When the time came for Judy White to embark on a new career she picked something she truly loves — travel.

She opened up shop with a partner in Wilton Center, naming it Wilton Center Travel, and last week celebrated 40 years in business. Now in business on her own, a reception on Aug. 23 saw friends from town, members of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, and state officials help celebrate her success in a business that has seen many changes since 1978.

“It was very different then,” White said recalling the pre-internet business world. “Communication was different. It often would take many weeks to get an answer from Europe. The improvements are vast.”

Changes in transportation have also made the world smaller. Aircraft improvements have made what was not easily accessible — like Asia or Africa — suddenly within reach.

While many thought the internet would be a death knell for travel agents, White thought “it made our job easier.” Instead of sitting with clients and trying to divine where they might like to spend a vacation, most have done some research online and come in with specific ideas.

“They say what they saw and our staff has gone practically everywhere so they can give information on locations,” she said. White herself has been to more than 100 countries and every continent.

With a specialty in leisure and vacation travel, the agency’s typical booking is a family of five. Destinations have become more upscale over the years and Europe, particularly London, Paris and Rome, continue to be popular.

While the internet wrought changes, the industry itself changed, too. When White started out, airlines paid commissions to travel agents for booking tickets. “Within five years they stopped paying. That was 80% of our income,” she said.

Despite all of this, White said last year was the best ever for her business.

A good travel agent, she said, can help travelers avoid pitfalls that a search engine cannot from warning clients away from seaweed-infested beaches to alerting hotel staff of someone’s special needs.

Early career


Before becoming a travel agent, White was an anesthetist, but she found the job too stressful. “It was interesting but it was a tremendous responsibility,” she said. “You could not call it fun.”

What was fun were her exploits as a puddle-jumper pilot in the Caribbean. Prior to living in Wilton, she and her family lived in the Bahamas, where she learned to fly and flew charter flights with a twin-engine Cessna 310. It had six seats and a 500-pound cargo pod underneath.

Island living can be expensive and “a big thing was grocery shopping,” she said, noting Grand Bahama was a 25-minute flight from West Palm Beach, Fla. “I would take out two of the seats and take housewives shopping.”

One of her more interesting flights came about when a restaurateur friend called her about a “lobster march” in the waters of north Eleuthera. “Lobsters,” White explained, “relocate every now and then, moving in a line. It makes them vulnerable.”

The lobsters were protected from being caught in traps or by people using scuba gear or mechanically charged devices. But the waters off Eleuthera were shallow and there was nothing from preventing people from just picking them up. That’s what her friend did, but he did not have a way of getting them back to Grand Bahama. Would she help?

He offered “to take out the seats and line the plane with shower curtains” and load up the lobsters. Fortunately, she said, Caribbean lobsters have no claws, so she did not have to worry about them crawling around during the 35-minute journey.

“That was the most unusual passenger group I had,” she said.

When White’s daughter, Margaret, was about to enter high school, the family had a decision to make. White did not want to send Margaret to the local high school and she didn’t want to send her away to boarding school, so they returned to the U.S. and settled in Wilton.

Margaret, now Margaret Sanko, joined her mother’s business after graduating from Wilton High School, and is bringing her son Steve on board.

Honors


At last week’s reception, Wilton Center Travel was honored with a citation from the state. State Senator Toni Boucher (R-26) and state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) were joined by state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) who read from the citation that noted White was the founding president of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, the first woman member of the Wilton Rotary Club, and past president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents.

“We thank Judith for her leadership and commitment to the Wilton community,” O’Dea read.

White thanked the agents she works with saying “their efforts have exceeded even my expectations.”

She related how the building they are in was the original Village Market. “My desk back there is in the area that was produce,” she joked. The building was also used by Perkin-Elmer before the travel agency moved in.