Jan Alford has ridden camels at the Egyptian pyramids, sailed around Cape Horn, been stuck in quicksand while on an African safari and brought toys to orphans in Cambodia. She’s been on all continents and traveled to more than 40 countries. And don’t get her started on the Hawaiian islanads or Disneyland — she knows them like the back of her hand.
In today’s Internet age, Alford is a rare breed — a travel agent. When Nevada County travel agencies began shutting their doors more than two decades ago, Alford was convinced there was still a market for top notch customer service — a need for someone who could help travelers plan complicated trips and research the best deals.
She says she was right.
Today, Alford, owner of Adventure Travels, Inc. in Grass Valley, says she is busier than ever. What her customers love about her most is her ability to remove the anxiety from planning itineraries, and it’s highly likely she can give you a first hand account of where you’re going.
“Jan has been everywhere,” said longtime customer Debbie Marshall. “If you go online to book a trip, all you see is pictures and words,” she said. “Jan has been all around the world. She answers your questions, arranges hotels and rental cars — everything a customer needs.”
When Alford was just 18 — having just graduated from Nevada Union High School — she landed an internship at a local travel agency, where she spent six months working for free. The payoff? She learned the ins and outs of the travel business, but she wasn’t impressed with the agency’s customer service.
“It was the 1980s — before the Internet — and the agency was extremely busy,” said Alford. “The service was really bad, they never called anyone back. I got yelled at by a lot of frustrated customers. They lost a lot of customers.”
It didn’t take long before Alford began thinking to herself, “I could do better. Just be nice to people — and by all means, call them back.”
In 1985, Alford opened the doors of Adventure Travel on East Main Street. By bizarre coincidence, the busiest travel agency in town — just up the street — abruptly closed the month Alford opened. Business was flourishing even before Alford hit her one year mark.
Nearly 30 years later, Alford still loves her job, as well as her co-worker and fellow travel agent, Lyn Sloan, who has worked with Alford for the past 13 years.
The most popular trips from Nevada County are Hawaii and Disneyland, and its very rare that someone can beat the Hawaii prices Alford and Sloan are able to find.
“I encourage people to do all the research they want before they come in,” she said. “But many are surprised that we can usually find it cheaper. I’ve never had a situation where a customer found a better deal.”
Customers love the face to face contact at Adventure Travel when planning trips, said Lake Wildwood resident Virginia Sanchez, because Alford and Sloan get to know your personality, and can help you plan a trip that fits your preferences. They can offer insights you simply can’t get online, Sanchez said.
“We travel a lot — at least one or two big trips a year,” said Sanchez. “Since Jan booked our trip to Africa years ago we’ve used her every time. We’ve been to South America, a river cruise in Europe, a cruise to Tahiti — Jan listens to what we want and takes the stress out of it.”
Alford says one key to her professional longevity is treating everyone the same, from the business traveler going to Burbank on Southwest to the newlyweds’ $20,000 safari in Tanzania.
And to the newlyweds, Alford offers her own brand of marital advice.
“Couples should always have a trip on the books, whether it’s a trip to Tahoe or Hawaii,” she said. “Always have something to be excited about, to look forward to. Get away, shake it all off. It reminds you of what’s truly important. I feel blessed to help people with that.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.