As someone who traveled out of the country for the first time at just three months old, Kendra Thornton has always been passionate about travel. So when she was offered the opportunity to take over her family’s travel agency Royal Travel & Tours in 2015, Thornton didn’t hesitate. “We are celebrating the agency’s 45th anniversary this year,” says Thornton. “My parents started the business at a time when travel agents were the key holders to consumers who wanted to take leisure vacations. Now, travel is highly personal. Our clients come to us for our first-person knowledge and expertise. No one wants a cookie-cutter travel experience.”
As the president of Royal Travel, Thornton prefers to think of her business as a collaboration between her team and their clients, many of whom are looking for ways to achieve an authentic experience when visiting foreign destinations. And since Thornton has been to six continents and visited 11 countries in 2016 alone, her feedback is more than just valued—it’s essential.
“We work hard to be at the forefront of the industry,” explains Thornton. “We have a three-day Royal Travel retreat for our team of consultants at the new Andaz Mayakoba in Mexico this month. Plus, I just traveled to Iceland with a group of friends in January and in April will be staying at the new Shore Club in Turks + Caicos with my husband. It’s our philosophy to self-educate on the markets we serve to continually provide expert counsel.”
Royal’s team of sophisticated, passionate, and talented associates are no exception. As an agency, the company’s consultants took trips just in the last calendar year to Jordan, Mexico, Hawaii, Western and Central Europe, South East Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and French Polynesia. Royal’s team of women from the North Shore area know how to speak to the needs of the market and curate one-of-a-kind experiences. The team has roots in many of the North Shore communities, including Winnetka (Brittany Magner and Stacey Cohen), Glencoe (Melissa Lee), and Wilmette (Sophia Kondos).
“I have lived in Winnetka for seven years now, and continue to be blown away by the sense of community,” says Thornton. “People here really want to help and work with each other. It is an amazing place to live, and I feel so fortunate that I first discovered the area when studying at Northwestern University. I used to walk Sheridan Road in college and was besotted with the beautiful homes and architecture.”
Thornton grew up in DeKalb, Illinois, which is where Royal Travel was founded in 1972 by her parents who were high school sweethearts. She then lived in Chicago with her husband, an Ohio native, and children, before making the move to the North Shore once pregnant with their third child. Thornton and her husband will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this year.
Before taking the helm of the family business, Thornton was already very active in the travel industry. She pursued a career in public relations after college and was hired to run media relations for Orbitz just after the travel website launched in 2002. Her lifelong understanding of the travel industry is how she quickly rose as a TV travel expert locally and then nationally. Even with her busy schedule, she continues to make regular appearances in Chicago on WGN-TV and WBBM-TV, as well as nationally on MSNBC and Fox News.
“It is really fun to work with North Shore travelers,” says Thornton. “They are intelligent and curious—not only to explore the world themselves but to take their kids around the world, too. People want to do unique things. When I brought up the idea of a girls’ trip to Iceland, I was so excited by the positive response. We are already planning our next girls’ trip, which will likely be Cuba!”
In terms of other locales that seem to particularly resonate with North Shore travelers, Thornton mentions South Africa for its diverse experiences, including wine country, safaris, and beaches; Morocco; and Europe, specifically Italy, Croatia and Spain. It is also worth noting that every time it snows, the phones at Royal Travel ring off the hook with clients looking to escape for warm weather, even if just for a long weekend.
“The first quarter of the year is definitely the busiest in terms of planning,” says Thornton. “Most people will take a ski trip around President’s Day and will head to one of the easy-to-get-to hot spots for spring break, like St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic or the Cayman Islands.”
Although some of Thornton’s most life-changing experiences have taken place while traveling—in places like Egypt, Cambodia, Costa Rica and France (she is fluent in French and spent a year living in Paris as a student)—she has a few favorite places closer to home, too.
“I love Athene for great comfortable and hip outfits, Noah’s Ark for my dog (a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), Valentina and Ellen’s on Elm for great hostess gifts,” says Thornton. “I probably go to True Juice at least once a day, host team meetings at Café Aroma, and love Guildhall for date night, Trifecta for girls’ night, and Little Ricky’s with my kids.”
With travel being such an integral part of her own childhood, Thornton has made every effort to incorporate that same sense of adventure into her own family, joking that taking trips is how she balances it all. She brought her son to Rome last spring for his 10th birthday and plans to do a 10-year-old trip with each of her two daughters as well.
“I let my son plan the itinerary,” says Thornton. “He was fascinated by Pompeii, so we went and even participated in a gladiator school! You are truly able to experience places again, as if for the first time, when you see them through the eyes of your children.”
It is too early to tell if one (or more) of her kids will be next in line to run Royal Travel, so in the meantime, Thornton is focused on growing the team, expanding Royal Travel’s markets, and visiting Antarctica at some point. As Thornton notes, “You cannot be a true travel expert without visiting all seven continents.”
For more information, visit royal-travel.com.