Many people dream of one day opening a bar, restaurant, hotel, whatever, when they grow up, instead of just retiring. They’ve put their whole life into a job they probably didn’t love, weren’t sentimental, but they also saved some decent money along the way. What to do with it? If you’ve moved far enough, you probably have a cushion for doing bucket-list things like starting a business.
Kathy Coleman Wood has always been interested in travel. Her father was with the US military, later the National Security Agency, and, as such, Wood lived in several places including Munich, Germany, where she was born, and Melbourne, Australia. Eventually, 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 (“The Wonder Years”), attending Laurel Junior and Senior High public schools.
But Wood was always a achiever. As a senior, she was class secretary, homecoming queen, and annual co-editor. After graduation, she attended a small university in Tusculum, Tennessee, where she graduated with a 4.0 average. She then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and did her MBA from the Wharton Graduate School of Business. Wood held human resources jobs at several companies, ranging from large – Union Carbide/Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed-Martin – to medium, Plasti-Line/ImagePoint – to small – CTI, Inc. For much of her career her schedule was busy—”60-hour work weeks,” she admits—as many mid- to high-level management positions require.
As a relief, 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 pay back for 14 months. 2004-05, a break from life, if you will. Wood says it was here that he planned to open a boutique travel company. She had already established many relations with the French locals, and knew about the land. Why not let others experience the same treasures he discovered, and not make money at the same time?
Wood designed the company brochures and, instead of sending out Christmas cards that year, sent flyers to his entire mailing list. Surprise: He just got nine takers! But Wood was having fun, and was confident in his idea.
As with any good story, random things happen – it’s called fate – that change the course of life. A USA Today writer researching the area of Provence Wood in the Luberon, France, had expertise and wanted advice. The reporter’s attention was caught by “A Good Year”, a 2006 film starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott. An upcoming USA Today article appeared above the fold on page one of the travel section, and included a mention of Wood’s company. Response: Over 800 leads, almost more than she and her husband.
Wood’s company name European Experience continued to grow and 2019 had its best year ever – 186 customers. But then COVID-19 hit, and all Wood’s advance deposits for trips had to be returned to customers because international travel was heavily suspended. Wood was lucky that his company, unlike say a hotel or restaurant, requires little overhead and capital investment to keep it afloat. She also had the cash she had saved for a short period of time, and collects retirement benefits from some of the companies she worked for. European Experience offers no advertising, and new business is generated mostly by word of mouth. To overcome the pandemic and stay alert, Wood conducted webinars with his clients on a variety of topics from cooking to French cheeses, olive oil, all for free.
Now that the world seems to be finally coming out of COVID, Wood’s business is heating up again. So far this year, he has booked a record 293 customers on 27 different trips. Half the customers are repeats, and two-thirds are women. In 2023, she hopes to do even better.
When will Wood retire? Her 77-year-old husband is already withdrawing from the business. “Maybe in three or four years,” she says, acknowledging that as she gets older, the job gets harder. “But for now I’m doing what I love, staying 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 dreams, with a little luck and the courage to pursue passion, they can take risks, start a company. Wood’s passion is travel. what is yours