New York Power Broker Trades in Power Suit for Beachwear

Sheryl Van Akens

Working in a Fortune 500 company, you are often married to your job and may have to make personal sacrifices. As a woman executive, there is an ongoing debate on whether or not it is possible to “have it all.” Read more about Sheryl Van Aken, a Dream Vacations franchise owner in Milton, Ga., who figured out the solution to this dilemma by trading in her power suit for beachwear when she left the boardroom and entered the travel industry as a franchise owner.  

Name:  Sheryl Van Aken

When did you open your Dream Vacations franchise?  July 2012

What was your prior career? I was a commercial insurance broker and the Assistant Vice President of Claims for Japan Client Services at Marsh & McLennan in New York. I worked with large Japanese corporations doing business in the U.S. My job was essentially to develop relationships with the customers and figure out what was in their best interest with respect to their individual insurance claims programs.  

Why did you decide to open a franchise? I was commuting to Manhattan every day from New Jersey and I could barely get home in time for daycare.  The logistics of the commute forced me to consider hiring a nanny. When I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I decided to quit and become a stay-at-home mom. Spending time with my kids when they were little was an important decision for me and my family. 

Two kids later and in early 2012, I was given the opportunity to return to corporate America.  I then had an epiphany about how I saw my life as a professional and a mother — I wanted to work, but also have the ability to do so from the baseball field. I wanted to go to PTA meetings and be the class mom. I realized that I needed a turn-key business that offered me the work/life balance that I envisioned.   

As a busy mom of four school-age children, I did not have the time to develop a business idea from scratch.  I wanted to open a business with a proven system, solid training, great branding and strong support. I knew franchising was the way to go and I decided to open a travel agency franchise because travel is a fun industry that also includes benefits for my family.   

What is one thing that surprised you about franchise ownership that your career in corporate America did not prepare you for?  I was not prepared for the level of emotion that comes when a customer books their vacations. Vacations mean a lot to my clients and it’s nice to get to know them and make their dreams come true.  It’s amazing to plan a joyful experience for people and it’s very rewarding.

In addition, part of me misses the social aspect of a corporate office, but the camaraderie of our Dream Vacations family fills that void.  

What skills from corporate America carried over?  Communication skills are the most important skills in business. A corporate environment often demands that you hone your written, verbal and technological communication skills. Corporate experience offers the opportunity to give presentations and network, both of which are very useful as a travel agent.  Anyone with corporate customer service experience has an advantage as a travel agency owner. I am very comfortable presenting myself in a professional manner and customers respect that and respond favorably to it.

My observation of my fellow franchisees is that they are generally self-starters and very motivated people. I know the value of a proven system and I embrace the structure offered to me.  My past work life makes it very natural for me to advocate for the customer and to anticipate their needs so they don’t have to ask for everything. In my past career I made each client feel like they were my most important, and only, customer and I still take that approach to this day as a travel agent.  

What advice do you have for somebody opening a franchise?  Immerse yourself in the training that is offered – from your franchisor (such as Dream Vacations) and their suppliers (such as cruise lines).  Do some accounting and bookkeeping each week and outsource those tasks that are not in your wheelhouse. Be a good listener. You might have fantastic, new ideas (and that’s amazing), but be open to hearing what people who have been in the business have to say.  

What is the best part about being a Dream Vacations Franchise Owner?   My Dream Vacations business gives me the flexibility and work/life balance that I want.  Plus, my kids think my business is super cool.

What is your Dream Vacation?  My Dream Vacation is to take a very long cruise with my husband.  It almost doesn’t matter where we go because we love the ships so much and enjoy our time together.  Our kids are getting older and we are looking forward to enjoying a 30+ day cruise in our future.

Dream Vacations seeks individuals who are passionate about travel, helping others and are eager to go into business for themselves, but not by themselves. For more information on going from the C-Suite to the Sea-Suite, please visit or call 888-249-8235.