SB Travel Bureau: Seventy-Five Big Ones!

By James Buckley   |   March 7, 2023
Charles de L’Arbre and his wife, Barbara (on left), often accompany fellow travelers, such as these hearty folks during a recent Antarctic expedition

Santa Barbara Travel Bureau co-owners Charles and David de L’Arbre and his family left Brussels, Belgium, in May 1940 just ahead of an advancing German army. Charles’s father packed their things, filled the family Buick’s gas tank, threw another tank of gas in the trunk, and took off. Charles recalls that his grandmother was walking around with jewels sewn into her lingerie and a five-pound gold brick in her purse.

They made it to the south of France, where they had a home but still didn’t feel safe, so, in 1941, they fled to Portugal and eventually made it to the U.S., landing in Santa Barbara.

In 1947, their father launched the Santa Barbara Travel Bureau. The company’s main office has been at 1028 State St. ever since. They bought the building in 1982.

The following is a short interview with Charles de L’Arbre, edited for space considerations:

Santa Barbara Travel Bureau co-owner (along with his brother David) Charles de L’Arbre

Q. Congratulations on your company’s 75th anniversary. You’ve been with Santa Barbara Travel Bureau your entire life and have seen many alterations in the travel industry. How have things changed since, let’s say 1995, after the airlines decided to reduce and then completely cut travel agents’ commissions?

A. The biggest change is there were 70 travel agencies in the Santa Barbara area in, say, 1981. Ours was one of the oldest. Our business changed dramatically when the airlines went to zero commission. 

That probably knocked out maybe two-thirds of the businesses who were here. There are a few left. Robertson Travel is still around. Your Travel Center and AAA are still around. We’re still around, but that’s about it.

You had to re-adjust your entire business model, correct?

Yes. At one point we had seven offices, but once electronic ticketing came in, there was really no reason to have anybody. Sometimes, one person would be sitting there doing nothing for a week with no revenue.

We had to find a way of maximizing revenue. The big watershed was going to [a fee-based business]. Nobody traditionally had charged a fee. We started with a $5 fee. I had a guy call me one day and he was just outraged. He says, ‘I’ve been charged a $5 fee by Santa Barbara Travel, and I’ve never been charged a fee by an agency in my life.’ And I said, “Well, let me see what [your agent] did for you. I see that we were able to open up some low-cost seats by a program that we have, and we saved you $500 on your ticket. I see that we used the buying program to get discounts on the hotel you’re staying at in Berlin. We also have a buying program with Hertz, which saved you 20% on your car rental.”

So, you do the leg work and save people money?

Yes, we add value. We have programs with hotels, with tour companies, with cruise lines that, you know, add a shipboard credit, or add a resort credit, breakfast, early check-in, early checkout. We’re in all the preferred programs of the major hotel chains. Rosewood Four Seasons, Preferred Hotels, all the Starwood Marriott combined. Those things actually give us almost an automatic entree to whoever the sales manager is. 

But apart from the products, there’s the issue with airlines where we have a robust system that in a matter of seconds can ferret out fares that people may not be able to find [on their own]. We belong to an organization called Tour Connection as do many hotels around the country. So, we save a lot of time.

We’ve got a great group of people at Santa Barbara Travel Bureau; some have been with me for 35 years and have been in the travel industry even longer. We have hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge, institutional knowledge, and that’s important.

The other thing that’s changed is that we have a tremendous business that involves film, television, and travel for touring jazz musicians that started almost by accident 35 or 40 years ago.

How so?

My brother, David, was playing tennis with a guy who was moving up from Los Angeles and his production company did a lot of productions for Lifetime. And he wondered if we could handle logistics for some of those productions. [The first one we did for him] was a remake of South Pacific with Harry Connick Jr. and Glenn Close.

A few weeks later, we get a call from Harry’s assistant saying, ‘Gosh, you know, Harry thought you were great. Would you mind handling his personal travel?’

A couple months after that, we got a call from his manager. ‘Harry has some tours coming up, could we handle his tour travel?’ We started picking up other managers within the same firm, then other firms.

I’m not producing a concert or a TV series; I just want to go to Paris, stay in a nice place, and fly business or first-class. 

I will tell you that if you’re flying nonstop to Paris, I mean, your choices are pretty slender. There’ll be Air France out of L.A. But if you wanted to stop in Reykjavik, there’s Icelandair. Aer Lingus through Dublin, or Turkish Airlines…  

Charles had many more suggestions and ideas, too many for this article. He convinced me that using a travel agent can be invaluable; it is something I discovered myself during a two-month-long stay in Europe. Because of a situation resolved by my agent, I now think of a travel agent as an American connection. One that you may find will come in handy when problems – medical, financial, or just with scheduling – arise, as they often do.

Luckily, there are still a few travel agents who continue to work in the field. And, even luckier, one of them is Santa Barbara Travel Bureau, the grandfather of travel agents in this area.


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