Turning A Passion Into A Boutique Travel Business: Don’t Think, Just Do

The dream of many people is to one day open a bar, restaurant, hotel, whatever, when they get older, rather than just retire. They worked their whole lives at a job, maybe they didn’t love it, weren’t passionate about it, but they also saved some decent money along the way. What to do with him? If you’ve scraped away enough, maybe you have a cushion to do bucket-list things like start a business.

Kathy Coleman Wood has always been interested in travel. Her father was with the US Army, later the National Security Agency, and as such, Wood lived in a variety of places, including Munich, Germany, where she was born, and Melbourne, Australia. Finally, the family settled in Laurel, Maryland, near the NSA headquarters in Ft. Meade. There, she led the life of a normal teenager growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s (think “the Wonder Years”), attending Laurel Junior and Senior High Public Schools.

But Wood was always an achiever. As a senior, she was class secretary, homecoming queen and yearbook co-editor. After graduation, she attended a small university in Tennessee, Tusculum, where she graduated with a perfect 4.0 average. She then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and earned an MBA from the Wharton Graduate School of Business. Wood went on to accept human resources jobs at a number of companies, ranging from the large – Union Carbide/Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed-Martin – to the medium, Plasti-Line/ImagePoint – to the small – CTI, Inc. . Her schedule for much of her career has been hectic — “60-hour work weeks,” she admits — as so many middle- to upper-level management positions require.

As a respite, she and her husband, Charlie, took a short trip to France in early 2003. The couple enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to use some of the money they had saved over the years to return for 14 months, in 2004-05, a Sabbath of life, if you will. Wood says that’s where she hatched her plan to open a boutique travel company. She had already established many connections with the French locals, and knew the lay of the land. Why not have others experience the same treasures she has discovered, and make money at the same time?

Wood designed company brochures and, instead of sending Christmas cards that year, sent the flyers to her entire mailing list. Surprise: She only got nine names! But Wood had fun, and firmly believed in her idea.

As with any good story, random things happen – call it luck – that change the course of life. A USA Today writer was researching Luberon, France, the region Provence wood specializes in, and wanted advice. A 2006 movie starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, “A Good Year,” caught the reporter’s attention. The subsequent USA Today article appeared above the fold on page one of the travel section, and included a mention of Wood’s company. The answer: over 800 leads, almost more than she and her husband could handle.

European Experiences, the name of Wood’s company, continued to grow, and in 2019, its best year ever – 186 customers. But then COVID-19 struck, and all of Wood’s advance deposits for trips had to be returned to customers because international travel was all but suspended. Wood was fortunate in that her company, unlike say a hotel or restaurant, requires little overhead and capital investment to keep it afloat. She also had the money she saved for dry times, and is collecting retirement benefits from some of the companies she worked for. European Experiences does no advertising, and new business is mostly generated by word of mouth. To get through the pandemic and stay sane, Wood held webinars with her clients on a variety of subjects from cooking, to French cheese, to olive oil, all for free.

Now that the world finally seems to be coming out of COVID, Wood’s business is getting hot again. So far this year, she has booked a record 293 customers on 27 separate trips. Half of the clients are repeats, and two-thirds are women. In 2023, she hopes to do even better.

When will Wood retire? Her husband, 77, is already retiring from the business. “Maybe in three or four years,” she says, admitting that as she gets older, the job gets harder. “But now I’m doing what I love, keeping busy and meeting interesting people from all over the world.” Once Wood retires, she plans to sell her company.

Moral of the story: Dreamers can live out dreams, with a little luck and the guts to pursue a passion, take a risk, start a company. Wood’s passion is travel. what is yours

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