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

A lot of people’s dream is to one day open a bar, restaurant, hotel, whatever when they get older instead of just retiring. They’ve toiled their whole lives at a job they may not have loved or been passionate about, but they’ve also saved a decent amount of money along the way. What to do with it? If you’re passionate enough, you might have the foundation to do 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 a result 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. Mead. There, she guided a normal teenager growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s (think “The Wonder Years”), attending Laurel Junior and Senior High.

But Wood was always successful. 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 GPA. She then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Wood went on to work in human resources at a number of companies, from the large Union Carbide/Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed-Martin, to the mid-sized, Plasti-Line/ImagePoint, to the small CTI, Inc. Her schedule for most of her career was hectic — “60-hour work weeks,” she admits — as many middle- and senior-level management positions require.

As a break, 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 their savings over the years to return for 14 months. 2004-05, a sabbatical from life if you will. Wood says that it was there that she came up with the plan to open a tourism company. She had already established many connections with the French locals and knew the lay of the land. Why couldn’t others experience the same treasures she had discovered and make money at the same time?

Wood designed brochures for the company, and instead of sending out Christmas cards that year, he sent the flyers to his entire mailing list. Surprise: she only had nine takers! But Wood was amused 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 the Luberon in France, a region of the Provence forest he specializes in, and wanted some advice. The reporter’s attention was drawn to the 2006 film “A Good Year” starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott. The following USA Today article appeared on the front page of the travel section and mentioned Wood’s company. The answer: more than 800 leads, almost more than she and her husband could handle.

Wood’s company name European Experiences continued to grow and 2019 was its best year ever with 186 clients. But then came Covid-19 and all of Wood’s advance deposits for the trips had to be returned to customers as international travel was almost halted. Vudiņa is lucky because her business, unlike a hotel or restaurant, requires little overhead and capital investment to keep it going. She also had money she had saved for hard times and was collecting retirement benefits from some of the companies she had worked for. European Experiences does not advertise and new business is mainly generated by word of mouth. To navigate the pandemic and stay sane, Wood hosted free webinars with her clients on topics ranging from cooking to French cheese to olive oil.

Now that the world seems to be finally coming out of COVID, Wood’s business is heating up again. She has booked a record number of 293 customers on 27 separate trips so far this year. Half of the customers are repeat customers, 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 the older she gets, the job gets harder. “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 make their dreams come true with a little luck and the courage to pursue a passion, take a risk, and start a business. Wood’s passion is traveling. What is yours?

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