It was a bittersweet visit this week to a quaint storefront at 404 E. Main St. in Watertown, home to Jefferson Travel for almost a decade.
Once a bright, colorful office adorned with client photos from around the world, posters depicting exotic locales, plaques for excellence and flags from dozens of countries, the travel agency was a dim, cluttered, former shell of itself.
Its owners, Chris Ingersoll and Pat Ziwisky, on the other hand, were upbeat.
The two retire in a few days, and as they cleaned and sorted the office they enjoyed recalling the good times they’ve had since the business opened in the early 1980s.
Ziwisky and Ingersoll are leaving the travel industry on their own terms, they said. Their tandem exit is due, not to economic downturns or pandemic-related influences. They have simply aged out.
“I have long passed my retirement age and I just need to do this now,” Ingersoll said.
It would be hard to find two women who have apparently enjoyed their careers more.
Ziwisky’s and Ingersoll’s generation had a lot of fun being travel agents in the 1980s.
The good times often came courtesy of the big airlines and cruise companies that wined, dined and generally schmoozed them at luxurious places such as Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel and Mitchell Field. They also partook in frequent world travel.
“Working as a travel agent has been wonderful,” Ziwisky said. “I can honestly say that, during 40 years, there was never a boring day.”
The beginnings of Jefferson Travel can be traced to its roots in 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 she’d 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 started work at the Jefferson agency in August of 1982.
“Jefferson Travel moved three times while in Jefferson,” she said. “The most recent address was 230 S. Main St. Chris and I bought the business on Jan. 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 sort 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 in the agency, I would love to give it a try working for them. Much to my surprise, they called me and the rest is history. I trained on the job and loved every minute of it.”
Ingersoll’s largely rosy career also included obstacles, like 9/11 and the pandemic.
“To me, Covid took so much joy out of my love of this business,” she said. “It became so stressful just trying to keep up with all the ever-changing rules and requirements for travel. Our clients 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 holiday trips home for St. Coletta’s students and even planned the travel of its most famous client, Rosemary Kennedy, whom she met.
Ziwisky’s love of travel was fostered 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 took many road trips to visit them. The trips vaguely resembled National Lampoon’s family vacations, but they gave me a love for 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 type of hotel or country we were sending our clients to,” Ziwisky said. “Hotels were a name in a gigantic book that we subscribed to. There was very little way to communicate with any that were out of the country and we had basically no feedback on any of them.”
Rick Steves’ books and Fodor’s — widely circulated print travel guides — were the travel industry versions of the Bible, she said.
“Now we are able to look at websites with lots of pictures and reviews,” Ziwisky said. “It has helped tremendously. It is amazing, but also stressful. We are now, basically, on call 24/7, which people should expect if they have booked through us. But after this many years, it’s time to not be ‘on call’.”
The pair has also seen massive change in how the travel industry operates.
“Airlines relied on us, completely, to get people on their planes,” Ziwisky said. “We hand-wrote tickets and they paid us commissions. In the 90’s, people were able to book on their own through the internet and the airlines decided that they really didn’t need us as partners. That changed our bottom line a great deal.”
However, travelers still wanted agents to help them with big undertakings, such as cruises, escorted tours and all-inclusive packages, she said.
“The prices the clients 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 a lot of very good years.
“It looked like 2020 was about to become the best year Chris and I experienced since buying the business, but that ended in March of that year,” Ziwisky said.
Travel agents are not going extinct, the business model has just changed, Ingersoll said.
“We are not disappearing. You will be hard pressed to find a travel agency in a stand alone store front,” she said. “Agents have taken their business to the home office. So much of what an agent does is by phone and email. I have some long-time clients that 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, lots of people went to Las Vegas,” she said. “They are still going there, but doing those trips on their own.”
For Ziwisky, the decision to call it a career was based partly on wanting to spend more time with her grandchildren.
“Those grandkids are part of the deciding factor for retirement. But it has not been an easy decision, even factoring them in,” she said.
Ziwisky said she’s still considering future plans.
“I will definitely be traveling more, plus doing 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 was opened to us a few years ago. It looks like that might be changing again. Switzerland and many of the middle European countries are on the list, as well as lots of destinations in the U.S. I have a sister who lives in Durango, Colorado and would really like a visit.”
Ingersoll also has an itinerary in mind.
“I love cruising,” she said. “My husband and I have cruised to many wonderful places. We have visited the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Mexico and one spot 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 cruise the Nile, but she will miss her clients.
“So many of them have become great friends,” she said. “I will miss clients returning from a trip I helped them plan and telling me they had such an awesome time. That was one of my greatest rewards for working in the travel industry.”
Most of all, she will miss seeing her business partner of 40 years on a regular basis.
“We made an amazing team and made our business a success,” Ingersoll said. “We sent a lot of people to a lot of places and they all came back. We never lost anybody.”
One reason Ziwisky has enjoyed working in the travel industry is that she believes that travel changes a person for the better and has cherished watching her clients as they have explored the globe.
“It has been fun watching those changes take place in our clients,” she said. “We have always tried to follow up when people return 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 has been very nice to be able to introduce our clients to those things. I will miss that and I will miss working with Chris. We have gone through a lot together.”