Illinois Programs

50 Years: Phil Wendel – WorldStrides’ Founder on WorldStrides’ Fiftieth

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WorldStrides is celebrating 50 years as the leader in student travel by sharing the stories that have shaped our company’s past and will propel us into the future. Throughout the year, we will highlight stories from our history, many of the people who have made us what we are today, and some of the special ways travelers have been impacted by their experiences in our blog series, 50 Years of WorldStrides Stories.

Phil Wendel

When Phil Wendel left teaching 50 years ago to try his hand at the nascent business of educational travel, he truly had no idea what his idea would build. At the time, he was a young middle school social studies teacher and basketball coach outside Chicago, Illinois, who’d recently enjoyed traveling with his students to the nation’s capital. He had a young daughter and wife, and decided to take the plunge and begin offering teacher-led tours to Washington, D.C., for students. He called the company Lakeland Tours.

“I started calling fellow coaches. We’d meet for a drink after work. That was my shtick,” he says, of recruiting the first program leaders for trips. The company grew slowly, as more and more teachers in his region began offering students the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. “In the early years,” he remembers, “I did everything. The only thing I never did was book air travel.” He added an assistant to the payroll, and then a couple of salespeople. By 1979, they were a team of 15.

In the days before computers, Wendel says the company record keeping wasn’t advanced enough to truly know how much business they were doing. One day, he sat down and added it up and realized his little staff was now making travel possible for more than 30,000 students each year from states all over the nation.

Around that same time, Illinois had two brutal winters in a row and Wendel decided he’d had it. He decided to move the company closer to D.C., to Charlottesville, Virginia. 12 of 15 staffers made the move with him, and the growth continued through the 80s and 90s. By 1998, Wendel had turned Lakeland Tours into a well-oiled machine for East Coast History travel, and began exploring his next move.

Today, he watches the growth of WorldStrides with pride from offices just up the street in downtown Charlottesville. Wendel now owns a successful group of fitness centers in Virginia – and relishes the opportunity to impact lives in yet another way. “My bent is entrepreneurial,” he says.

“WorldStrides is 10 times larger since I left, and that’s a tremendous credit to the management team,” he notes. The organization changed its name from Lakeland to WorldStrides shortly after his departure, and set its sights on expanding into markets around the world. Through a combination of strategic mergers and organic growth, the company has grown to offer travel in more than 100 countries around the world, to students of all ages.

Wendel says he still enjoys striking up a conversation with a stranger on an airplane or on vacation and inquiring about where they went to school. He still remembers the names of middle schools around the nation and often asks if his new acquaintance remembers traveling to D.C., or the East Coast, on a civics trip. “Almost everywhere I go, I can run into an alumnus,” he says, with pride. “It’s as relevant – or more so – today!”

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