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 old, instead of just retiring. They have spent their whole lives at a job that they may not have liked, that they were not passionate about, but they have also saved good money along the way. What to do with it? If you’ve cut back enough, you might have a cushion to make a bucket list like starting a business.

Kathy Coleman Wood has always had an interest in travel. Her father was with the US Army, later the National Security Agency, so Wood lived in various places, including Munich, Germany, where she was born, and Melbourne, Australia. Finally, the family settled in Laurel, Maryland, near the NSA headquarters in Ft. Meada. There, she led the life of a typical teenager growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s (think “The Wonder Years”), attending Laurel’s junior and senior high schools.

But Wood was always an achiever. As a senior, she was class secretary, homecoming queen and co-editor of the yearbook. 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 hold human resources positions at a number of companies, 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 was grueling—“60-hour work weeks,” she admits—as so many middle- and upper-level management jobs require.

As a relief, 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, i. 2004-05, a sabbatical from 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 local French people, and she knew the country ax. Why not let others experience the same treasures she found, and make money at the same time?

Wood designed the company’s brochures and, instead of sending out Christmas cards that year, she sent the flyers to her entire mailing list. Surprise: She only got nine catchers! But Wood was having fun, and she firmly believed in his 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 specialized in, and wanted advice. A 2006 film 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 mentioned Wood’s company. The answer: More than 800 guides, almost more than she and her husband could handle.

European Experiences, the name of Wood’s company, continued to grow, and in 2019, it had its best year ever – 186 customers. But then COVID-19 hit, and Wood’s advance deposits for tours had to be returned to customers because international travel was largely suspended. Wood has been fortunate in that her company, other than a hotel or restaurant, does not require much overhead and capital investment to keep it afloat. She also had that money that she saved cash for lean times, and she collects retirement benefits from some of the companies she worked for. European Experiences does not advertise, and new business is generated largely by word of mouth. To get through the pandemic and stay safe, 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 clients are repeat clients, and two-thirds are women. In 2023, she hopes to do even better.

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


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