Noel Irwin-Hentschel and Michael Fitzpatrick came to a meeting of the minds 40 years ago and along with $5,000 and skill sets that complimented one another—Noel, a natural marketer, and Michael, the inventive developer of product—created AmericanTours International, now the largest receptive tour operator in America.
As an L.A.-based airline group sales manager, Noel came to know the British-born Michael who came to the USA with a background in travel that included working with Swissair in London followed by five years in Bahrain opening a travel agency serving the Emir and ruling family. Michael then relocated to Beverly Hills where he worked in a travel agency. Both, then, had contacts in the celebrity-rich Los Angeles area where Noel ran for Congress as a Republican in Fairfax, a heavily Democratic district where she grew up and lost to a candidate who refused to debate her.
They saw the boom in demand coming. Fitzpatrick had seen how the late Sir Freddy Laker and his Laker Airlines, created in 1966, made travel an affordable purchase for a wide swath of the British population—not just the well-to-do. In 1977, Laker began offering low-fare flights to New York City from Gatwick. Soon, ATI was bringing groups from the UK, Germany and Holland.
Their first big group, Noel recalled, as an incentive group comprising 60 road-building contractors from Holland; they had a budget of $10,000 ($70,000 in 2017 dollars) per person to work with. The next group was different, made up of 200 workers who worked at a plant that manufactured Monroe shock absorbers. Their budget? $250 per person for a week. She said, “We learned that you have to provide the same strong customer service to every group regardless of budget.”
They were the first to connect tours with Hollywood. Michael pointed out that overseas travelers were greatly influenced by Hollywood movies and television programs. It didn’t take long to start naming tours built around programs such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” as well as movies such as “North by Northwest.” ATI was first to feature iconic landscapes made famous by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in their “Western Discovery” tour and to create one-of-a kind experiences as life on a real Navajo Reservation with actors posing as a U.S. Cavalry unit.
They helped define the U.S. industry’s response to 9-11. Their activities here were expansive. They ranged from having Minnesota’s governor, the voluble Jesse Ventura—a one-time pro wrestler—make appearances on television news and talk shows in which Noel prompted him to proclaim: “We’re not going to let the bastards grind us down” to devising a special £99 package, along with British Airways, to get skittish Britons back to the USA. (Virgin Atlantic thought the idea so worthy that they copied it—with a £98 fare).
While not advertised, their social conscience is part of what they are. A couple of unheralded examples: Noel arranged for all the family members of British military personnel killed in the Gulf War, including many by friendly fire, to come to the USA and see America on a cross-country “friendship and healing tour” that included a White House visit with President and Barbara Bush and the entire cabinet. ATI also sponsored cross-country tours for disadvantaged youth that included meetings with President.
The saintly connection. Noel developed a special relationship with the late Mother Teresa—now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta—whom she met at, of all places, a Young Presidents Organization (YPO) conference in 1988. Noel, who has been supporter of Missionaries of Charity ever since, said, “She inspired us to want to utilize ATI’s business successes to help others.”
They were first U.S receptive in China. Even before the Chinese government gave Approved Destination Status to the USA, ATI had opened an office in Beijing that became an unofficial Visit USA center and was instrumental in securing ADS in China, which helped the tourism industry in this important market.
Noel and Michael continue to spearhead ATI’s aggressive growth strategies; ATI has recently opened new offices in Shanghai and Orlando. One of Noel’s sons, Nick Hentschel, who’s been around the business his entire life, is Executive V.P. with responsibility for sales, product and technology will be implementing the new growth.
They innovate the industry Until ATI came along, group tours to the USA were pre-formed. ATI created the concept of tours to individuals and since inception conducts annual professional tour-guide training for their employees. They implemented the first “host to host” technology connections for FIT hotel inventory including the national parks. ATI brought the first leisure visitors to Alcatraz after it had been closed for years. And, perhaps most remarkably, has retained marquee clients including DER/ADAC, Thomas Cook, British Airways, Qantas Holidays for 40 years and TUI for 30.
And finally, it must be noted that many of those operating as senior management of receptive companies today—Jeff Karnes, Executive Vice President, New World Travel, Margaret Dieterman and Sam Zonni, partners in American Ring, and Jane Ross Mango, formerly of AlliedTpro, just to name a few, came into the industry through Americantours International.