How I Left the corporate world and started my own slow travel business
by Kathy Wood, Guest writer and Founder, European Experiences (Sponsored)
In 1991, I made my first adult trip to Europe and in 1992 I married a wonderful man who loved Europe too. We actually made our first “slow” trip to Paris in September 1994, renting an apartment in Paris for a week with our 14-month old daughter. Europe sparked something in me. I found everything I love and enjoy, in the most beautiful places I’d ever imagined.
After several fast-paced family trips to Europe over the next eight years—to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and England—I stumbled across the SlowTrav.com website in 2002. This was the brainchild of a remarkable woman named Pauline Kenny—a pioneer in promoting slow travel. Pauline became an online friend and we’ve since met up in person many times in the USA, France and England. She’s had a tremendous impact on my life.
Through SlowTrav, I connected with a whole community of people who loved Europe and enjoyed staying longer in fewer places. In the days before Airbnb or Trip Advisor, this was the place to get recommendations for vacation rentals in Europe. Inspired by this website, I planned a family trip to France in 2003 that included a week in a cottage in a small village in an area of Provence called the Luberon. We loved the area, and it was a truly magical week.
European Experiences co-founder and owner, Kathy Wood
Our Grand Tour
The next year we did our “Grand Tour of Europe, beginning a 14-month family sabbatical. Charley and I quit our jobs. We took Kelly out of school for her sixth-grade year. We rented out our house and sold my car. We stayed in 20 different rentals in England, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Austria, mostly for one or two weeks, and for a month in Tuscany.
The peak experience of our trip—from the beginning of October to mid-April, took us back to Provence, the inspiration for the entire trip. We rented a 17th century farmhouse outside the village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Kelly attended the village school. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have a job, but my life was full. We explored, made new friends, shopped and cooked, studied French, and hiked. We also had visitors from home and loved sharing the area with them.
From this experience came an idea—to start a small group tour company. Initially we wanted to focus on Provence, but we always planned to expand to other parts of Europe. After our Grand Tour, I couldn’t imagine going back to the corporate world.
We offered our first European Experience tours in September 2006, beginning with The Luberon Experience based for a week in the village of Bonnieux. We were touched by serendipity. Our village was the setting for a movie, A Good Year, that inspired many people to want to visit the Luberon. Because of the movie, a USA Today reporter joined us for a day with our second group and then recommended us in her article. We had over 800 visits to our brand-new website the day the article came out and soon most of the spots in our second year were booked.
The Wood family (Kathy, Charley and Kelly) while living in Provence
Our Q&A With Kathy
Q. How do you define slow travel? What are the characteristics of it, from your perspective?
My simple definition is that “slow travel” means staying longer in fewer places. But slow travel really isn’t a simple concept and has lots of dimensions depending on what’s important to each person.
Slow travel enables you to focus on “experiencing” a place—not just “sightseeing.” I think it also means you become a “traveler”— not so much a “tourist.” You make connections. You’re not just hopping off a bus or passing by in your rental car, seeing a few highlights, taking a few photos. You have the luxury of time…to explore the side streets, find a favourite café, take an afternoon walk, chat with the person who lives next door. The longer you can stay the better, because you can get an authentic experience of living somewhere.
The most important aspect for me personally of traveling more slowly is getting to know people who live in that place, people from a different culture, whose lives have been different than my own. As you stay longer, you make acquaintances…people recognize you. And then you may learn each other’s names. Then the longer you stay, or the more often you return, acquaintances become friends. You might share a drink or a meal together, perhaps are invited into a home. These kinds of cross-cultural friendships can be strong even when you don’t speak the same language. My life has become so enriched through my friendships with people in the villages and towns where we host our trips. And even though our lives are different, we also find points of commonality and shared interests.
Other slow travellers may find different passions…perhaps to create, to enjoy some physical pastime, to have a more intense food experience. But staying longer in one place gifts you TIME for those connections.
In the Austrian Alps on their “Grand Tour” of Europe
With artist friend Françoise Valenti in Provence
Q. How has slow travel shaped or changed your perspective on life? What have you learned by ‘slowing down’? What surprised you the most?
I was in the corporate world for 27 years. I have an MBA from a top school and was very career-focused. After business school, I moved quickly into senior management and had lots of wonderful experiences. My focus was Human Resources, so relationships were always important to me and I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, but it was a tricky balance. I was the VP of HR for two companies, 17 years total at that level. I worked on a lot of difficult projects in challenging industries—managing layoffs, healthcare, union issues. I usually worked 60+ hours a week. I hardly took a vacation—and even the nature of vacation started to change when technology made it impossible to really disconnect from work in a fast-paced, bottom-line-oriented world.
Charley and I met when I was 36 and married within a year. We had Kelly a year later. Having a husband and child slowed me down. I had someone to get home to, people I loved to enjoy weekends and vacations with.
A fast-paced sightseeing vacation is many things, but it’s not relaxing. It can be stressful. Packing up and moving on every day or two is stressful. Getting rental cars, navigating unfamiliar roads, dealing with train schedules…more stress (and wasted time too). Two years ago, I did a “FAM” trip in northern France with a small group of other travel professionals. We were on the go for four days, changing hotels every night, hardly any free time. I never unpacked, could never find anything in my suitcase. Thank goodness for relaxing time on the bus—and I didn’t have to drive! It made me realize the tradeoffs with a fast-paced tour.
A slow travel vacation allows time to relax, to be spontaneous, to enjoy the small moments, to enjoy simplicity…to have a later start in the morning, to putter in a kitchen assembling a meal, to open the shutters to the sight of the beautiful countryside…now that’s relaxing, that to me is a different kind of living. And you’re more likely to have those moments of serendipity, a totally unexpected encounter or experience, often what you remember most.
