How COVID-19 Has Affected My Travel Business And What I'm Doing About It

Published: May 2nd, 2020
Charlotte Curry McGhee
Whisked Away Surp...
from Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
started March 2017
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Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.

Hello! My name is Charlotte Curry McGhee, and I’m the founder of Whisked Away Surprise Travel. Whisked Away launched in March of 2017, so we just celebrated our 3-year anniversary!

Whisked Away knows that as adults, we don’t get a lot of personalized surprises anymore. Our days become routine pretty quickly, and we trade fun adventures for daily responsibilities. That’s why we offer personalized vacations with surprise destinations to Europe, Latin America & North America!

Our main service is surprise trips with flights to the regions I listed above, but we also offer surprise honeymoons & now, with the current situation, surprise road trips within the US only.

As we all know, Coronavirus has stopped travel in its tracks, so Whisked Away is not bringing in a lot of revenue during this time. However, I’ve chosen to focus on giving back to my community & reaching out to my social media followers 1-1 so that when this is all over, Whisked Away will be top of mind. (Plus the personal connection is so lovely right now!)


Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?

Whisked Away was first featured in Starter Story in April of 2019, just one year ago! It seems like it has been much longer than that, as so much has happened. By the end of 2019, Whisked Away had seen an 88% revenue growth over 2018.

Don’t give up on your business- there are so many ways to position yourself to come through this.

Of course, now that Coronavirus is here, sales have declined dramatically. Quarter 1 has always been my busiest booking quarter (though not busiest in travel) and this year I was down over $40k in revenue at the end of Q1 from 2019. If we take into account the amount I expected Whisked Away to surpass last year’s revenue, the number is much larger.

To pivot during this time, I’ve focused my marketing on inspiring, giving as much as I can & reaching out to social media followers 1-1. This has been a real gift during this time, and I’m grateful that I have the extra time to do so. It has increased my following and allowed me to create some personal connections with folks that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.

I have not taken on new employees, nor do I plan to. I read “Company of One” by Paul Jarvis last year, and discovered that he had put in his book exactly what I had been thinking about how to grow Whisked Away- slowly, with intention. Again, I’m so grateful I didn’t have any employees going into Covid-19.

Prior to Covid, Whisked Away only planned surprise trips with flights. Since then, I’ve launched Surprise Road Trips within North America only, as I believe that travelers may be reluctant to get on a plane for a while. Everything else remains the same- they still get the same amazing personalized itineraries, but these trips will be within driving distance of their homes.

Much of Whisked Away’s business comes from referral & repeat clients. An amazing vacation is a baseline for a Whisked Away trip- what keeps travelers coming back is the hyper-personalized attention to detail that every traveler gets.

Understanding that canceled trips is disappointing for travelers (but unavoidable right now) I’ve personally reached out to each traveler & sent them something special in the mail to let them know that when the time comes, their trip will be amazing.

Want to see how Whisked Away works? Click here to watch our new video!

What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?

Let’s start pre-Covid: this past year I hired an influencer to take a Whisked Away surprise trip & write about her experience. It was (by far) the most money I’ve spent on marketing Whisked Away. She traveled in November and wrote a beautiful review which you can read here.

So far, however, there has been no benefit beyond a slight uptick in social media followers. No one has booked a trip or even inquired (if they have, they haven’t mentioned that they heard about Whisked Away through this blogger).

It’s worth mentioning that the sales cycle for Whisked Away is 6 months to a few years, so it just may be that had Covid not interrupted things, I’d be seeing some traction from this now. No way to know.

When we first started seeing the effects of Covid-19 in the states, I reacted quickly but not intelligently. I quickly came up with new services (like Staycations) that I thought would continue to serve my travelers and bring in revenue. I was incorrect, and I wrote an honest apology to Whisked Away followers here.

One huge plus coming out of this shutdown is that I finally had the time to build an entirely new website. I’m super proud of how it turned out & I love how clear the messaging is. I can’t wait to see how it performs when we are able to travel again. You can check it out here.


What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?

The biggest plan for this year is to have no real plan. There’s no way to, and I think we are being forced into a time of giving up control. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have goals, that I don’t want my company to succeed. It simply means that in a global shutdown, I can’t say “in 6 months I hope to be here” because who knows what 6 months from now look like? We can’t know.

What I’m proud of is that Whisked Away has stayed small on purpose, and that is serving the business very well right now. My overhead is tiny & I have no employees. This has allowed me to be very nimble so that when this is all over, or when it phases out sufficiently so that we can travel again, Whisked Away will be here.

The next 5 years is something extremely exciting to think about. I’m so excited about the changes that are coming to the travel industry as a result of this time- I hope people rethink ways of traveling that are horrific for the environment, such as cruising. I think in the short term at least they’ll have to- as we’ve seen, cruises are not only bad for the environment but extremely volatile in terms of the virus.

Whisked Away has always offset our carbon emissions, but in researching best practices around this I’ve pivoted during this time as well. From now on, all surprise trips will be offset with carbon positive projects through the Gold Standard. I take a portion of the profit to offset in this way.

So, let’s imagine that Covid is eradicated this year, and Whisked Away is able to operate as “normal.” What I see is a continuation of the super personalized attention that I’ve been giving not only to current & past travelers but to future ones as well. I believe this will grow my business, but it also just feels really good to connect. That’s one of the gifts from this time.


Have you read any good books in the last year?

Only a gazillion! I’ve already mentioned Company of One by Paul Jarvis, which I highly recommend to anyone who sees growth for growth’s sake as a hamster wheel. I’ve also used Marketing Made Simple by Donald Miller & JJ Peterson to completely rebuild my website & focus my messaging. It’s so actionable & simple to follow.

I had read the Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz before, but I re-read it in January and put it into action- it was amazing! If you are looking to grow in a real way, this is how to do it. Again, it’s very actionable.

I’d also recommend The One Thing by Keller, The Money Tree by Chris Guillebeau & not related to business but very applicable just to a life well-lived, “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?

It’s an odd time, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t grow right now- it just may not look like what it did a few months ago. People have different problems that need to be solved right now. How can you pivot or be more vocal about the solutions you offer? How can you give even more so that your followers see you as an expert in your field and come to you first when this is over? It may be tough, but there are opportunities to serve.

The one thing I’ve seen lately that is off-putting is that businesses are playing the victim. To your audience, I don’t believe they want to hear how to support you right now or how hard this time is for your business. Give them a reason to support you that is also solving their problem, whatever that may be.

Here’s how I’m doing this: Whisked Away is offering gift cards for future trips. When you purchase a gift card, you get to nominate a healthcare worker here in Charlotte to win a surprise road trip for two. I could just say, “Please support Whisked Away and buy a gift card,” but instead I’m positioning it as a way to make my clients the hero in the story. This gives them hope, brings them joy. If you can figure out how to do that, you’ll be supported without playing the victim.

Don’t give up AND listen to your gut. I’m hearing a lot of folks yell about being productive during this time. Mostly I feel like doing that but sometimes I feel like sitting on my back porch and doing nothing. Both are okay. But don’t give up on your business- there are so many ways to position yourself to come through this.


Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Nope! And I can’t imagine I will be- I’m so happy to work alone & contract out when I need anything done (graphic design, etc).

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!