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Judi Tichenor: Creating a Student Travel Legacy

Judi Tichenor's travel industry journey extends back into the early '80s. A nurse at the time, she took a trip to Washington, DC as part of a nurses lobbying group and fell in love with the nation's capital city.

"I stayed four days after the group left!" Tichenor recalled. "I called my husband, Dennis, who was also a US history teacher, and told him I'd come home if he promised to find a way to bring his students to DC the next year."

For the next six years, they did just that. But it wasn't without frustration, as Tichenor encountered the limited ability to customize their tour. Inspired by her past positive experience, Tichenor went on to take a basic travel agency community college course and worked in outside sales commissions. While she loved nursing and the security it provided, she also loved helping find ways to make someone's travel experience as perfect as possible.

In late 1988, Tichenor and her husband took the plunge and founded Educational Travel Services, Inc., a company born to provide educators with the exact tour they're searching for. The company's creation also served as the couple's 25th wedding anniversary celebration.

"I left a great salary, work I enjoyed, and good retirement to jump into a business with no guarantees of success. I never looked back," Tichenor said, noting the changes she's seen over the course of the existence of ETS. From airlines closing and the evolution of the booking process to COVID-19 aftereffects and the progression of traveler preferences, Tichenor has seen it all. "Many of our groups are now asking for adventure and specific tours that focus on things like Black history, ecology and community service."

Tichenor has always loved creating new itineraries over the years—a choir performing throughout Eastern Europe; science students standing on the edge of an active volcano's lava flow with a volcanologist; a choir opening for a music star in Branson, Missouri; and more. She has never tired of seeing the reactions of educators.

"I'm most proud of the fact that about 96% of our clients return," Tichenor said. "I'm even more proud that we still have 100% of the schools that started with us over 35 years ago."

In 1997, Tichenor was asked to serve on an organizing committee for what would become the Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA). As someone who'd demonstrated her deep passion for student travel, Tichenor was thrilled to be involved. Together with her peers, she helped establish a framework and professional industry standards to take student travel to the next level.

"When students see something beyond their own backyard, it opens their eyes to see things differently," Tichenor said. "They understand more deeply and it's life changing for them. I can't think of any class they could take that's going to have the same effect."

Upon reflecting, Tichenor believes the best lessons are made by making bad choices—something industry newcomers will inevitably deal with.

"Get some business education. Understand profit and loss statements and balance sheets. Find a good bookkeeper or accountant to help you. Find a good banker. Get to know them and let them know you," she said. "You never know when you'll need their help. If possible, work in the business before flying solo."

You can make the best of plans, but sometimes they will go wrong.

"In any situation, yelling or pounding on a counter doesn't help," Tichenor emphasized. "Respect your suppliers and vendors. Work with them and treat them with respect. In many cases, you may have more knowledge than the vendor!"

Today, Tichenor's daughters, Katie Dunn (an extrovert immersed in all the action) and Julie Sabala (the quiet and organized number cruncher), serve as ETS President and Vice President, respectively. Tichenor is quick to boast about her family, who she says have seamlessly integrated into the business as Tichenor eyes retirement.

"I'm completely comfortable passing this business on to them."

"For me to leave my career to start a business was unthinkable. But, I did it. When my children were young, they would complain about their homework, saying, 'It's too hard.' My answer was always, 'You can do hard things!' I guess my belief in that answer led me to take a chance and pursue this dream."

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for Groups Today.

This article originally appeared in the Jul/Aug '22 issue of Groups Today.


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