When Crystal Dyer opened Gone Again Travel & Tours in a storefront in Austin in 2016, she was doing more than establishing a brick-and-mortar business. The site was just four blocks from where her grandson had been killed, and in moving her operations there she was seeking to bring some hope and opportunity to the neighborhood.
“It was devastating,” Dyer says of the murder of her grandson Devin, who was slain in 2011, just five days after he turned 18, when a gunman shot up a party he was attending. “I kept thinking ‘What can I do?’ ”
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A south-side native, Dyer, who’s 62, started Gone Again in 1999 as a side hustle while working as a project manager for AT&T. After a colleague got annoyed at her (often unsolicited) travel advice and sarcastically told her to open her own agency, Dyer did just that after completing the travel certification program at Harper College in Palatine. She started by selling tour packages and airline tickets to friends and colleagues, and after retiring from AT&T in 2004, moved on to Delta Airlines and worked a number of other gigs in the travel industry.
Dyer’s family is from Georgia, and at her request she’d been transferred down to Atlanta to be closer to them, but after Devin’s death, she returned to Austin “with a burning desire to help my family and Austin youth,” she says on her website. “I wanted to show the kids—and the adults—that all you got to have is a dream and put in the work, and you can have whatever you want,” she explains.
In 2015 she founded the nonprofit Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures to mentor students. “I thought, you know, I want to start a nonprofit so I can get kids out of the community and at least show them that there are other options in the world—other careers that they don’t normally learn about in school,” she says. Through it she takes youth on adventures around Chicago, such as fishing trips to local parks and excursions like the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise.
Though a for-profit endeavor, Gone Again, which is located at 5940 W. Chicago, is also a form of giving back to the community. Dyer’s hired a full-time employee, and she’s helped more than 1,000 clients, three-quarters of them from the Austin area, with their travel plans. She donates 10 percent of the agency’s profits to her nonprofit. She also works with a program at Cook County Juvenile Detention, helping homeless youth find foster homes—”No food, no home equal criminal acts,” she says. Since 2016 she’s also served as an executive board member for the West Garfield Park-based Fathers Who Care, a community organization that seeks to put an end to poverty, drug abuse, and violence. And last year she became chair of state rep LaShawn K. Ford’s tourism committee.
Why do clients come to her when they could book travel accommodations online? Customer service, for one. Where online travel booking platforms typically outsource their operations if they offer them at all, Dyer is there for customers if things go wrong. Plus, she says, she’s an expert at finding deals that will save you hundreds of dollars—or at the very least save you all the time it takes to find the best option for you.
“I’m going to give you affordable luxury,” Dyer says. “I tell my clients, ‘I’m a wizard. I can wave my wand and make all your dreams come true.'”
Dyer has many recommendations for travel closer to home. Here are some of her favorite spots in the midwest.
Michigan City, IN, and vicinity
Dyer says she enjoys the ambience of Michigan City’s “quaint” downtown area. Travelers can take their pick of one of the city’s multiple hotels, gamble at local casinos, and have fun at the beaches along Lake Michigan. The Hampton Inn & Suites is Dyer’s go-to hotel, but for a change of pace she recommends the Lakeside Cabins Resort, just north of Michigan City in Three Oaks, Michigan. History buffs may enjoy visiting Underground Railroad sites in the area, including the site of the 1836 home of Dr. Henry D. Palmer, Michigan City’s first physician, who aided slaves on their escapes to Michigan and Canada. (The house is now a private residence closed to the public.)
Milwaukee is a fun place to travel because of the city’s overall embrace of diversity, Dyer says. That diversity shines through at the city’s wide-ranging parades and festivals, which include PrideFest (6/7-6/10) and Juneteenth Day (6/19), which celebrates the end of slavery. For travelers with an interest in black history, there’s America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which after closing in 2008 is scheduled to reopen this fall with exhibits on lynching and the slave trade. Of course, you can’t go to Wisconsin and not try any cheese. Dyer recommends starting with the Clock Shadow Creamery, a self-described urban cheese factory.
Saint Charles, IL
The 250-acre Pheasant Run Resort in Saint Charles, Illinois, is a good spot for family trips, group trips, and “girlfriend getaways,” Dyer says, offering swimming pools, a spa, an 18-hole golf course, and “amazing” food (there are six restaurants on-site). If you want to explore the locale, Dyer recommends taking a boat ride on the Fox River or visiting the eye-popping BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple in nearby Bartlett. “It’s truly a walk through culture,” Dyer says of the Hindu temple. “They have these beautiful grounds outside where they have fountains. You can go there in the summer and just walk around and relax.” v