Q. What advice do you have for women who want to embrace slow travel? We know it’s the preferred way of travelling among many, but what did you learn that would be helpful to others? How would you know that a tour company really is ‘slow travel’?
Many women enjoy independent slow travel. You can rent a small apartment and base somewhere that appeals to you for a week or two or more. You can set your own schedule, and pursue your own interests, perhaps joining up with small groups for day activities. With your own kitchen, you don’t have to eat every meal alone in a restaurant if you don’t want to, and you can eat meals on your own schedule too.
Or you can organize your own slow trip with a partner, friend or family member, or a couple of people. We really like having a rental. You have to be prepared to be on your own—without a concierge or housekeeper—but we enjoy having more room to spread out than you have in a hotel room…a kitchen, a living room, maybe your own outdoor space. I like shopping for food in local supermarkets and outdoor markets and preparing meals. My husband has always enjoyed going out in the morning to buy bread.
Kathy Wood, among the poppies in the Luberon
A small group tour is a comfortable way for women to travel alone (or with a travel partner) but also share the experience with other like-minded people who are drawn to the same area and the same type of trip. You don’t have to worry about making plans or even making any decisions. And you don’t have to worry about driving, details, or managing in another language. And on a slow tour, you can also have your alone time when you want it.
If you’re looking for a “slow” tour, I would definitely look at the number of nights spent in one place. On a one-week trip, this could involve one, maybe two bases. And I would look at how much time is spent each day in a vehicle. You might have one base but then spend a few hours a day driving around from place to place. And I’d look for the possibility to make connections with local people, to have experiences you couldn’t have on your own or in a big group.
Before booking a tour, choose destinations that really appeal to you—for whatever reason. Choose trips that have a style and focus that seem to match your own approach and interests. Read the materials carefully. Ask questions by email or by phone. Read reviews if they’re available. You can even ask to be put in touch with previous travelers, maybe from your area. And nowadays you can participate in online webinars and meetings to get to know the tour operator and their partners personally. You’re spending a lot of money on a trip—plus your precious vacation time—so you want to make the best possible match.
Kathy and Charley with friends Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen, on the Cotswold Way
Q. It sounds like The Grand Tour’ was a turning point for you. Was there an AHA moment? What was the hardest part of changing your life?
I was always in a hurry, graduating early from college, going to summer school to finish quickly in grad school, changing jobs with only a weekend in between. This was the first time in my life that I really slowed down and focused on “being.”
If I close my eyes and remember a special moment, I’m living again in that farmhouse in Provence, at the end of a gravel road, in an area filled with vineyards, cherry trees, and almond trees. My husband has gone to the village to bring our daughter home for her hour-and-a-half lunch break. I’m fixing lunch and the three of us sit down together. We enjoy that time together until I drive her back to the village for the rest of her afternoon. I don’t know if that’s an “ah ha” moment, but it’s an experience that couldn’t have happened at home.
Christmas Day walk in the Cedar Forest near Bonnieux
Kathy and daughter Kelly in Paris
Kathy, Charley and Kelly in the Luberon, outside the village of Gordes
Q. How did traveling at a young age impact your daughter’s life?
I was born in Germany. My father was in the military and my young parents lived off-base in a small town in Bavaria. I don’t remember it, but I know it influenced me to grow up with parents who had lived in Europe. Then, as a civilian with the Defense Department, my father was transferred for 3-1/2 years to Melbourne, Australia, and our family had the opportunity to live abroad. We were in Melbourne from when I was eight to almost 13. This experience had such an impact on me.
We gave our daughter the gift of travel through our annual European vacations. But I also wanted her to have the experience of living abroad. Our long trip was a great experience for her, as she learned so much about geography, history, art, architecture, culture, nature, languages and more…learning through experiences—not from books. But the experience of living in a small village in Provence—and going to school there—was truly life-changing, maybe more for her than for us. She spent every day with French children, learning in French, playing on the playground, eating a three-course meal in the lunchroom. She didn’t come away with life-long friends her own age, but she made a life-long connection with that village and that culture. And I think she developed valuable respect for people of other cultures, nationalities, economic status, racial backgrounds, and sexual preferences because our travels brought her in contact with so many different people.
Kelly continued her French studies through middle school and high school, and her travels definitely impacted her interests and career choices. She received her B.A. in International Studies from the University of Chicago and joint Masters’ degrees in International/World History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Now she’s a fourth-year PhD student at New York University, studying Modern European and French History. This year she’s living in Paris for her dissertation research. Her master’s thesis focused on issues relating to the re-integration of Alsace into France after World War II— a topic that was influenced by a visit our family made in 2004 to a village destroyed by the Nazis.
Kelly grew up with our company and has been actively involved with European Experiences since its start in 2006. After joining several early European Experiences groups, Kelly co-led two Luberon trips with Charley in 2014 and was a key part of our research team for the Cotswolds, Périgord and Alsace trips. Now that Charley has mostly retired, she’s my co-leader for two of our trips in France. We’re so proud of her! (But just to clarify—she has her own career goals and won’t be joining me in our family business).
Luberon Experience in Provence
Cotswolds Experience in England
Chianti Experience in Tuscany
Kathy Wood is the co-founder and owner of European Experiences, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their top 50 tours in the world in 2012.
European Experiences was founded in 2006 and has hosted 120 small groups trips in Europe. They offer week-long “slow” trips in Provence, Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. They also offer two longer tours: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days). And in 2022 they’re offering trips in several new destinations, including some trips just for women. They’ll announce their 2022 schedule and open for reservations on April 14.
If you’d like to learn more about European Experiences and their small group tours in beautiful places, visit their website, sign up for their mailing list, or join them for one of their upcoming Virtual European Experiences.
Visit our Women’s Travel Directory to learn more about European Experiences and other slow travel tours.