It was a bittersweet visit this week to a quaint storefront at 404 E. Main St. in Watertown, home of Jefferson Travel for nearly a decade.
Once a bright and colorful office adorned with photos of clients from around the world, posters depicting exotic locales, plaques for excellence and flags from dozens of countries, the travel agency was a faded, cluttered shell of its former self.
Its owners, Chris Ingersoll and Pat Ziwisky, on the other hand, were optimistic.
Both retire in a few days, and as they cleaned and tidied up the office, they enjoyed reminiscing about the good times they’ve had since opening the business in the early 1980s.
Ziwisky and Ingersoll are leaving the travel industry on their own terms, they said. Their joint exit is due to the economic downturn or pandemic-related impacts. They just got old.
“I’m long past my retirement age and I have to do this now,” Ingersoll said.
You’d be hard-pressed to find two women who seem to have enjoyed their careers more.
Ziwisky and Ingersoll’s generation had a lot of fun being travel agents in the 1980s.
The good times often came courtesy of major airlines and cruise lines that wined, dined and generally ate them up at posh venues like Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel and Mitchell Field. They also took part in frequent world trips.
“Working as a travel agent has been great,” said Ziwisky. “I can honestly say that, in 40 years, there has never been a dull day.”
Jefferson Travel’s beginnings can be traced back to its roots at Bockmann Travel in Jefferson in the late 1970s.
“Betty Mrdjenovich bought Bockmann Travel from Harold Bockmann on Jan. 1, 1979, and changed the name to Jefferson Travel,” Ziwisky said, adding that she had worked with Mrdjenovich at Watertown’s Top Travel.
“Betty’s husband was the superintendent of the Watertown School District until he became superintendent in Janesville,” Zwisky said. “They moved there, but she chose to open in Jefferson.”
Ziwisky began working at the Jefferson agency in August 1982.
“Jefferson Travel moved three times while it was in Jefferson,” she said. “The most recent address was 230 S. Main St. Chris and I bought the business on January 1, 2005. Basically, we bought ourselves. We stayed in Jefferson at 230 S. Main St., until we moved to our current location in Watertown in December 2014.
Ingersoll entered the travel business in September 1978.
“I kind of fell into it,” she said. “I went to the agency to plan a trip to Mexico for myself, a friend and my parents. In passing, I mentioned that, if they needed any help at the agency, I’d like to try working for them. To my surprise, I was called and the rest is history. I worked out at work and loved every minute of it.”
Ingersoll’s largely rosy career also included setbacks, such as 9/11 and the pandemic.
“For me, Covid took so much joy out of my love for this business,” she said. “It became so stressful just trying to keep up with all the ever-changing rules and requirements for travel. Our customers depended on us to help and guide them as they were finally able to travel again.”
Ingersoll and Ziwisky were the trusted travel agents for many Jefferson and Dodge County businesses, including Nasco, Jones Dairy Farm and Norland in Fort Atkinson, as well as Carnation, Doskocil and Schweiger in Jefferson.
Ingersoll coordinated vacation trips home for St. John’s students. Coletta and even planned the trip of her most famous client, Rosemary Kennedy, whom she met.
Ziwisky’s love of travel was nurtured at an early age.
“My mom and I visited my aunt and uncle in Cuba when I was 5,” she said. “After that, they moved to Florida, Connecticut and Philadelphia. Our family made many trips to visit them. The trips were a bit like National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, but they gave me a love of visiting new parts of the country and seeing new things. When the opportunity arose to actually work helping other people see the world, I jumped at it.”
When Ziwisky and Ingersoll were starting out, they recalled, they were almost, literally, flying by the seats of their pants.
“We had no idea what kind of hotel or country we were sending our customers to,” Ziwisky said. “The hotels were a name in a giant book that we subscribed to. There were very few ways to communicate with those outside the country and we basically had no response to any of them.”
Rick Steves and Fodor’s books — widely printed travel guides — were the travel industry’s versions of the Bible, she said.
“Now we’re able to look at websites with lots of pictures and reviews,” Ziwisky said. “It has helped tremendously. It’s amazing, but also stressful. We are now essentially on call 24/7, which people should expect if they have booked through us. But after so many years, it’s time not to be ‘on call'”.
The pair have also seen massive changes in the way the travel industry operates.
“The airlines relied on us, completely, to get people on their planes,” Ziwisky said. “We wrote tickets by hand and they paid us commissions. In the 90s, people were able to book on the internet themselves and the airlines decided they really didn’t need us as partners. That changed our result a lot.”
However, travelers still wanted agents to help them with larger undertakings, such as cruises, escorted tours and all-inclusive packages, she said.
“The prices customers paid were the same whether they booked through us, or through the tour operator,” Ziwisky said. “They could sit across from us and discuss everything, so it worked out well for us and them.”
There were many very good years.
“It looked like 2020 was poised to be the best year that Chris and I have experienced since buying the business, but that ended in March of that year,” Ziwisky said.
Travel agents aren’t going away, the business model has just changed, Ingersoll said.
“We are not disappearing. You’d be hard-pressed to find a travel agency with a single storefront,” she said. “Agents have taken their business to the home office. A lot of what an agent does is by phone and email. I have a few longtime clients who never set foot in my office.”
The most popular destinations for Jefferson Travel clients recently have been Mexico, Alaska, Florida, Ireland and river cruises on the Danube and Rhine rivers, according to Ziwisky.
“In the past, a lot of people went to Las Vegas,” she said. “They’re still going there, but they’re making those trips themselves.”
For Ziwisky, the decision to call it a career was based in part on wanting to spend more time with her grandchildren.
“Those grandchildren are part of the deciding factor for retirement. But it was not an easy decision, even factoring them in,” she said.
Ziwisky said she is still considering future plans.
“I’m definitely going to travel more, plus I’m going to do a better job of staying connected with family and friends,” she said. “I would like to go back to Cuba. I didn’t get there when it opened for us a few years ago. It looks like that could change again. Switzerland and many of the middle European countries are on the list, as well as many destinations in the US. I have a sister who lives in Durango, Colorado and would love a visit.”
Ingersoll also has an itinerary in mind.
“I like sailing,” she said. “My husband and I have traveled to many wonderful places. We have visited the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Mexico and one place we loved was Cuba. Politics aside, it was such an interesting place. My number one thing is, I want to slow down and spend more time with my family, more time in my flower gardens and travel more.”
She has also always wanted to go to Egypt to see the pyramids and sail the Nile, but she will miss her clients.
“A lot of them have become great friends,” she said. “I will miss clients who come back from a trip I helped them plan and tell me they had such a great time. This was one of my greatest rewards of working in the travel industry.”
Most of all, she will miss seeing her business partner of 40 years on a regular basis.
“We built a great team and made our business successful,” Ingersoll said. “We sent a lot of people to a lot of places and they all came back. We never lost anyone.”
One reason Ziwisky has enjoyed working in the travel industry is that she believes travel changes a person for the better and has loved watching her clients as they explore the globe.
“It has been gratifying to see these changes happen in our customers,” she said. “We’ve always tried to follow up when people come back from a trip. It is interesting to hear their reactions to the destinations they have seen. There are so many wonderful places and so many wonderful people in those destinations. It’s been really nice to be able to introduce our customers to those things. I will miss this and I will miss working with Chris. We have been through a lot together.”