Who doesn’t love to think about planning a vacation?
Especially with the cold, dark days rapidly descending upon us, it does Kenoshans well to entertain the sights of palm trees, the smells of fresh saltwater air and the feelings of tropical sunshine to cope with the winter doldrums.
And for 92 years, Kenosha’s own LaMacchia Travel Agency, 618 55th St., has helped to make these vacation dreams a reality. Now run by the husband-and-wife team of Tom and Monica Karnes, LaMacchia Travel is under its third generation of family ownership after being founded by Tom’s grandfather on his mother’s side – that’s where the LaMacchia name comes from – in 1931.
The Travel Showcase runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is both free and open to the public, though Karnes encourages all attendees to register in advance via Kenosha.com’s banner ad for the event or at lamacchiatravel.com/showcase. Attendees can also get more information via LaMacchia Travel’s Travel Showcase phone app.
The Travel Showcase brings together over 34 travel vendors representing all seven of the Earth’s continents. With the exception of having to take a break during the pandemic, LaMacchia Travel has held its Travel Showcase every other year.
“It really brings the world to Kenosha,” Karnes says.
Additionally, those who register for the Travel Showcase will automatically be entered into a drawing to win one of 11 fantastic LaMacchia Travel vacation packages.
For bringing the remarkable Travel Showcase to Kenosha and for all he’s done as a business leader in the community, Tom Karnes – born and raised in Kenosha – has been named this week’s Kenosha.com Kenoshan of the Week.
Karnes says the Travel Showcase brings experts “from far and wide to be able to talk, answer questions (and) just give feedback on their travel products or their destinations.”
Karnes stresses that the event is not a hard sales pitch from LaMacchia Travel. The business won’t have travel agents there trying to aggressively book trips, though attendees can certainly arrange this if they want to.
Rather, by being free and open to the public, Karnes wants everyone to have the chance to learn about travel and gain some education about the rest of the world. The goal is to demonstrate that traveling and planning once-in-a-lifetime vacations isn’t just for the rich and famous.
It’s an opportunity that everyday, hard-working people can take advantage of.
“People dream of travel,” Karnes said. “Not everybody has the ability at the immediate time to do it, but I think everybody really kind of strives to be able to take a vacation or go somewhere. We find that the Travel Showcase gives people a really comfortable environment to talk travel and really learn about the world. It’s bigger than travel.
“… We just love the concept of travel. We’re Kenosha. We’ve been here 92 years, owned and operated. It’s fun to give back and see people who have never thought about going to Antigua, (for example). … ‘I thought only exceptionally wealthy people could do it.’ And you find out that the world, every year, is getting more and more accessible.”
The Travel Showcase will feature vendors representing all kinds of travel experiences, from family vacations to, as Karnes says, high-end African safaris and Arctic expeditions. Indeed, National Geographic will be at the Travel Showcase for those interested in a more adventurous trip.
Whatever your hopeful destination, Karnes says that throughout all his time in the family business, helping people to book memorable trips never gets old.
“There’s nothing better than somebody coming in for their first time (planning) a decent trip,” Karnes said. “Not just a weekend getaway or whatever, but something they’ve always dreamed about, something they thought they’d never do.
“That is, to me, one of my all-time favorite things.”
And, in a nice reversal of roles, Karnes is using the Travel Showcase as an opportunity for people in the travel industry to travel themselves.
In this case, to Kenosha.
“Because we’re Kenosha through and through, we’re bringing these people in from far and wide, from all over the place,” Karnes said. “… We actually have kind of event for them on Saturday night to experience Kenosha. … We’ve got the pedal bar (Lakeshore Pedal Tours) going, we’re going to take them to a couple of the different establishments and just really kind of show them Kenosha.
“I’m always thrilled about bringing vendors into Kenosha.”
A local travel agency
While LaMacchia Travel was founded in 1931 by Karnes’ grandfather, it was actually his great-grandfather who got started in the travel industry by selling steamship travel from his grocery store prior to 1900.
Tom began working in the business in 1983, while he was still attending St. Joseph Catholic Academy for high school. After graduating in 1985, he began working full-time for LaMacchia Travel.
“I found out I was good at it. I was not a good student,” Karnes said with a laugh. “I’ll go on record. Everybody and anybody who knew me then would agree: I was not a good student. I was a better worker.”
Monica Karnes also attended St. Joseph, graduating the same year as Tom. They got married, and in 2009 they purchased LaMacchia Travel from Tom’s uncle to become third-generation business owners.
As you may surmise, the travel industry has undergone significant and sweeping changes since Tom and Monica Karnes have been working in it.
“When I started in the business, 90 percent of what we did in the early, mid-(19)80s was sell airline tickets. That’s all we did,” Tom recalled.. “A couple cruises here, maybe a Hawaii hotel, but it was airline, airline, airline.
“Then later in the ‘80s, when vacation travel became much more mainstream – we’re talking about not the rich and famous only, but more mainstream Americans were going to Mexico, were going to Jamaica, were doing cruises – we evolved over to more of a leisure vacation business.”
