Photo of Paula Hellstern’s group in Queestown, New Zealand
When she was in high school, Paula Hellstern participated in a program that gave her credit for working as a bank teller during school hours. That turned out to be beneficial when Hellstern found her chosen line of work as a cosmetologist not to be rewarding.
“The 1970s weren’t a good time for hairdressers,” said Hellstern, who changed careers and joined the banking industry, a move that opened the door for her life’s work, which has featured a variety of banking positions, including director of Get Away Tours at Bank of Turtle Lake in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin.
Creativity and a little mystery
Located in a community with just 1,000 people, the Bank of Turtle Lake was a pioneer 20 years ago when it started a travel group that was not so much a senior club but more a community reinvestment, according to Hellstern.
“Even then, we had no requirements for age or deposits to belong. Anyone in the community can join us, and I try to please every age group,” she said.
This down-to-earth director advertises her day trips and international excursions to her 400 members by way of a newsletter written on her computer, scripted as if she were writing to a family member.
“It’s certainly nothing fancy, but it does the job. I have the most fun writing about our three- and four-day mystery trips — our best-selling trips — as I give each a title and offer hints along the way as to the destination,” said Hellstern.
Those mystery trip themes have included “Europe Without a Passport,” where group members were surprised and thrilled with the variety of ethnic attractions in Omaha, Nebraska.
“We experienced 13 cultures in Omaha. We had the best time. I never thought I was going to get my group out of the German pavilion, where we sang songs, ate bratwurst and drank beer,” she said.
“Splish Splash, Taking a Bath,” another cleverly themed surprise for Get Away Tours that landed its motorcoach in Kohler, Wisconsin, the home of Kohler’s upscale kitchen and bath fixtures and faucets, was another mystery hit.
“The town offers so much, and after touring Kohler’s’ showroom, everyone wanted to go home and remodel their house,” said Hellstern, with a laugh.
While Get Away Tours takes an international trip only every other year, Hellstern claimed these exciting ventures are often memorable not only because of the scenery but because of the people.
“Ireland was out of this world,” she said. “It seemed we couldn’t fathom the beauty even when it was all before our eyes. And the hospitality we experienced, well, I can assure you I’ll go back there in my lifetime.”
Invaluable travel partner
Hellstern admitted that her training to become a bank travel leader involved little more than her “love to pull out a suitcase.” But it was her attention to detail from the very beginning that introduced her to the person she refers to, even 20 years later, as her travel partner.
“I was making calls, searching for a bus company, when one company owner out of Bloomer, Wisconsin, offered to stop by and have a chat,” said Hellstern.
“That man, Donald Geissler, continues to be not only my driver on all our big trips, but a trusted confidant and friend. We sit down every year, and he helps me plan trips with amazing ideas and even makes the hotel reservations.”
Geissler has also come to Hellstern’s assistance during those inevitable bumps in the road.
“He’s found a Walgreen’s at midnight in New York City after insulin was placed in a cooler and froze; he’s found a grocery store and helped pack picnic lunches after a booked luncheon at a restaurant fell through.
“He’s been such a gift to our group with his philosophy: ‘A successful trip is the satisfaction of the passengers.’ The group loves him, and I have so much to thank him for.”
Along with Geissler, Hellstern finds huge rewards in seeing group members experience memories of a lifetime. As she explained, a day trip to the Minnesota State Fair stands out.
“An older lady who had spent her life raising 10 children and whose husband had recently passed away decided to join us. Long before the trip, she called me many times. ‘How much money should I bring?’ ‘What do I wear?’ ‘Should I bring a purse?’ ‘Should I pack a lunch?’
“It was obvious she had never gone anywhere, and I did my best to not only answer her questions but alleviate her nervousness.
“But by the time the trip rolled around, I was worried about her. Turned out, she spent the entire day at a live television broadcast at the fair where she met all her favorite anchors, who fussed over her and gave her their autographs. She simply spent the day watching the broadcast, and she told me on the way home, ‘This has been the best day of my life!’
“It struck me that I had really done something good for this woman, and it touched my heart. We never know in our jobs how even the small gestures we make will affect others,” she said.
It all starts at the top
The Bank of Turtle Lake has been a family-run affair for 111 years, and one of these family men is not only the bank president but Hellstern’s boss of 31 years.
“Get Away Tours would not exist without Patrick Wick’s support and the support of all of management. Pat’s wife, Suzanne, is part of my group that chooses trips, and so she is part of the community’s voice that speaks to what our bank can do and where our travel group can go that will result in benefits to our community.
“I am also proud that they both regularly join our group on our travels and experience our success firsthand,” said Hellstern.
“Our management simply gets it. They get it that I can’t go to the grocery store and not have people ask me about a trip. Get Aways Tours is the best advertising for our bank, and besides that, it’s self-sufficient. The only thing the bank pays for is the use of the copy machine.”
Hellstern added that most importantly, the bank supports Get Away Tours for the same reason it started this community-based travel club 20 years ago.
“There is such joy and satisfaction in bringing joy and satisfaction to others. While our bank may benefit financially, having Get Away Tours is a priceless addition to what we offer.”