries on six continents, said the average person can benefit from using a travel agent like Royal Travel. That’s because the company consists of professional travel planners who can customize an itinerary for each client.
“We know how much people deserve a fantastic holiday, especially in the wake of the pandemic,” Thornton said. “We work with our clients to create bespoke travel experiences for anywhere in the world – a relaxing beach vacation in Mexico or the Caribbean, a bucket list trip to Europe or Africa, a couple’s honeymoon in Hawaii or the Maldives – You name it, we can help.”
Thornton said it’s an incredible honor to continue the family business, especially considering her parents started the travel agency “with nothing but a dream and a loan from the bank.”
“I am extremely proud of the fact that 50 years later our company is still fulfilling travel dreams for local DeKalb residents and leisure travelers from across the country,” said Thornton.