Then, of course, when the Internet boom arrived in the late 1990s and changed the world, the travel industry was irrevocably altered. Suddenly, everyone could make their own travel plans with the click of a few buttons, so LaMacchia Travel was forced to adapt or die.
And the company adapted successfully by embracing, rather than resisting, the online revolution.
“Everybody expected us to kind of die and go by the wayside,” Karnes said. “We were lucky enough to be able to adapt and identify that, ‘Hey, the Internet and the World Wide Web offers a lot of value and insight for us, as well.’
“So we were able to embrace it, put some things together that kind of joined forces with it.”
Since then, the industry’s fortunes have risen and fallen with the times. When Sept. 11, 2001, happened, for example, all travel came to a screeching halt, and it took a while to resume its former activity.
“We completely shut down … because nobody was traveling,” Karnes said. “That was a very, very difficult time. We had to peel back and make some difficult decisions.”
Once people began traveling more again in the mid-2000s, Karnes said LaMacchia Travel suddenly had a customer base that was used to using the Internet to book travel and had never used travel agents before.
“So you’ve got this 2004, 2005 time where we need to reinvent ourselves,” Karnes said. “We’re still here, we’re still providing value and still providing the service.”
The Great Recession of 2008-09 dealt another blow to the travel industry, but LaMacchia Travel adapted, recovered and thrived after that, too.
Then, obviously, came the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This was a double-blow for LaMacchia Travel, because in addition to not being able to sell its products for a time, it had to refund millions of dollars to customers who had already made travel plans that were now suddenly canceled.
“When COVID hit us, remember, we had maybe $1, $2 million of vacations already sold to people,” Karnes said. “Which means, we didn’t just stop selling, we started refunding millions of dollars.
“… Things were difficult. Airlines, tour companies, everybody else was kind of making rules up.”
LaMacchia Travel managed to navigate through those waters by focusing on what it always had: superior customer service. If the travel agents couldn’t book trips, then they could do their best to get customers their money back from airlines, hotels, cruise lines and wherever else it had gone prior to cancellations.
“It’s all about customer service,” Karnes said.
“… We were here to take the hits. We’d give (customers) an answer. … It was our customer service and our commitment to make sure we got back to everybody.”
Fortunately, travel is humming along again in the wake of the pandemic, especially to certain destinations.
“Our Europe business is booming,” Karnes says.
And, in the era of ever-increasing information flow and user-friendly technology, Karnes readily admits that the idea of using travel agents may seem outdated or unnecessary to some people. He said he occasionally gets people that even contact him just to criticize the business.
Karnes has no good reason to debate them.
“I will be the first to tell you: A travel agent is not for everybody,” he said. “It’s funny how many people search me out to argue with me. And I’m like, ‘Hey, good, I’m glad you know how to find (travel information).
“‘… I didn’t tell you to call me. Why are you calling me, getting mad at me?’”
But LaMacchia Travel offers crucial services that no online site could ever match. As Karnes describes from a recent encounter with a customer who had never used a travel agency before and asked what LaMacchia Travel could offer, it boils down to several key principles.
“She’s like, ‘Why should I (use LaMacchia Travel)?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll give you a few good reasons,’” Karnes said. “One, we have your complete interest in mind. It does us no good to screw you over, not give you good service. We’re a small-town storefront. You can trust us. In Kenosha, if we do something bad, everybody’s going to know about it. So we have a truly vested interest in your vacation.
“Number two, I’ve got a staff of 14 travel agents that have been doing this a long time. So the amount of experience and knowledge is priceless. … The last thing I tell them is … travel is very fluid. Even the best-laid plans have issues. If something goes wrong, you know me. You know where to find me. You know how to get a hold of me. We’re going to be accountable.”
And, perhaps most importantly to Kenoshans, LaMacchia Travel is hugely invested in the community.
“The last thing I told the lady is, “Listen, I can guarantee you, we’re a part of this community,’” Karnes said. “We’re part of Southeast Wisconsin, primarily Kenosha. We spend our money here, we pay people here. I donate, I volunteer.
“Expedia does not give a dime to this town.”
Indeed, the Karnes name is synonymous with Kenosha. Tom’s father, Bob Karnes, taught at St. Joseph for 50 years. Part of the school’s Madrigrano Gymnasium, dubbed Karnes’ Corner, is named in honor of the elder Karnes, as are the school’s tennis courts, named the Bob Karnes Tennis Courts.
Tom and Monica’s three daughters all graduated from St. Joseph, too, and Tom is a member of the St. Joseph Athletic Association.
As you may assume, Tom and Monica Karnes do a lot of traveling. But they both come from Kenosha families, so it’s just spending time at home that, interestingly enough, is almost like their version of traveling away from work.
“What’s important to Monica and I is spending time at home, cooking and hanging out, and just entertaining friends,” Tom said. “That is really the most fun we have, is when we can cook together and have friends over and entertain.
“That’s fun for us.”