Brooke Lawer and her sister and brother-in-law Debbie and Andy Erbelding are the founding owners of the Mamaroneck-based travel service The Upper Class. But it is their more important titles that clue you in to what makes their travel company different. Brooke is granddaughter in charge of sales and marketing. Debbie is granddaughter in charge of customer service. And Andy is grandson in charge of operations.
That’s all thanks to their grandmother Florence Lawer, who inspired them to start their business. Florence moved to Westchester County from Long Island in 2000 after her husband, Sol, passed away. She was not one to sit around.
“She said, ‘I’m looking for things to do here. In Long Island there were tons of things to do,’” Brooke recalls.
In Westchester, however, Florence was having trouble connecting with people her age doing the things she loved. “We said, ‘No, no, grandma. You must be looking in the wrong places. We’ll find you things to do.” So proficient was the trio that Florence said, “You three should start a business.” Which is what they did in 2002 with two trips — to West Point and to Essex, Connecticut, a picturesque coastal community.
Florence died in April 2004, but her grandchildren in charge have gone on to chart more than 200 trips a year for the 55 and over set, or “the young at heart,” as Brooke calls them — daytrips to museums, Broadway shows, Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island; overnighters to the Berkshires, Amish country and the Gilded Age mansions of Newport; longer stays in Chicago, Maine, New Orleans, Nova Scotia and Quebec. When the seniors aren’t out on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire — one of the most popular journeys, along with the train ride and riverboat cruise to Essex — they’re listening to music at Tanglewood, the Berkshires summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; or savoring a dinner cruise on the Hudson River near the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge; or ringing in the new year at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.
“These are not your typical bus trips for seniors — going to the casinos,” Brooke says. “Seniors today are more active than ever before. They want to learn, to connect to interesting things. We’ll all be lucky to be doing these things again.”
And with that, Brooke acknowledges the 800-pound gorilla in the room — COVID-19.
“I think like everyone we didn’t know what this would mean,” she says. “We thought this would be a few weeks and everything would return to normal. Clearly, that’s not going to happen. It’s been a slow realization. Now we’re seeing the reality. What we’re trying to do is stay connected with our customers.”
With March, April, May and June offerings canceled, The Upper Class has launched its “Beyond the Bus” experience — “virtual events guests will enjoy, like 13 virtual train rides across the globe.”
In pivoting to create new kinds of experiences for their clients — separating the virtual wheat from the digital chaff — Brooke and her sister and brother-in-law are drawing strength from their customers who, while in some ways physically vulnerable, have lived long enough to acquire a good deal of wisdom about adversity.
“They want to get back out there when the time is right,” Brooke says. “They’re teaching us this, too, will pass.”
In the meantime, they all wanted to help. Inspired by its clients, The Upper Class has launched a social media campaign, #SeniorStrong, and a hospital giving program. With donations to such restaurants as Family Deli & Catering in Mamaroneck and Wellington’s Grill in Harrison, The Upper Class clients have provided health-care workers at White Plains Hospital with weeks worth of meals.
At the same time, The Upper Class remains forward-looking, with a full slate of trips for fall and the holidays, balancing reliable news and realistic expectations on the one hand with preparedness on the other.
“If the time is right, we’ll be ready,” she says. “We’re not going to rush.”
She always remembers what her grandmother said: “It’s not just where you go that’s important but what you meet along the way.”
For more, visit theupperclass.net or call 914-725-5640.