it's because Nancy Dunn regularly travels the world
that she finds so much to appreciate right in her own
By Jerry Blackwelder
Growing up on a tobacco farm in
rural eastern North Carolina near Rose Hill taught Nancy
Dunn two valuable life lessons. First, farm life
convinced her that she did not want a career that left
her covered with tar and dirt from head to foot at
the end of a long, hard day. Foremost, she
developed an appreciation and tolerance for hard work;
she firmly believes that everyone should at some time in
their working life experience manual labor.
It's not that manual
labor is the only form of hard work, but it strengthens
you in a way that you don't feel fragile when you really
do have to work hard at your job says the president
and founder of Aladdin Travel and Meeting Planners.
It was inconceivable for
that farm child to imagine that one day a major
interstate highway would pass through Rose Hill. It was
just as inconceivable that she would head one of the
state's largest and most successful travel agencies, one
that sends corporate and leisure travelers to the far
reaches of the globe strange and exotic locales
that she also has been able to visit.
Dunn prepared herself by
majoring in International Studies at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill and landing a job as a
At 22, I couldn't
believe that somebody would actually pay me to travel and
talk about travel, she recalls now. I was so
enthralled with travel that I couldn't even imagine
making a living doing it and selling it because it seemed
like way too much fun.
A few months into the job
she was dispatched to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to arrange a
meeting for clients. Being that far away from home for
the first time, I thought I had died and gone to
heaven, she remembers, and her first international
experience hooked her on a never-ending journey of
Just two years into her
career and with the arrogance of youth in her
favor, Dunn left the job to form Aladdin. Now she looks
at her oldest daughter, 24-year-old Catherine, and
thinks, Gosh, that's awfully young. Then she
thinks of herself at the same age and the drive that got
Aladdin to where it is today accountable for $35
million in annual billings and the provider of 60 jobs in
Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Atlanta.
began small. Travel was, after all, much more difficult in the 1970s that was long before
budget airlines had carved a niche and business travelers
felt the need to get there yesterday. Still, Dunn found
the Winston-Salem area hungry for another travel agency.
Her early exposure to hard work and long days came in
handy and her business quickly took off as she focused on
marketing leisure travel for families and groups.
Today's travel industry
bears only a slight resemblance to the way the business
was conducted three decades ago, and that brings a smile
to Dunn's face as she remembers the early days.
When I first got
into this business, she says, we looked up
air schedules in one book, international domestic fares
in another book, and the government only allowed air
fares to change twice a year, which we thought was way
too confusing and complex to manage.
Two almost simultaneous
developments of the 1980s resulted in a revolution in the
way the travel business operated the federal
de-regulation of the airline industry and the
computerization of the reservations system.
The new structure and
technology led Dunn to pursue corporate travel more
aggressively. With only a small staff, fulfilling
corporate needs had been virtually off limits prior to
that time because of last-minute and often changing
requests for travel arrangements.
is really something that only when you have the speed of
the computer can you do it quickly enough, she
The travel industry soon
jumped on the technology bandwagon, and today is one of
the most automated businesses in the nation.
Aladdin has had some
growing pains. Dunn recalls preparing for a corporate
meeting for the largest group she had ever served.
Organizers had told her to expect up to 2,400 attendees,
a staggering challenge. The guest list eventually
exploded to 3,700.
It was the only time
in my life that I've pulled an all-nighter at the
office, she chuckles. The overtime produced a
successful meeting, the client was happy, and it was
a defining moment in Aladdin's growth, Dunn
With a growing company,
Dunn discovered that part of being a successful young
entrepreneur included an almost obsessive need to
be the best you can be and get all the business you
The hard work and
perseverance paid off as Aladdin flourished, evolving
into one of the top travel agencies in the country in
terms of volume. Wachovia Bank became a valued corporate
client, with Aladdin establishing in-house offices for
the bank in its Winston-Salem and Atlanta corporate
headquarters. Acquisitions in the past few years also
accounted for significant growth as the company bought
Winston-Salem's North Point Travel to use as a second
office in the Twin City and then purchased Greensboro
Travel, providing a substantial presence in the Gate
Buying out another travel
agency, Dunn found, encompassed much more than purchasing
desks and computers.
What you're really
buying, she says, is the right to recruit the
agency's employees. That's really the key, because those
people who deliver the service are the ones who make the
She compares an
acquisition to adding a new sales person who was
suddenly enormously successful and brought in a number of
new accounts at the same time. To make the marriage
succeed, you have to work hard at keeping both the
employees and the accounts happy or you've bought
nothing, she says.
While women who served as
corporate chiefs were scarce in the business world during
Aladdin's formative years, Dunn found her gender to be an
advantage. There were any number of doors that I've
had held open for me that males would have a tough time
getting through, she admits.
Today, it concerns Dunn
when she hears about women who believe they have to
turn themselves into a man in order to function well in
the business world, since she found the opposite to
be true. She maintains that in today's business climate,
gender isn't a factor.
I'm in the
relationship business. When you are forming relationships
you are focused on getting to know a person, recognizing
their needs and meeting those needs as opposed to
thinking about extraneous issues like male or female. It
just doesn't make any difference.
Nevertheless, she is noted
for pioneering female leadership of many civic and
community groups. Among her accomplishments was being
handed the gavel by John Davis as the first woman
president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.
