Akron travel agency that survived the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression looks to overcome coronavirus

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AKRON, Ohio (WJW) – It’s no secret the coronavirus pandemic has nearly decimated the travel and tourism industry. International destinations are closed to Americans, air traffic is down to a fraction of what it once was, and cruise ships are under no sail orders.

While small businesses of all kinds in Northeast Ohio continue to hold on by a thread, one in particular has felt the weight of Americans stuck at home more acutely than others.

Chima Travel Agency in Fairlawn is a 102-year-old family-run business that survived the Spanish Flu epidemic and the last century. They’re now hoping to make it through COVID-19.

“2018 and 2019 were record breaking back to back years with Chima Travel and 2020 was on par to be another record breaking year,” said Brian Chima.

He’s the fourth generation in the family to be a part of the business.

Brian, 32, his dad, 65-year-old Lance Chima, and their cousin own and operate the travel agency with about 20 employees. They book about half and half business and leisure travel.

These days, instead of heading into the family’s office, Brian drives over to the house he grew up in in Copley and sits at the dining room table across from his dad.

“They have fast Wi-Fi and a refrigerator stocked with food and drinks. For me as a single guy that’s very important,” Brian laughs, adding that he and his dad probably joke around too much during the work day.

The family decided to work from home back in March. That was when everyone realized COVID-19 was here to stay, and the trip cancelations started rolling into the agency.

Brian is the Manager of Leisure Sales and hates to see any of his clients have to cancel, for their sake and his.

“When a client has to cancel it’s a shot to the heart. In 2019 I did have nine total travelers cancel,” he said.

Those nine travelers were out of about 500 total. In 2020 Brian has had 446 travelers cancel, and there’s a chance that number still goes up.

Lance, President of Chima Travel, says he’s a glass half full kind of guy.

“My son Brian and I are men of faith and we just kind of always looked beyond the present and pray about the future,” he said.

But he’s also realistic.

“If it goes for another year, we’ll probably be out of money, so we probably won’t make it unless there’s some other stimulus packages that come along,” Lance said.

In the four generations of the family business, Chima Travel has had four different locations in the Akron area, but never before have they had to close their doors to clients, work from home and decide as owners to not take a paycheck.

Brian says he remembers the moment when he and his dad realized the pandemic was creating a serious situation for their business.

“He said I just want our mission through this entire trial to be do the right thing, no matter what,” Brian recounted from their conversation.

Chima travel has not had to lay off any of its employees, although they have taken a 10% pay cut.

“I think travel has always been in my blood,” Brian says, although he admits he is worried about the future.

“What if the company crumbles while I am bring groomed to take over the family business?” he said.

But it seems challenges to family business also run in the Chima’s blood. Brian’s great grandfather started the business in 1918 and survived the last pandemic.

“He had to get through the Spanish Flu as well as World War I and the Great Depression,” Brian explained.

But the next generation didn’t have it any easier. Brian’s family and Chima Travel emerged from World War II, Korea and Vietnam and were still booking trips.

Then Lance had his own challenges.

“My father, third generation Chima, he’s had to navigate our agency through 9/11 and the 2008 recession here in the states,” Brian said.

Lance says he thought the effects of 9/11 on air travel would never be topped or repeated.

“It’s been such a wild year really with COVID-19 and just what we’ve been through, I used to think how awful 9/11 was and this by far has trumped 9/11,” he said.

When Brian joined the company, he wondered what hurdles he might face. This year he got his answer.

“Eight years later, hit with Covid, I could definitely say, this is my trial,” Brian said.

“The moment you try to control your trial you’re not going to get anywhere, but the moment you give it up and take it in faith, in prayer, we’ve seen really good outcomes,” Brian said.

When a coronavirus vaccine is available and people become more comfortable traveling again, the Chima family plans to be around for the flurry of business that will follow.

“There’s going to be so much pent up demand that it’s going to be gangbusters,” Lance said.

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