By Neil Cotiaux | Photo by Gery Petrof
Just a year away from the century mark, Traveline’s spunky founder and chairman of the board still offers advice to clients on how to make the most of their journeys, much of it the result of personal odysseys on all seven continents.
“I think I was born to be an adventurer,” the Mentor native, who bills herself as the “World’s Oldest Travel Agent,” says.
Over the past six decades Kneen has kept Traveline on the map, tapped her son Rob to lead the corporate division, and steered the agency away from the Scylla and Charybdis of Internet-based competition, allowing it to survive as others perished.
Kneen’s taste for adventure was acquired at age 9 when her parents put her on a train to New Orleans.
“I was sent down there to learn the cultures of the South,” recalls Kneen in a side room of her busy Willoughby office. “They told me if I had a problem, I should go to a policeman.”
Trained as a dancer, Kneen returned from her visit to the Big Easy, graduated from high school, and hit the road to perform ballroom dancing at places like Chicago’s famed Palmer House.
She married her late husband, Robert, in 1940 and the couple honeymooned in Cuba. She remembers seeing men with rolls of thousand-dollar bills at the gambling tables, impeccably dressed, women in colorful outfits at their side. A photo of Arline wearing a big straw hat and smiling broadly in a one-piece swimsuit remains a keepsake from those halcyon days.
Advice for all occasions
Kneen has always been pleased to share lessons she’s learned.
Like the Brits, Aussies can be standoffish but once they’ve warmed up, you’ve got a friend. If you get into a jam, “Call an interpreter.” In Morocco, “You don’t drink any water, ever, ever.”
She’s guided 31 tours through Ireland and advises clients who rarely travel to take part in a tour keyed to family roots, cultural interests, or hobbies.
Wherever they go, Kneen advises travelers to go easy on social media.
“So often you will miss out on opportunities when you’re sitting down either writing what you want to do (or) what you did,” she offers. “I certainly would not be bogged down with extra baggage like that.”
Kneen is a big fan of South America. For years, her family sponsored exchange students and it has taken little nudging to visit them once they’ve returned home. A photo on her blog (worldsoldesttravelagent.com), shows her in sunglasses, wineglass raised, on the patio of a former student’s home in Argentina.
On another trip, Kneen hung on for dear life as a small vessel plied through choppy waters toward Antarctica. There, she toured icebergs, gazed at gliding albatross, and suffered “smelly old penguins.”
Innovation takes wing
Back home, as commissions paid by airlines plummeted and as Expedia and Travelocity morphed into megasites, Traveline restructured its operations to remain relevant.
The corporate division is now more sophisticated, according to Rob Kneen, the agency’s president and CEO, with detailed budgets, logistical plans, and audio-visual capabilities for offsite business events. “It is a very specialized area,” he says. “We have people who just do meeting plans.”
Traveline’s corporate group accounts for 86 percent of the firm’s business. While volume is higher among corporate clients, yield per transaction is greater with leisure bookings.
“The great part about this split is when corporations cut back on business travel, the leisure channel helps balance the profit and loss,” Rob says.
Web portals for airports represent yet another business segment.
In 2006 Traveline ventured into uncharted territory by partnering with Akron-Canton Airport to create a dedicated travel portal. The portal provides its clientele with access to airfares, tickets, seat selection, car rentals, hotel bookings, weather forecasts, visas and passports.
Today about 20 airports around the country use similar portals built by Traveline.
To further diversify the business, Rob and his wife Nancy opened Lawnfield Inn and Suites in Mentor in 2001 and in 2011 opened Skye, a restaurant inside the hotel. A second hotel is planned, “most likely on University Circle,” he says.
Today Traveline boasts five brick-and-mortar offices in Ohio and Michigan and a total of 60 employees.
Nearing 100, Arline Kneen still meets with longtime clients, works daily at the office or at home, and updates her blog.
Asked where she wants to celebrate her 100th birthday, she pauses to ponder the possibilities. “One more time, I’d like to go down the inland waterway” and enjoy the scenery from Mid-America to Florida, she finally says.
As for the age-old question about longevity, “I take no medicine,” Kneen says, then drops the afterthought, “I have a hot toddy.”
“I have been blessed,” she says of her life and times. “A lot of people don’t take advantage of opportunities, you know that?”
For more information: traveline.com