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 worked all their lives in a job maybe they didn’t like, they weren’t passionate about, but they also saved some decent money along the way. What to do with 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 in the US Army, later the National Security Agency, and, as such, Wood lived in a variety of places, including Munich, Germany, where he was born, and Melbourne, Australia. The family eventually settled in Laurel, Maryland, near the NSA headquarters in Ft. Meade. There, she led the life of a normal teenager growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s (think “The Wonder Years”), going to Laurel junior high and high school.

But Wood was still 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 grade point average. He then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and earned an MBA at the Wharton Graduate School of Business. Wood continued to hold human resources jobs in a number of companies, ranging from large – Union Carbide / Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed-Martin – to the medium, Plasti-Line / ImagePoint – to small – CTI, Inc. His schedule for much of his career has been hectic — “60-hour work weeks,” he confesses — as many middle- and upper-level management positions require.

As a respite, she and her husband, Charley, took a 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 to 14 months, in. 2004-05, a sabbatical of life, if you will. Wood says that’s where he hatched his plans to open a boutique travel company. He had already established many connections with the French locals, and knew the lay of the land. Why not let others experience the same treasure he discovered, and make money at the same time?

Wood designed company brochures and, instead of sending Christmas cards this year, he sent the flyers to his entire mailing list. Surprise: He had only nine takers! But Wood had fun, he 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 the Luberon, France area Provence Wood specializes 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 included a mention of Wood’s company. The answer: More than 800 drives, almost more than she and her husband could handle.

The European experience, the name of the Wood company, continued to grow, and, in 2019, had its best year ever – 186 customers. But then, COVID-19 hit, and all of Wood’s advanced travel deposits had to be returned to clients because international travel was suspended. Wood was fortunate in that his company, as opposed to say a hotel or restaurant, requires little overhead and capital investment to keep it afloat. He also had that cash he saved cash for lean times, and collected retirement benefits from some of the companies he worked for. The European experience does not advertise, and new business is mainly generated by word of mouth. To get through the pandemic and stay sane, 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 finally seems to be coming 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 customers are repeat, and two thirds are women. In 2023, it hopes to do even better.

When will Wood retire? Her husband, 77, already pulled back from the business. “Maybe in three or four years,” he says, admitting that as he gets older the job becomes more difficult. “But for now, I’m doing what I love, keeping busy and meeting interesting people from all over the world.” Once Wood retires, he plans to sell his company.

Moral of the story: Dreams can live out dreams, with a little luck and courage to pursue a passion, take a risk, start a company. Wood’s passion is traveling. what are you?

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