Mary Jo Klinkhammer and Melissa Engel have a lot in common.
Not only mother and daughter, the two share a strong commitment to family, enjoy spending time in nature and connecting with new people.
They also love to travel and help those people find opportunities to see the world.
“People always say it’s something you should make the time for,” Klinkhammer said. “And they’re absolutely right.”
Klinkhammer, 66, has been at the helm of House of Travel, a travel agency in Dubuque, for more than two decades, purchasing the business in the early 2000s after racking up years of experience in the travel industry.
“I worked for pretty much every travel agency in town at some point,” she said, with a laugh. “When the previous owner of House of Travel said he was selling it and would rather sell it to me because he thought I would help the name live on, I wasn’t sure about running a business. But ultimately, I decided to do it, and everything came full circle.”
This summer, that trajectory will continue as Engel, 36, will take ownership — just as she and husband Jordan continue settling into their first home in Dubuque and welcome their first baby.
“I like to think I thrive in chaos,” Engel said, grinning.
Evolving in the industry
House of Travel opened its doors in 1974. When Klinkhammer took the reins as owner in 2001, in addition to acting as travel advisor, Engel was at her side and ever observant.
“It was the first job I had in high school, filing and helping out around the office,” Engel said. “Later on, I did some outside sales work, and I got more familiar with the travel industry.”
But she wouldn’t follow in Klinkhammer’s footsteps just yet.
Engel would go on to attend the University of Northern Iowa, studying nonprofit and public organizational management, and later, college student counseling and personnel services at Arkansas Tech University.
She worked in higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Loras College and Southwest Wisconsin Technical College before embarking upon a stint in insurance.
Engel returned to House of Travel as a travel advisor in 2022, as she prepared to step in to her mother’s role.
“I wanted to make sure it was really something that she wanted to do,” Klinkhammer said. “Running a small business and everything that comes with it.”
With the rise of travel booking websites, such as Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, Travelocity and Orbitz, many people planning trips today might not see the value in working with travel agent. However, especially given the aftermath of events like 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, travel agents have been able to prove their worth, Klinkhammer said.
“There have been many events that have shaken the travel industry. There are peaks and valleys, but we’ve managed to stay viable,” Klinkhammer said. “Not all travel websites are created equal. Because we’re booking trips and have established relationships with professionals within the industry, we often know where to find the best deals. Throughout the pandemic, we also were provided up-to-date information that was very helpful to travelers, especially given how quickly everything was changing as people returned to travel.
“More than anything, working with a travel agent is a chance for people to hand the planning over and not have to worry about any of it. We take clients’ trips apart, layer by layer, and connect them to airlines, hotels, everything they need. Travel agents build that trust and relationship not only with industry professionals, but with their clients.”
The future of travel
The return to travel in a post-pandemic world has seen a bounce back, despite higher prices, according to Klinkhammer, who said business continues to be fruitful for travel agencies.
“People are doing what I would call ‘bucket list trips,’” she said. “They were cooped up for so long, they are eager to get out and explore the world.”
While summer offers a natural peak travel period, January, February and March also see a rush in locals looking to shake off the winter doldrums.
Top destinations include Europe, Alaska, Greece and Iceland, among others.
Family trips to Walt Disney destinations also remain popular, with a position at House of Travel dedicated to just that, along with four full-time and two part-time staff members.
House of Travel also hosts group trips throughout the year, in addition to planning client vacations, destination weddings and more.
“For my mom and me, it’s always been a passion,” said Engel, who added the destination she’s most passionate about is Ireland, while her mother’s is Hawaii. “We love to travel, and travel has become our livelihood and our privilege to be able to bring to people. I’m happy to continue that.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.