Captivated by travel planning at an early age, the owner of this local agency has built a team of experts who can turn dream into reality with a personalization the internet can’t beat.
Certified travel consultant Neelie Kruse started Cary Travel Express in 1989 because of her love and passion for traveling.
She was 16 when she went to a travel agency with her mother to plan a trip to Hawaii, and it was through that experience that she knew she wanted to pursue a career in the travel industry. “My career goal became to own my own agency,” Kruse says.
To say she achieved that goal is an understatement. She built Cary Travel Express from the ground up, and 34 years later her brick-and-mortar agency continues to thrive.
What started as an agency with three people has now grown to 25 employees.
Today, Cary Travel Express, 9 Jandus Road in Cary, is a full-service travel agency specializing in leisure travel packages including domestic and international travel.
The company helps travelers create all-inclusive packages to Mexico and the Caribbean, destination weddings, honeymoons, Disney trips, river and ocean cruises, European tours and African safaris, among plenty of other destinations.
“Neelie customizes the group tours and looks for different things such as dinners and private boat rides,” says Jan Calahan, a travel designer with Cary Travel Express. “She makes them unique and different.”
No matter what a traveler’s goals and wishes are, anyone can walk in and get started.
“We specialize in all aspects of travel and we offer great customer service and knowledge,” Kruse says. “We have won many awards over the years for sales and community service, among other things.”
When customers walk into Cary Travel Express, they ask one question the most: “How can you make my dream vacation a reality?”
“Many times, I’ll answer the phone and the customer will just say they need a vacation, and somewhere warm,” Calahan says. “They don’t even care where they go so long as it’s sunny and warm. We make sure we get that traveler to a warm, sunny destination and we’ll make sure they’re happy. We offer many options so they can feel happy about their destination.”
Kruse was just 28 years old when she first opened Cary Travel Express. She started out as a travel advisor at various agencies before opening her very own. She calls herself a proud female small-business owner.
Her strength was put to the test during some trying times. The company had to rebuild because of an office fire in 2018, and then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we made it through the pandemic, we can make it through anything,” Kruse says. “I have a strong, knowledgeable team and they’re ready to take on any obstacles. Travel is getting stronger and stronger each year, so I only expect to continue growing.”
That dedicated team has traveled the world and they’re each equipped with the skills, tips and tricks of the industry to make any travel wish come true.
“Our travel designers have traveled extensively to resorts, other countries, and river and ocean cruises, so we have firsthand knowledge to share with our clients,” Kruse says. “With our travel and supplier connections and relationships, we’re able to make a vacation package extra-special with amenities not offered online. We’re here to provide assistance before, during and after travel with any issues that may arise.”
Her staff is already well-versed in the industry, but Kruse strives for perfection.
“Our travel advisors continue with travel specialist classes, seminars, conferences and familiarity trips to various destinations,” she says.
As she continues to grow the travel agency, Kruse is hoping to expose her agents to more destinations.
“My vision would be to have the agents visit more places and get more experience in different situations, so we can sell what we see,” she says. “I’d also love to grow our wedding destinations.”
While many people might find it easier to book a vacation online, using a travel agency gives people a chance to work with a real person, giving them that face-to-face interaction, since planning a trip might get overwhelming.
“With the rise of the internet, many people felt that was the best route for them to go with booking their trips, but we continue to educate people daily about the need for a travel agent,” she says. “We have their back if anything goes wrong and we can match or beat any internet prices.”
Kruse says she and her team are always looking to grow and learn from mistakes made along the way, like verifying a client’s passport to ensure it’s not expired, making sure the name is correct or other small things to help make customer service even better.
“We learn from each other because we work in a small office and we’re learning something new each day,” Calahan says. “In this industry, you have to constantly be aware of the ever-changing information and destinations around the world.”
The company does plenty of marketing and advertising, along with radio spots, and the company is active on social media. Together, these are important tools for any small business to help reach clientele, Calahan says. Cary Travel Express also hosts a yearly travel show at the Holiday Inn Chicago Northwest Crystal Lake Convention Center.
“The travel show is important because members of the community can walk around the show and see different destinations,” Kruse says. “Then, they can plan their vacation with us.”
If Kruse could pass on a piece of advice to anyone looking to start or grow their business, she says it’s extremely important to be dedicated to your craft. She adds that it’s equally important to have a well-trained and dedicated staff.
“Make sure you’re passionate about your business,” she says. “Hire qualified employees who have the same passion and great customer service skills.”
Some people might dread going to their jobs each day, but not Kruse. She’s living out her dream each day, and it shows in the work she and her team provide to their loyal clients. It’s also what’s helped her build and maintain a successful travel agency for 34 years and counting.
“I’ve never once not wanted to come to work, because to me this isn’t work at all,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to travel the world, which helps when assisting clients make their travel dreams come true.”