Gayle Anderson of the
chamber, who has known and worked with Dunn for many
years and describes her as a sounding board for ideas,
says Dunn's contributions are especially significant
because of the nature of her business. Taking time
away from running a service business is particularly
difficult and she's done it not only for the chamber but
for many other area groups, Anderson says.
Likewise, Dr. Thomas
Hearn, president of Wake Forest University, praises Dunn
for her civic achievements.
One of the things
that strikes anyone looking at Nancy Dunn is how
widespread her civic involvement has been, Hearn
says. She has served in a wide variety of
capacities and organizations and has sustained her
involvement over a long period of time.
Hearn adds that Dunn's
footprints are all over this town because of
her extraordinary commitment to civic
stewardship. Nor are those footprints likely to
fade anytime soon. Dunn was elected to the NCCBI Board of
Directors one year ago this month, and is frequently
approached by other organizations looking for her
That Dunn is a people
person is obvious to anyone who knows her. And she is
quick to point out that relationships within her company
are just as important as those with the agency's clients.
She describes Aladdin's
employees as my internal clients, and
believes that, My job is to support them, which is
as important for me as supporting my external clients. If
I'm doing a good job with those internal clients, the
external clients are going to be as happy as they can
As a means toward that
end, as well as a way to enrich her own life, Dunn
discovered a valuable tool in a psychological/spiritual
mechanism known as the enneagram. Not unlike the Myers
Briggs method of identifying personality traits and
characteristics, the enneagram classifies individuals
into nine different categories.
Dunn admits she is
quite passionate about the program, with its
main benefit being that it helps you get to know
yourself better and in so doing understand and accept the
differences among people.
I think it is very
difficult for us to make real changes in our own behavior
unless we see very clearly what that behavior is, and see
that it's not getting the responses that we want,
The enneagram system
de-personalizes the negative aspects of one's
personality, she says, helping those who study it
to realize that unpleasant interactions with others may
not be the result of one's own actions but rather the
internal character traits of the other individual.
She has put the system to
work in her personal, civic and business life. While
chairing the Novant Health Systems Triad Region Board,
Dunn helped us focus on relationships and kept us
communicating on a regular and honest basis, says
Greg Beier, president of Novant's Triad Region. She
always stresses good communications, and has been
particularly helpful to us in managing the diversity on
our board, making sure we get all aspects of an issue on
the table and making sure everybody participates.
So sold is Dunn on the
enneagram that she recently made a three-hour
presentation to her agency team leaders so they too could
reap the benefits from it. She took a chance as well,
promising her managers ahead of time that it would be the
only occasion in which they would be required to be
exposed to a tool she found extremely valuable. I
was really pleased at the reaction of folks who instantly
gained insight into themselves and others that has
already made a difference in how they react to
others, she says.
Dunn's formula for success
has worked both for herself and for Aladdin. To keep the
agency's growth going, she meets periodically with CEOs
and high-ranking officials of other large non-competitive
travel agencies across the country to share and
brainstorm new ideas.
To stay on top of one's
game in such a competitive arena is a constant battle,
with new technology coming on line often. Many view the
Internet as a competing force, as web-savvy travelers can
now research and book their own travel arrangements with
a few clicks of a mouse.
But rather than view the
Internet as a threat, Dunn sees it as a tremendous
research tool for both her and her clients. I'm not
concerned at all as long as we remain in the relationship
business, she explains. We even give our
clients the option of booking their own travel online.
We're here to help them manage technology
One aspect of Internet
travel planning that she feels has been slow to emerge is
virtual reality. For instance, she often goes online
looking for sites for hotels' computerized brochures and
is disappointed in what she finds, expecting that they
would be more interactive and allow surfers to take a
Another area of electronic
travel planning that Dunn feels has lagged is an
airline's e-ticket, which goes smoothly when
all the stars are aligned. But in the event of delays or
flight cancellations that might require a change in
carriers, trouble often ensues, she says, because some
airlines do not recognize e-tickets issued by
Despite her longtime
success in the industry, Dunn has no current plans to
expand her corporate and leisure travel base outside the
We're not interested
in becoming another American Express, she says,
adding that Aladdin instead will focus on providing
the best possible service to people planning
vacations and meetings, groups traveling together and
businesses right here in the Triad.
Having said that, in the
next sentence she is quick to add that if the right deal
presents itself for expansion to other North Carolina
locations, she would be foolish not to listen.
With all the demands on
her time from her company and civic commitments, it's
hard to imagine Dunn with much free time. But to prove
she has her priorities in perspective, she describes her
daughters, both of whom live in Raleigh, as the
lights of my life and enjoys a close relationship
with both. She beams when she describes the
accomplishments of Catherine, who was involved in Gov.
Mike Easley's successful run to the governor's office. At
the same age as Dunn when she started the business, her
daughter is bringing to me things that she has
accomplished rather than operating in my shadow,
And with both children
away from the nest, Dunn, who divorced 10 years ago,
finds herself accepting invitations to visit exciting
ports of call around the globe. Picking a favorite
destination is difficult.
With the disclaimer that
her favorite vacation spots change with age and where she
has visited recently, she says that I've been to
Italy three times in the last 18 months, and I'd have to
say Rome has just moved up to at least equal with Israel
and the Middle East in her current standings of
She's also anxious to
explore regions of the world that she has never visited,
such as the South Pacific and the African continent
beyond Egypt and Morocco.
Chances are good those
opportunities will present themselves down the road.
Chances are equally good that no matter the distance that
she travels, her heart won't stray too far from Rose Hill
and the life lessons that she learned those many years
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