Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Charlotte Curry McGhee and I started Whisked Away Surprise Travel. Whisked Away saves travelers from hours of planning and overwhelm, giving them the curated surprise trip of their dreams!
Our clients come to Whisked Away because they can’t decide where to go, are feeling frustrated with the process of travel planning and just wish they could hand it all over to the pros.
They choose their region (Europe, Latin America or North America) their budget and travel dates, then fill out a quick survey telling us everything they love to do. The process takes about 10 minutes and then they are completely done. Whisked Away plans and books the whole trip, and they find out a week before they leave where they are going!
Since starting the business in March of 2017, I’ve seen revenue grow exponentially each year, with many clients booking their second surprise trips with Whisked Away within months (or weeks!) of returning.
Megan & Heather, Whisked Away to Prague
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been planning trips for myself and others for about 20 years. Before I took Whisked Away full time, I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in the public school system for seven years, and I was really struggling with policy changes and how they were affecting my students.
Planning travel was a bright spot for me. I could envision the people I love having the time of their lives on the trips that I had planned for them, and it took my mind away from the issues at school.
My husband and I were on a weekend trip in Savannah, GA and, of course, I had planned the whole thing. We were having drinks at this cool rooftop bar, watching the boats come in and the sunset and he asked if I would ever consider planning trips for others, as a business.
Of course, I had thought about it, but I knew I didn’t want to be a “typical” travel agent. The back and forth of proposing places to clients and having them decide didn’t sound like it would relieve stress for anyone - and planning a trip, if you don’t enjoy that, is really stressful. I wanted to find a way to sidestep that and make it a completely relaxing, enjoyable experience for my clients.
While talking to a friend about my idea, she suggested I look up the company Pack Up + Go. They are a surprise travel company as well, offering 3-day surprise trips within the US. This was perfect! In researching their model and in speaking with their founder, Lillian Rafson, I learned a lot about how surprise travel just makes things so much easier on everyone. And here we are!
Take us through the process of designing and planning these vacations.
Whisked Away is a service-based business, but I knew that I wanted the surprise itineraries to look amazing and to make people feel special when they receive them. When I first started, I was creating them myself, and they looked a bit like a middle school book report:
Inside, the itinerary contents have remained the same. There is a table of contents, flight & accommodations info, booked and suggested activities, restaurant recommendations, and a few words and phrases in the language of the country.
However, nowadays they look a lot more professional! I hired RobertBobbyArt to design all of my itinerary products for me and he did such an amazing job. I also hand-stamp portions of the package to personalize them even further.
The planning process (what happens on my end) is fairly complicated. This is part of the reason that I believe so strongly in Whisked Away, as it just takes all of that work off the plates of my clients.
When I get a booking, I review the results of the survey. Often I’ll get an idea of where I want to send the clients pretty quickly, and from there I just have to see if it works with their budget. If not, I’ll hop on Google flights to enter their departure airport and dates, and just choose the region they want to travel in. Google flights will show me the flight prices of all the major spots in that region, and I can start to filter out what won’t work.
From there I look at the weather, if there are any major festivals or celebrations during that time (which might be great but would make hotel prices soar) and if there are activities in that area that fit what my clients are asking for. There are a lot of variables to consider, but it is so fun putting together a great customized itinerary.
The planning process itself hasn’t changed much since I started Whisked Away- it’s one of the few things that have remained pretty constant!
As far as startup costs, mine were minimal. I created my own website through Squarespace (which was so bad, but I launched anyway), went through the process of getting an LLC, insurance and that was pretty much it.
About a year into running the business I found out that a travel company in Canada had started and were calling themselves Whisked Away as well, so I went ahead and copyrighted Whisked Away, to at least protect my work in the US.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Creating the website for Whisked Away has been an evolving process. When I launched, I had never created a website before and as my product is a service, I had to figure out how to correctly configure that within Squarespace - it wasn’t easy.
The biggest lesson I learned is this: success is not immediate. When I hit “publish” on my website I carried my phone around the rest of the day because I was so sure that orders would start flying in. Ridiculous!
Squarespace has a great platform and help section, and I could usually google any question that I had and come up with a solution pretty quickly. (If I can do it, anyone can!)
I was also brand new to the business and committed myself to reading as many books as I could, listening to business podcasts and seeking out guidance from others in my industry. Everyone was so incredibly helpful and I’m so grateful for that.
Before Whisked Away I wasn’t even on Instagram. Learning social media through the business has also been trial and error, and instead of being on all of the platforms I’ve chosen to focus on Facebook & Instagram. I tried using Pinterest, and though Pinterest got a lot of new folks to my site, they were only checking out the blog post they were interested in and then leaving. They weren’t heading to any other parts of my site. I decided it wasn’t worth the time to schedule the pins if visitors from that platform weren’t going to convert.
Whisked Away also has a Facebook group for folks who might be interested in surprise travel or who just want travel tips for their own trips. (Join us!)
Whisked Away launched in March of 2017, and my first real order came in June of that year. I was at an end of year party with some teacher friends and heard the ping and literally screamed. I’ve since stopped screaming every time an order comes in, but often do a little dance. It is such a wonderful feeling when people trust you with their travel!
