DiNardo delights in her own magnificent cake, brought in for the office to share.
Photo by Candace diCarlo
Staff assistant to the vice dean,
Wharton Undergraduate Division
Length of service:
Self-employed travel agent, cake baker and cruise vacation junkie
Theresa DiNardo becomes especially animated when talking about two things: describing a cruise and commenting on the travel industry. A veteran of 14 cruises, she has sailed the Intracoastal Waterway by river barge, been to London on the QE2 and cruised through the Panama Canal just to see how it operates.
The serious traveler supports her habit by working her off-hours from Penn as a part-time travel agent. But she has watched her profits plummet as airlines, in cutting costs, have cut into the commissions of the travel agents who sell their tickets. Nonetheless, she loves what she does, and has found a way to stay in the industry by keeping valued customers and operating out of her own home, which must smell delightful.
That's because she used spend a lot of time baking. When she has the time she still bakes cakes for special occasions and never misses the monthly office birthday celebrations.
Q. How did you get into the baking business?
A. John, my husband, has been here [at the University] since '68. He works in Facilities.
Well, they went on strike in the early '70s, and they weren't working during Christmas. A friend whose husband also worked here called me up and said, Can you bake? So we started selling homemade pies for $2 a piece so our kids could have gifts and so we could get by until the strike ended.
I did mainly holiday baking after that, hundreds of pounds a year - Italians love the big trays of cookies. I did cake decorating and had a friend's overflow business.
After I started back at Penn in '85 I was approached by a wedding baker. I changed my schedule around at Penn to accommodate the baking but it got to be too much. Still, I always bake cakes for the department. We used to do it for every birthday, but there are too many, so I switched to once a month.
Q. What brought you to Penn?
A. I'm from a Penn family. My father worked for Penn, my cousins and everyone else. At 17 I got my working papers so I could work here, back in '63. At the time there were just so many Simplones here. I first left when I had my daughter in '68.
Years later, I was training for a job doing physical therapy when I hurt my back, so I couldn't do a lot of active work. I could sit, though, and do computer work, so I came back here and decided to do office work a few days a week.
Q. Do you like juggling the work?
A. Leo Mullin [the CEO of Delta Airlines, who spoke recently at Wharton] said if you like what you do and you can get paid for it, it's good. I said I like what I do but I don't get paid enough - so I work two jobs.
Q. When did you start mixing the jobs?
A. When I started working for Penn 14 years ago and told them I wanted to be part-time. With the baking and the travel agency, I work nights, weekends and two days a week. With a messaging system I keep in touch with all my clients. I know them and they understand my schedule, so when they call, they are ready to book a trip.
Q. Why did you become a travel agent?
A. I like it because I like to travel. That's why.
I was booking trips for my boss and I said, I want to travel. My daughter began working for different airlines and I liked traveling through her. When she quit I joked, well, I've got to go to travel school if I want to keep this up.
Well, then I was in an agency one day and I started asking another customer all about what she wanted to do on her trip to Las Vegas: What type of hotel do you want to stay in? Do you want to walk a lot? What do you like to eat? The woman who ran the agency said, If you work here for free I'll train you.
I said no at first, but then changed my mind and started working there. At the time I took some travel courses also, but you learn so much better in a real environment than in the classroom. And I've always had a love of history and geography - you can't be in the industry without that.
Q. How did you end up booking tickets and trips on your own?
A. When the woman I first worked for went out of business, I went to work for another agency and worked into an outside sales position. When he closed up and sold, I opened up my own business instead of hopping someplace else. I love setting people's trips up, but you know there is no money in the business.
Q. So do you charge service fees to recoup the airlines' commission cuts?
A. No. Most of my clients are repeats and friends, or clients who have become friends over the years. I work out of my home and ticket through another agency so I don't have the storefront that other agencies have. It's a difficult time to pay off with the industry. Leo Mullin was at Wharton the other week and before his speech I was walking with him and he made me promise I wouldn't say anything in the forum about travel agents. Then in his speech he said the industry is wasting billions a year on travel agents! I felt an 'umphh' in my stomach. But I had promised him I wouldn't say anything, so I'll write him a letter.
Originally published on March 18, 1999