When Maryles Casto was a child in the Philippines, her father would take her flying in his Piper and tell her to look for a hole in the clouds, where they would find smooth air for some fun maneuvers.
Years later, after immigrating to California, she found another hole in the clouds and soared through to become a pioneer in the field of Silicon Valley business travel as the founder of Casto Travel in San Jose.
Now she has released a memoir, “A Hole in the Clouds: From Flight Attendant to Silicon Valley CEO” (Silicon Valley Press), in which she tells her entrepreneurial success story from both the 30,000-foot and ground levels. It’s a book peppered with advice, humor and the names of towering Silicon Valley figures like Robert Noyce, Andy Grove, Gordon Moore, Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs. (That last fellow? She once hung up the phone on him – and still kept his business.)
At its height, the agency she ran for 45 years, with son Marc joining her for many of them, was booking $ 200 million worth of travel per year. In 2019, she sold most of the company but retained Casto Travel Philippines. And she recently founded and also chairs MVC Solutions, a travel industry services firm.
With so many people eager to take to the skies again, we’re tapping into her expertise and chatting with her about what she sees as the future of business travel in this virtual world. But her journey’s been so interesting that we had to start at the beginning for some management insight:
Q. What kind of work experience did you bring to the travel agent industry?
A. I became a flight attendant with Philippines Airlines in 1959. At that time, it was the only career option available for young women in the Philippines. One of my first flights was on a DC-3 to the Zamboanga Peninsula on the island of Mindanao. Two tribal warriors in full regalia boarded with their swords and sternly refused to part with them. I went to the pilot to explain the situation and was told the swords are a sign of authority, and the warriors would not hand them over despite regulations. I worked the whole flight with my eyes glued on them, fascinated. Since then, studying clients, understanding their backgrounds and making clients satisfied have been my biggest joy.
Q. How did you make your first big Silicon Valley client connection?
A. The single most important piece of knowledge that I picked up during my apprenticeships at travel agencies is that your real client is not the boss taking the trip but the executive secretary with corporate accounts. When you perform well, they look good, and you earn their trust for future travel reservations.
My big break was when Andy Grove at Intel experienced a travel problem. He could not believe “Maryles made a stupid mistake like that!” However, I did not book his reservation; I was no longer at the agency that did. When Andy learned that I no longer worked at the agency, he told his admin to find me. The trust was established. From then on, Sue, Andy’s admin, and I worked for years for the man who would be known as the most intimidating person in Silicon Valley.
Q. What technological travel-planning and booking advances did you introduce at Casto Travel?
A. We were never frightened of the internet or feared it would replace travel agents. Instead, we recognized the internet was here to stay and embraced it. Our first start was creating a website for a Silicon Graphics event. This was an “aha” moment that catapulted us into the World Wide Web industry.
Q. You’ve booked travel for lots of demanding Silicon Valley leaders. Can you share some more advice?
A. One miserable day, as I walked past endless, nearly identical concrete tilt-up office buildings, one of my heels suddenly snapped off. I glanced over at the office building beside me. A man sitting in the corner office was looking at me, his expression a mix of amusement and curiosity. I did not recognize him, but I thought, this is the first actual executive I’ve encountered in days. I decided to go in.
It was Ken Oshman, the O in ROLM, the name that would soon be stamped on office phone systems across the globe. Ken was very gracious to me. I did not get the account – at least not then – but ROLM hired me to manage the travel for one of their corporate retreats a few years later. Lesson: The solution to broken heels is simply removing them and walking barefoot inside the lobby with an attitude of possibility.
Q. The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to most business travel for two years. What kind of a comeback do you see for this travel sector?
A. The comeback is here. Corporate clients have returned to travel. Recent data suggests we are on track to compete with pre-pandemic numbers. Vacation travel was the first to return, quickly followed by business, and soon on the horizon, events and meetings. Virtual meetings are here to stay, although face-to-face meetings’ impact and success exceed the cost savings of video conferencing.
Q. What are the advantages of face-to-face meetings vs. virtual conferences?
A. Travel and virtual meetings do not need to compete. This has been shown since video calls first blasted on the scene after the dot.com bust, after 9/11, after the recession of 2008 and now the global pandemic. The desire to explore the world, meet people in person and deepen business relationships has not faltered. The buzz felt in a roomful of people is irreplaceable.
Q. We’re in the era of the Great Resignation. From your decades of experience, what can managers do to retain valuable employees?
A. When you’re doing what you love, it does not feel like work; it feels like passion. From the beginning, the secret to our company’s success has always been the people of Casto Travel and their commitment to clients, their willingness to go the extra mile. I invested in the development of our team, their job skills and their personal growth. I respected them as professionals, giving them leeway to use their natural talents and creativity to service clients. Then I got out of their way.
Title: Chairman & CEO of MVC Solutions and Casto Travel Philippines
Residence: California and Massachusetts
Education: Women’s University, Philippines
Family: Son Marc, wife Julie and granddaughters Elenora and Abigail, who live in Boxford, Mass .; sister Antonia and nieces Miel and Ella, all in the South Bay.
FIVE THINGS ABOUT MARYLES CASTO
- My favorite airport in the world is Dubai International. It’s well laid out with palm-lined walkways.
- In our Catholic family, all girls needed Mary as a first name. The oldest sister was named Maria Antonia (nicknamed Marichu), the second sister Maria Elena (nicknamed Marilen) and I was named Maria Angeles (Mariles for short). When I arrived in America I found that people had a hard time pronouncing Mariles, so I changed it to Maryles.
- I love to cook, and I have 50 cookbooks I can not part with.
- Dominoes, which I learned from my father, is my favorite game.
- I am taking guitar lessons so I can play with my granddaughter, Ele. My repertoire of three – “Tom Dooley,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “This Land Is Your Land” – is growing.