WILLMAR — Betty Marthaler doesn’t let moss grow under her feet.
As coordinator for the “Good Neighbor Club” at Lake Region Bank for nearly three decades, Marthaler has led tours to Africa, Italy, Cuba, Japan, Germany, Peru, Switzerland, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Peru, Vietnam, Cambodia — to name just a few of the countries she’s visited while leading about 100 international trips.
She’s organized at least 70 cruises, including trips to the Caribbean, riverboat trips on the Rhine River in Europe and the Snake and Columbia rivers on the West Coast.
She’s taken club members to New York City to see Broadway plays, and to Nashville and Branson to listen to country music.
They’ve seen the horses run the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, seen the polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, been to Alaska nine times — and a 10th trip is in the works — and toured numerous other tourist hotspots all across the country, including regular excursions to Twins games, local casinos and movies and plays shown in Minnesota theaters.
“I’ve been everywhere,” she said. “Except China.”
As she begins her 29th year leading groups of “neighbors” on trips around the world, the 75-year-old Marthaler is determined to keep that path well-trodden.
Although COVID canceled most of the trips she had planned for 2020, Marthaler has excursions in the works for this year and next year, and she even has trips penciled in for 2023.
She’ll be 78 by that time.
Marthaler said she has no intention of quitting.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I love it.”
During COVID, Marthaler had to work from home for a while, rather than driving five days a week from her home in Paynesville to the office in Willmar.
She hated being away from people, and the hustle of the job, and she became even more determined than ever to keep planning and leading Good Neighbor Club trips.
“COVID taught me I’m not ready to retire,” she said.
“Hopefully my health holds out,” said Marthaler. “I’m just not ready to slow down.”
Good Neighbor Club
As a small, family-owned bank with offices in New London, Sunburg and Willmar, Lake Region Bank — originally Farmers State Bank — looked for a way to set itself apart from its competitors, said Clark Vollan, who took over as bank president about 20 years ago from his father, Paul Vollan. His dad landed on the idea of creating a travel and activity club that would reward loyal customers, and bring new customers to the bank.
Vollan said the Good Neighbor Club helped brand the bank by creating relationships with customers, who then developed friendships with each other by doing fun things together that were organized by the bank.
Being a member of the club, which is currently available to people aged 50 and over, is open to active Lake Region Bank customers who maintain specific financial balances, or by paying a monthly membership fee.
The benefits include discounts on fully planned trips all over the country and around the world, as well as free local “lunch and learn” events.
With a steady membership of about 1,900 customers enrolled in the club each year over the last three decades, Vollan said the Good Neighbor Club has been successful on many levels.
But to be clear, Vollan said that success is all because of Marthaler.
“She’s the energizer bunny,” who “runs laps around” her younger co-workers at the bank, said Vollan.
He said she’s barely home from one international trip and she’s back on the bus or plane with a group for another tour a few days later. “She’s got a tremendous amount of energy,” said Vollan. “And she just likes relationships and friendships and staying in touch.”
Marthaler had been working as a receptionist at the bank for a year when she was asked to take on the full-time job of spearheading this new club. At that time she hadn’t traveled much, but she quickly learned the ropes of selecting prime locations, accommodations and itineraries.
Marthaler said she doesn’t necessarily plan the cheapest trip, but creates experiences that will give the participants long-lasting memories. She said most of the members who sign up for the trips are from the New London and Willmar communities and have developed friendships over the years by taking trips with the club.
Vollan said Marthaler is an astute negotiator when it comes to getting what’s best for club members, especially when planning complex excursions, such as the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, that only takes place once every 10 years. She’s taking a local tour to the next play in 2022.
Suitcase in the drink
Of all the trips Marthaler has led, the excursion in 2019 to South Africa was probably her favorite. They saw Victoria Falls and went on five big game drives for “up close and personal” views of lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and Cape buffalo.
Scoring tickets for "Hamilton" in Minneapolis in 2019 was a sweet deal and she’s taking another group in August. Because she’s made numerous contacts over the years and has been a reliable tour coordinator, she’s able to get tickets to places others may not.
“You have to get on the phone and make phone calls,” she said. “If you’re good to them, they’re good to you.”
There have been some challenges over the years, including times when members of the group became seriously ill during a trip abroad.
She broke her arm once while leading a tour. “But that didn’t slow me down,” she said.
At the end of one cruise, a labor dispute with ship stewards resulted in numerous suitcases being dumped in the harbor. All but Marthaler’s suitcase were pulled from the drink. She got teased that her bag was too heavy to be retrieved.
But the biggest challenge came in 2020.
It was early March and Marthaler was just returning from a Caribbean cruise with a group from the Good Neighbors Club — mostly people from Kandiyohi County — when COVID-19 became big news and she didn’t know if their cruise ship would be allowed back into port.
“It was kind of scary,” she said. “I was praying.”
She got everyone home safely and “a week later everything was shut down,” she said. “We haven’t done anything since March.”
After that, Marthaler spent much of 2020 canceling trips and returning deposits — and then rescheduling trips and collecting new deposits for trips for the next couple years.
But as travel restrictions gradually lift and more people get vaccinated, Marthaler said she’s hopeful the trips planned for this year will happen, including a trip to Yellowstone Park in June and a riverboat cruise in July on the Snake and Columbia rivers. Participants must show they’ve been vaccinated for COVID to go on the river cruise, she said.
The trips, which are usually limited to 30 to 40 people, typically attract people 60 and older.
Vollan said it’ll be interesting to see if travel groups like the Good Neighbor Club will appeal to the next generation of customers.
And if Marthaler ever does decide to retire, Vollan said the bank may have to evaluate how the club evolves and who could fill Marthaler’s shoes in the future. “The bar has been set pretty high,” he said.
A travel show will be held at 10 a.m. May 20 at Lake Region Bank in Willmar featuring details about the Nashville Country Christmas trip and a Great Lakes river cruise scheduled for this year and a trip to Hawaii planned for 2022. Reservations for the travel show are recommended as space is limited. Call 320-214-3009.