Nearly 50 years ago Chris Paulsen joined a travel industry where going overseas was for a privileged few.

Straight out of school in Christchurch he was an office junior at Air New Zealand, an airline run by engineers and ex-RNZAF officers catering for a government and business market.

The introduction of jets soon changed that and he worked his way into reservations, ticketing and sales.

''I was part of a new generation at Air New Zealand."

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But in 1977 at the age of 25, he quit to set up his own business with Maureen, his wife of four years.

The only asset awe had was a car (a Renault 8) so Maureen and I sold that and started a wholesale travel business in Christchurch

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Over the next 10 years they developed a business that dominated airline consolidation and wholesaling in the South Island.

But he could see beyond wholesaling and in 1986, sold it and started House of Travel.

"I could see the future of travel was focussing on the customer and creating a retail business instead of just being a wholesaler. I didn't think there were many operations that were passionate about the consumers."

After a decade of dealing with the travel agents he could see there were two business models in the market. The Thomas Cook-type big brand with disciplines and technology but lacking entrepreneurial skills and then there were franchise operators. Entrepreneurial owners who tended to lack sophistication around brand and technology.

"We wanted to put the best of those together where you have a business partnership where someone could bring marketing, branding technology to owner operators."

The first House of Travel store opened in Timaru in January 1987 and this year the firm celebrates 30 years and is on track for sales of $1.9 billion.

Unlike rival firms Flight Centre and helloword, whose Australian parent companies are publicly listed, House of Travel remains in private hands with each store being in a 50/50 voting rights partnership with the corporate entity.

House of Travel Holdings takes a share of profit, charges for information technology and other services and the stores contribute to a marketing pool.

While 1987 was a tough year as the impact of farming subsidy cuts was felt and the sharemarket collapsed, the firm thrived, says Paulsen.

A new store was opened every nine and a half weeks.

He got some good advice about farmers from the original Timaru agent, John Kemp.

''He told me, 'You've got understand that in bad times farmers travel - they need to get off the farm and they can't buy that new car or turn up with that new tractor. It's a bad look but they can disappear for a couple of weeks'. He was right, we did fine."

But travel is susceptible to global crises and one of the worst was the spread of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus in 2003.

When we got into the following year confidence and travel was in free fall. We worked out at the time we had 10 weeks before we would start to run into some real problems

To get people travelling again House of Travel senior managers came up with a package - $499 for eight days on the Gold Coast - which meant negotiating down hotel rates to $16 a night. They did and the market recovered.

The travel industry has also weathered terror attacks and New Zealanders are especially resilient, say Paulsen.

This is partly because the threat doesn't feel real in this country.

"It's not present in our day to day lives it seems a bit abstract."

During last year's attack on Istanbul's Ataturk Airport one of House of Travel's customers called his agent while hiding in a broom closet in the airport.

"It's amazing how robust he was through the experience. Kiwis are very practical and down to earth."

Top picks -travel agency bosses name their top holiday spots

David Libeau, general manager of marketing at helloworld

New York: Very easy city to get around, you can eat more cheaply than NZ. Lots to do that doesn't cost anything.

Vietnam: The food is exciting and cheap and the cultural experience is very diverse.

Anything east from Vienna: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia - beautiful countries still not fully westernised.

Dave Coombes, managing director of Flight Centre NZ
Hawaii: It went off the radar but it's back. It's accessible, there's no jet lag issues, you can explore the outer islands and great for kids.
Mexico, anywhere in the Caribbean and Cuba: It's a great combination of adventure in Cuba, getting to a market that has just opened up. Mexico and the Caribbean with five-star resorts.
Venice: I don't think there's anywhere else like it in the world.

Chris Paulsen, founder of House of Travel
Portugal: Portuguese and Kiwis get on incredibly well - they mainly speak English - it's a great place to visit and also edgy.
Vietnam: Completely different feel to Thailand and with ease of travel around the country easy to immerse yourself in local experiences.
Cuba: Fascinating country and incredibly safe.