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’ve toiled their whole lives at a job they may not have loved, not been passionate about, but they’ve also saved some decent money along the way. What to do with it? If you’ve flown away enough, you might have a cushion to do bucket list things like start a business.

Kathy Coleman Wood has always been interested in travel. Her father was in 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. Eventually, the family settled in Laurel, Maryland, near NSA headquarters in Ft. Meade. There she lived 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 college in Tennessee, Tusculum, where she graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. She then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned an MBA from The Wharton Graduate School Of Business. Wood went on to hold human resources positions 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 confesses — as so many mid- to upper-level management positions require.

As a break, she and her husband, Charley, 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 sabbatical of a lifetime, 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 what the country was all about. Why didn’t others experience the same treasures she discovered, and earn money at the same time?

Wood designed company brochures and, instead of sending out Christmas cards that year, sent the flyers to her entire mailing list. Surprise: She only got nine people! 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 area Provence Wood specializes in, and wanted some 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 response: More than 800 clues, almost more than she and her husband could handle.

European Experiences, the name of Wood’s company, continued to grow and had its best year ever in 2019 – 186 clients. But then COVID-19 hit, and all of Wood’s travel advance deposits had to be returned to customers because international travel was all but suspended. Wood was fortunate because her company, unlike a hotel or restaurant, required little overhead and capital investment to keep it going. She also had that cash she had saved up for lean times, and was collecting retirement benefits from some of the companies she worked for. European Experiences does not advertise, and new business is mostly generated by word of mouth. To get through the pandemic and stay healthy, Wood held webinars with her clients on a variety of topics from cooking, to French cheese, to olive oil, all for free.

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

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

Moral of the story: Dreamers can live 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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