DeKalb-based tourism business travels through 50 years of family legacy

Larry Berke (from left), Kendra Thornton and Kay Berke are pictured during the 50th anniversary party for Royal Travel and Tours on Oct. 6, 2022, at Whiskey Acres Distillery in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Larry and Kay Berke met while ice skating on a lagoon in DeKalb County when they were 12. Now, 68 years later, they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of their travel agency, Royal Travel and Tours.

The Berkes, both 80, have since retired and passed the company on to their daughter, Kendra Thornton, 48. She has owned and operated the business that has offices in Winnetka and at 122 N. First St., Unit C, in downtown DeKalb for the past six years.

The family celebrated the 50-year milestone with a gathering Oct. 6 at Whiskey Acres Distillery in DeKalb.

“In the early ’70s, we wanted to get a business of our own, and we kicked a lot of different ideas around,” Larry Berke said. “And this was one that sort of appealed to us. [Kay had] done considerably more traveling than I had, but that was the start.”

Thornton was born after the Berkes opened their first office in downtown Sycamore in November 1972, Kay said. Perhaps it was a calling their daughter was born into.

“She as a baby spent many times on a blanket under my desk on the floor,” Kay Berke said. “She was raised in the travel industry.”

As a young girl, Thornton – who lives in Winnetka with her husband and three children – said she would pretend to have her own travel agency in her bedroom, complete with her own typewriter and pretend airline tickets.

Larry Berke looks on as Kay Berke shows book filled with family photos.

Thornton, a Northwestern University alumna, purchased Royal Travel from her parents in 2016, a few years after Larry and Kay propositioned Thornton and her brothers, Jeff Berke and Andrew Berke.

“All three of them have worked in the business,” Larry Berke said. “And about seven, eight years ago we were all together as a family and I said, ‘Well, you know, mom and dad are getting up in age, if any of you are interested, let us know. We gotta start thinking about what we’re going to do.’ ”

The business didn’t have any takers initially, however.

Kay said her sons were doing their own thing, and Thornton was busy creating a name for herself in the travel industry. At one point, Thornton left the family business to go work for Chicago-based Orbitz, a direct competitor.

“She said the hardest thing she ever did was call her father – that’s just when online travel agencies were coming in to be – she had to call her father and say, ‘Dad, I’ve taken a job with Orbitz,’” Kay Berke said.

Despite the competition, the Berkes said they were happy about their daughter’s job.

Thornton spent four years as the corporate communications director at Orbitz, making a name for herself before opening her own travel and lifestyle-centered public relations company.

Thornton regularly offers travel advice on WGN-TV in Chicago and also has provided expert commentary to MSNBC, Fox News and other cable news networks. In 2019, she was named to Travel + Leisure magazine’s A-List. She’s also a member of the magazine’s advisory board and the British Virgin Islands Travel’s advisory board.

Despite all of these career milestones, Thornton said it wasn’t until 2013, when her dad asked her to come back to work for the family business, that she began to consider the next step.

She said she pondered taking over Royal Travel and Tours and what it could mean for the business to evolve into a second-generation endeavor.

“I realized in that moment that everything I had done in my career was leading me toward becoming a second-generation owner of Royal Travel,” Thornton said. “It has been such a gift to own and grow this legacy family business.”

Since Thornton took over, Royal Travel’s revenue has gone up to $13 million, an increase of 500%, according to a news release from the business. The company also was named a Top Travel Specialist for 2021 by luxury lifestyle magazine Condé Nast Traveler. Thornton said that accolade “reconfirms that Royal Travel has some of the best travel adviser talent in the industry.”

At one time, Royal Travel had 11 offices spread out across northern and central Illinois, including some in downtown Chicago. The company now employees 12 people from across the country who work from home.

Thornton, who’s visited 69 countries on six continents, said the average person can benefit from using a travel agency such as Royal Travel. That’s because the company is composed of professional travel planners who can customize an itinerary for each client.

“We know how much people deserve an amazing vacation, especially coming out of the pandemic,” Thornton said. “We partner with our clients in creating custom travel experiences for anywhere in the world – a relaxing beach getaway in Mexico or the Caribbean, a bucket list trip to Europe or Africa, a couple’s honeymoon in Hawaii or the Maldives – you name it, we can help.”

Thornton said it’s an incredible honor to carry on the family business, especially considering her parents started the travel agency “with nothing but a dream and a loan from the bank.”

“The fact that 50 years later our company is still fulfilling travel dreams for local DeKalb residents and leisure travelers from all over the country gives me great pride,” Thornton said.

Larry Berke sits in his living room in a city of DeKalb apartment.
Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby covers DeKalb County news for the Daily Chronicle.