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

Many people’s dream is to open a bar, restaurant, hotel, whatever, when they grow up, not just retire. They worked hard all their lives at jobs they might not like, they weren’t passionate about, but they also made decent money along the way. What to do about it? If you’ve squirreled away enough, maybe you have a cushion to do bucket-list things 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 so Wood lived in various places, including Munich, Germany, where he was born, and Melbourne, Australia. Finally, he 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 middle and high school in Laurel.

But Wood has always been an accomplished man. As a senior, she was class secretary, homecoming queen and co-founder of the yearbook. After graduation, he attended a small college in Tennessee, Tusculum, where he graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. He then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he earned an MBA from The Wharton Graduate School of Business. Wood went on to hold jobs for employees at several companies, from large – Union Carbide/Martin Marietta, now at Lockheed-Martin – to medium, Plasti-Line/ImagePoint – to the small – CTI, Inc. His schedule for most of his work is as demanding as the middle- and upper-management positions — “60-hour work weeks,” he says.

To relax, 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 during many years to return for 14 months, in 2004-05, a sabbatical of life, if you will. Wood says that’s where he hatched the plan to open a boutique travel business. He had established many contacts with the local French, and knew the lay of the land. Why not let others experience the wealth they find, and make money at the same time?

Wood designed a company brochure and, instead of sending Christmas cards that year, sent the flyers to the entire mailing list. Surprise: Only nine people got it! But Wood was cool, and he believed strongly in his ideas.

As in all good stories, something happens by chance – call it luck – that changes the course of life. A USA Today writer searched Luberon, France, Provence Wood’s own region, and asked for advice. The 2006 film starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, “The Good Year”, attracted the attention of the press. The next USA Today article appeared above the fold on the front page of the travel section, and included a mention of Wood’s company. The answer: More than 800 leaders, almost more than he and his wife could handle.

European Experiences, Wood’s company name, continued to grow and, in 2019, it had its best year ever – 186 customers. But then COVID-19 hit, and it had to be rescheduled customers of Wood’s advance savings for travel because international travel has been suspended. Wood is lucky that his business, unlike a hotel or a restaurant, requires very little money and investment to keep it going. He also had short-term savings, and collected retirement benefits from some of the companies he worked for. European Experiences does not advertise, and most new business is word of mouth. To avoid infections and stay healthy, Wood holds free webinars with her clients on topics ranging from cooking to French cheese to olive oil. all of them.

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

When will Wood retire? Her husband, 77 years old, has retired from the business. “Maybe in three or four years,” he said, admitting that the older he gets, the more difficult the job will be. “But 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 business.

Moral of the story: The dreamer can live the dream, with a little luck and the willingness to pursue love, take risks, start a business. Wood’s passion is travel. What is yours?


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