Vienna Travel Club Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Vienna Travel Club Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Shillelaghs Travel Club of Vienna celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a gala luncheon at The Westwood Country Club that was attended by more than 175 members, vendors and guests.

The atmosphere was “family reunion.” While there was plenty of catching up going on around the room, a majority of these folks stay in touch, and many still see each other regularly on one or more travel adventures or social events throughout the year.

Executive Director Carolyn McKenna explained that it all began when four Virginia businessmen decided to buy a plane. Licensed small-craft pilots, they wanted access to easy, long-weekend travel, and knew of a DC 7 4-engine prop plane being retired and offered for sale. Unfortunately, none of the owners could fly this type of craft. And they didn’t quite know how to make a 79-passenger plane financially viable. “So they said ‘Let’s start a travel club!,’” laughed McKenna. “And they did.” Shillelaghs was incorporated in 1964 under the name of Emerald Shillelagh Chowder and Marching Society. (You’ll have to ask McKenna more about that name choice). “If you can believe it,” she says, “they painted that name on the side of the plane…until they ran out of room!” As the first official travel club in the country, the founders of Shillelaghs started their organization basing their bylaws on those of swimming pool clubs, and eventually wound up assisting the FAA in writing the regulations to govern this new type of travel.

“Those were some crazy times,” McKenna reminisced. “In order to be on a flight, you had to be crew or member. The FAA made us all practice emergency drills. We even had to demonstrate a nighttime evacuation in front of FAA inspectors.”

THE CLUB started with short weekend and holiday trips, mainly to the Caribbean Islands and Mexico, then venturing farther afield into Central and South America, although McKenna’s first trip, that she took with her cousin in 1968, was to Toronto “for the amazing cost of $39,” she recalls. “I was hooked. Aside from the price and the ease of the travel, the other members were just so fun and welcoming. ”

For 22 years after its inception, Shillelaghs made good use of that plane, enough so that they were able to employ their own crew. “Captain Bob Hurt (a retired Naval Commander) was an absolute delight, as were the wonderful flight attendants,” said club Secretary Sandy Sincavitz. “Professional to the core, but lots of fun. One of our trips began with the wedding of the co-pilot and one of the attendants. They got married – and then it was ‘wheels up’ and on our way.”

McKenna became more and more involved with the club, including in the role of Trip Director on numerous outings – something she still does today. After years of working on various committees, McKenna eventually served as President. Then came the retirement of “Capt. Bob,” which coincided with the deregulation of the airline industry. Commercial flying became more affordable, and it was time to sell the planes and take the next step. In 1984, McKenna took the reins as Executive Director and was determined not to let the club fade away as long as there was interest.

“A lot of the travel clubs that had sprouted up afterwards didn’t make the transition well,” noted attendee Ruth Hill, a travel writer and long-time associate of the club. It is certainly a point of pride with the members that Shillelaghs was the first and now is the last surviving travel club.

And they have no plans to hang up their wings or store away their cruise ship outfits. There are more than 40 trips already on the books for 2015, from cruises to Alaska, the Amazon, the Rhine and the Danube, treks to China, Ireland, and Spain, with coach trips to Savannah, Kentucky and New Mexico thrown in for good measure. Working with travel partners, Shillelaghs will even arrange individual cruise or tour travel.

Although McKenna will be gradually stepping back from her Executive Director duties, she assures members that there are already plans in place to keep moving forward.

“We cater to an older group, of course. Especially since so many have been with us practically from day one, but there is something for everyone,” declared McKenna, “and our members now include a lot of the next generation.”

THE MEMBERS of Shillelaghs Travel Club have enough stories collected from their years of travel to fill several editions, but if you want to hear – and experience – more, best to go straight to the source. Their office is located at 100 East Street, SE, Suite 202 in Vienna. They can be reached at 703-242-2204 or via their website