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America’s Oldest Travel Agency Is 100

December 27, 1988

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Ask Mr. Foster Travel, founded 100 years ago by a know-it-all who insisted his shops be run by single women, is targeting the European market after being refueled by two new owners in the past 15 years.

The nation’s oldest travel agency, Ask Mr. Foster, was on the decline in 1972 when it was purchased by a Los Angeles travel company headed by Peter Ueberroth, who went on to organize the Los Angeles Olympic Games and become commissioner of major league baseball.

The company is now the major component in the $3 billion Carlson Travel Group, the travel arm of Minnesota millionaire Curt Carlson’s conglomerate Carlson Cos.

There were 29 Ask Mr. Foster branch offices when Ueberroth bought the company for $1 million and hired his brother, John, to help direct an expansion.

When Carlson bought the company from Peter Ueberroth in 1979 for an undisclosed sum, it had more than 100 branches and more than $100 million in annual revenue.

John Ueberroth joined Carlson when the company was sold and continued expanding Ask Mr. Foster into one of the continent’s largest travel agencies, with more than 800 offices. The travel retail network of New York-based American Expres also has more than 800 offices in the United States and Canada.

John Ueberroth, now president of Carlson Travel, based in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth, has said sales in his group will double by 1992 to $6 billion. Besides Ask Mr. Foster, the group includes P. Lawson Travel of Canada, Neiman-Marcus Travel and Carlson Wholesale Vacations.

The overseas expansion will initially include contracts with business- oriente d travel agencies in 20 to 30 major European and Asian cities. Before Ask Mr. Foster was revived by the Ueberroths and Carlson, it was losing market share and name recognition durng the 1960s because it was undercapitalize d and overmatched in an industry that was on the rise, the company said.

It had turned into something far different than Ward Grenelle Foster - who some call the father of the travel agency in North America - envisioned when he opened his first shop in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1888.

Foster’s penchant for travel grew during his confinement as child in a New York tuberculosis sanatorium. He developed a passion for travel literature of any kind and became known as a walking encyclopedia in St. Augustine. When visitors to America’s oldest city had a question that inn keepers couldn’t answer, they were told to ask Mr. Foster.

Foster began by printing information guides to various cities, and by the 1920s, his travel service included 70 offices throughout by U.S.

Genevieve Kenna, 87, of Melbourne, Fla., lived through the changes as one of the company’s original ″Foster girls.″ Foster himself chose Kenna and others because they were singl, ″courteous, interested, patient, conscientious, and above all, enthusiastic in helping people.″

″We tried men at first, but they are not up to it,″ Foster said in a 1924 article about his company. ″Women are more interested in the problems that come to them and have more graciousness in their attitude toward people.″

Women still outnumber men at the travel agent level, but men began working as agents for Ask Mr. Foster in the 1940s, said Janis Chamoun, a spokeswoman for the company.

Ms. Kenna, who worked for the company from 1928-1971, said traveling was always an important part of the job.

″We learned by seeing so that we could say which cities and hotels were nice to visit,″ said Ms. Kenna, a native of St. Paul.

She said Foster was ″the super salesman of all time.″

Frequently traveling more than 50,000 miles a year, Foster owned the company until 1937, when he sold it to Detroit native Paxton Mendelssohn, a millionaire heir of the Fisher family who had to deal with a set of worldwide events that greatly changed the travel business.

The outbreak of World War II curtailed domestic travel, and the rail lines were forced to cancel their contracts with Ask Mr. Foster. It wasn’t until 10 years of depression and four years of war had passed that the American public took to the road again - this time in unprecedented numbers.

With the demand for rail service so great, the railroads canceled their advertising contracts with Ask Mr. Foster, and the fee-based travel agency business gradually turned to commissions as its prime source of revenue. The process was accelerated with the popularity of air travel in the 1950s.

In 1957, the company was purchased by two Ask Mr. Foster shareholders. They sold it to Ueberroth’s company in 1972 after operations continued to sag.

Under Carlson, Ask Mr. Foster has grown eightfold under an aggressive expansion mode. In September, for example, Carlson purchased Gelco Travel Management Service Inc. from Gelco Corp., to expand Ask Mr. Foster by 83 offices.

Many of the travel agencies are owned by the parent company, but others are owned by franchisees, Chamoun said.

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