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 are old, instead of retiring. They toil their whole lives at a job they may not love, not be passionate about, but they’ve also made some decent money along the way. What will it do? If you’ve squirmed enough, you might have a cushion to do bucket list items like starting a business.

Kathy Coleman Wood has always been interested in travel. His father was with the US Army, later the National Security Agency, and, as such, Wood lived in various places, including Munich, Germany, where he was born, and Melbourne, Australia. Finally, the family settled in Laurel, Maryland, near the NSA headquarters in Ft. Meade. There, he leads 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 has always been an achiever. As a senior, she was class secretary, homecoming queen and yearbook co-editor. After graduation, he attended a small university in Tennessee, Tusculum, where he graduated with a perfect 4.0 average. He then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and earned an MBA from The Wharton Graduate School Of Business. Wood went on to hold human resources jobs at many companies, from large – Union Carbide/Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed-Martin – to medium, Plasti-Line/ImagePoint – to small – CTI, Inc . His schedule for most of his career was hectic — “60-hour work weeks,” he admits — as was required in many middle- to upper-level management positions.

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 up over the years. to come back for 14 months, in 2004-05, a sabbatical from life, if you will. Wood said that is where he started his plan to open a boutique travel company. He had already made many connections with the French locals, and he already knew the lay of the land. Why can’t others experience the same riches he discovered, and make money at the same time?

Wood designed the company’s brochures and, instead of sending Christmas cards that year, sent flyers to his entire mailing list. Surprise: He only got nine! But Wood was amused, and firmly believed in his idea.

Like any good story, random things happen – call it luck – that change the course of life. A USA Today writer was researching the Luberon, France, 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 following USA Today article appeared above the fold on page one of the travel section, and included mention of Wood’s company. The answer: More than 800 leads, almost more than she and her husband could handle.

European Experiences, the name of Wood’s company, continues to grow, and, in 2019, had the best year ever – 186 customers. But then COVID-19 hit, and all of Wood’s advance deposits for trips had to be returned to customers because international travel was somewhat suspended. Wood is lucky that his company, unlike say a hotel or restaurant, requires little overhead and capital investment to keep it going. He also had the money he had saved for bad times, and collected retirement benefits from some of the companies he worked for. European Experiences has no advertising, and new business is often generated by word of mouth. To get through the pandemic and stay healthy, Wood holds webinars with his clients on a variety of topics from cooking, to French cheese, to olive oil, all for free.

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

When will Wood retire? Her husband, 77, has retired from the business. “Maybe in three or four years,” he said, admitting that the older he gets the harder his job will be. “But for now I’m doing what I love, keeping busy and meeting interesting people from all over the world.” When Wood retires, he plans to sell his company.

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


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