Turning A 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, rather than just retire. They’ve toiled their whole lives at a job they might not really 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 start a business.

Kathy Coleman Wood has always been interested in travel. Her father was with the United States Army, later the National Security Agency, and, as such, Wood lived in several places, including Munich, Germany, where she was born, and Melbourne, Australia. Finally, the family 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”), attending Laurel junior and high high public schools.

But Wood always got it. 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 grade point average. She then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and earned an MBA from The Wharton Graduate School Of Business. Wood went on to hold jobs in human resources at a number of companies, ranging from the large – Union Carbide/Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed-Martin – to the medium, Plasti-Line/ImagePoint – for the small – CTI, Inc. Her schedule for most of her career has been grueling — “60-hour work weeks,” she confesses — as so many middle- to upper-level management positions require.

As a respite, 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 over the years to return for 14 months, in 2004-05, a sabbatical from life, if you will. Wood says that’s where she hatched her plan to open a boutique travel company. She had established many connections with the French locals already, and knew the lay of the land. Why not have others experience the same treasures she had discovered, and make money at the same time?

Wood designed company brochures and, instead of sending out Christmas cards that year, she sent out the brochures to her entire mailing list. Surprise: She got only nine takers! But Wood was having fun, and strongly believed in her idea.

Like any good story, random things happen – call it luck – that change the course of life. A USA Today writer was researching Luberon, France, the area Provence Wood specializes in, and wanted advice. A 2006 film starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, “A Good Year,” had caught the reporter’s attention. The follow-up USA Today article appeared above the fold on page one of the travel section, and included a mention of Wood’s company. The response: More than 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, it had its best year ever – 186 clients. But then COVID-19 hit, and all of Wood’s advance deposits for trips had to be returned to clients because international travel was pretty much on hold. Wood was lucky as her company, unlike a hotel or restaurant, requires little overhead and capital investment to keep it afloat. She also had that cash that she had saved for health times, and collects retirement benefits from some of the companies she had worked for. European Experiences does not do any advertising, and new business is generated mostly by word of mouth. To get through the pandemic and stay sane, Wood organized webinars with her clients on a variety of topics from cooking, French cheese, to olive oil, all for free.

Now that the world finally seems to be emerging from 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, it hopes to do even better.

When will Wood retire? Her husband, aged 77, is already retiring from the business. “Maybe in three or four years,” she says, admitting that the older she gets the harder the work gets. “But for now I’m doing what I love, keeping busy and meeting interesting people from all over the world.” Once Wood retires, she plans to sell her company.

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


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