Turning passion into a boutique travel business: Don’t think, just do

Many people’s dream is to one day open a bar, restaurant, hotel, whatever, when they get older, not just retire. They’ve toiled their whole lives at a job they may not have loved or been passionate about, but they’ve also saved decent money along the way. What should I do with it? If you’ve gotten away enough, you might have a cushion to make a bucket list of things like starting a business.

Cathy Coleman Wood has always been interested in travel. Her father was in the US Army, later in the National Security Agency, and as such Wood lived in various places, including Munich, Germany, where she was born, and Melbourne, Australia. The family eventually settled in Laurel, Maryland, near the NSA headquarters at Ft. Mead. There, she leads the life of a normal teenager growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s (think The Wonder Years), attending public middle and high schools in Laurel.

But Wood has always succeeded. 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 GPA. He 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 ranging 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 so many mid- to 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 the money they had saved over the years to return for 14 months in 2004 -05 years, a break from life if you will. Wood says that’s where she hatched her plan to open a boutique travel company. She had already made many connections with the local French people and knew the lay of the land. Why not let others experience the same treasures she had 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: She only got nine people! But Wood was amused and firmly believed in his idea.

As with any good story, random things happen – call it luck – that change the course of life. A writer for USA Today was exploring Luberon, France, Provence Wood’s specialty area, and wanted some advice. A 2006 film starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, One Good Year, caught the reporter’s attention. The subsequent USA Today article appeared on the front page of the travel section and included a mention of Wood’s company. The answer: Over 800 leads, almost more than she and her husband could handle.

European Experiences, the name of Wood’s company, continued to grow and in 2019 had its best year yet, with 186 clients. But then COVID-19 hit and all of Wood’s advance travel deposits had to be returned to customers as international travel was all but ground to a halt. Wood was fortunate in that her company, unlike a hotel or restaurant, required little overhead and capital investment to keep it afloat. She also had that money she had saved for lean times and was collecting retirement benefits from some of the companies she worked for. European Experiences does not advertise and new business is generated primarily by word of mouth. To get through the pandemic and maintain her sanity, Wood held webinars with her clients on topics ranging from cooking to French cheese and 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, she has booked a record 293 customers on 27 separate trips. 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 77-year-old husband is now retiring from the business. “Maybe in three or four years,” she says, admitting that as she gets older, the job gets harder. “But for now, I’m doing what I love, keeping busy and meeting interesting people from all over the world.” After Wood retires, she plans to sell her company.

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

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