The first order that came in was from friends of friends- they were taking their honeymoon and didn’t want to plan a thing. They had airline points that they wanted to use, and a strict budget. I don’t use airline points anymore, because the more connected that Whisked Away is to your personal airline accounts, the more chance there is of ruining the surprise. Now, clients are able to request that I book on a certain airline, and they can enter their frequent flier numbers after they fly and still earn those points.
That couple went to an amazing beachside resort in Mexico, had fabulous weather (something I was so stressed about!) and came back with glowing reviews.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned throughout this process, which is probably totally obvious to everyone reading, is this: success is not immediate. When I hit “publish” on my website I carried my phone around the rest of the day because I was so sure that orders would start flying in. Ridiculous!
Growth is slow and failures will happen, but if you choose to learn from them instead of quit, you’ll succeed. That’s where I am now- seeing some success and still trying and failing at things sometimes. It’s all a learning process.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Personal connections win out over Facebook ads any day.
StoryBrand is a framework for speaking to your clients and conveying your message in the clearest possible terms. I truly believe that if I had read the book and launched with that messaging day 1, Whisked Away would’ve grown a lot faster. The author, Donald Miller, also hosts a podcast and does in-person trainings. I haven’t been yet, but I did hire a local StoryBrand certified coach to clarify my messaging and engagement has skyrocketed.
StoryBrand taught me to address what problem potential clients might be facing- what I heard over and over again is that clients hadn’t taken trips in years because they couldn’t decide where to go and they didn’t want to plan. So, that messaging is all over my marketing now, along with how Whisked Away solves that problem: it takes 10 minutes to book on our site, and then you have the curated surprise trip of your dreams.
Giftology is the idea that instead of sending your clients yearly fruit baskets at Christmas or polo shirts with your logo on them, you surprise and delight them with gifts that they will love - items personalized to them instead of to your company.
I recently sent out gifts at the end of February (its important not to send during a holiday season) to clients who had booked more than once with Whisked Away or who had sent a lot of business my way. Each one included personalized mugs with the clients’ names, and other things that I knew they liked. I saw social media posts when these clients received their gifts with quotes like, “I love this company!” and “I’ll never book with anyone else!” It’s something that not a lot of companies take the time to do, and it goes a long way.
I also strongly believe that communication is key. I’ve had several clients tell me (and their social media followers!) that I’ve been there for them from day 1 of their travel planning process. Personal connections win out over Facebook ads any day in my opinion.
To that end, I don’t spend money on advertising. I’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work for me. At the end of the day, surprise travel is a big ask. My travelers are trusting me with large amounts of money and their big trip for the year. They don’t want to find out about Whisked Away through a Facebook ad, they want to hear from a friend that they had an amazing, personalized experience. If someone posts about Whisked Away on social media, I share it. Also, when I get a great review, I’ll share that along with a picture from the client’s trip. That’s how Whisked Away is growing, and I love it.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Currently in Q1 of 2019 and we are on track to top our 2018 revenue within the next month or so. I’m so grateful that Whisked Away is growing and I look forward to serving even more travelers this year, to giving them an amazing travel experience. In October of last year I read Profit First, and it changed the way I dealt with revenue and expenses. (Highly recommend all business owners read this, whether you are new or been in the game for a bit!)
Beyond surprise trips, Whisked Away has expanded into group travel as well. In May I’m taking a group to Tuscany with Dana Childs Intuitive to spend a week in a private villa/vineyard, and in January 2020 we have a group going to the cloud forest of Ecuador. Both trips have a spiritual bent and I’m excited to see how travel can further change lives.
The goals I have for Whisked Away don’t necessarily involve revenue goals. Instead, my goals revolve around what I want to accomplish because of Whisked Away. We already make a Kiva microloan to a woman in a developing country for every trip booked, but I’d like to expand our giving to environmental causes and immigrant rights’ organizations. I’ll also be sending the people I love on their bucket list dream trips, and of course, those will be a surprise!
I’m also interested in how Whisked Away can contribute to my overall well-being. How do I want to live day-to-day while running Whisked Away? Numbers are important but I got into business so that I could do something that I love, in a healthy way. Don’t get me wrong- I have big dreams for Whisked Away and I know that if I continue serving travelers and giving them the best possible experience that Whisked Away will flourish. It just has to be about something more than a number.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?* *
I’ve learned that success is not overnight. Anytime you hear that someone made six figures their first month in business, feel happy for them and then back away slowly. That kind of information is crazy-making and in the end doesn’t help you get to where you want to be at all.
The people that are genuine in their business will be honest and tell you that it took them a long time to get where they are, and there were a lot of missteps along the way. That’s okay- it’s how we learn to be better.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I was using Tailwind for Pinterest which I loved, but a lot of my Pinterest traffic came to look at one blog post and then didn’t move on to other parts of my website, so I took pinning off my “to do” list.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Being Boss has stopped recording as frequently but I highly recommend going back through their archives for real talk about how the first few years of business are going to be.
StoryBrand with Donald Miller is the companion podcast to his book and framework, and he really teaches what the process is all about and how to implement it, so you are being extra clear with your messaging.
Entrepreneurship Elevated is hosted by the author of Profit First, and he interviews a lot of great business leaders and isn’t afraid to get into the nitty gritty of business. I always leave with a takeaway.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t compare yourself to others, but do learn from them. Do they have an easier way of doing something you are trying to do? Reach out to them and ask them about it.
Don’t spend any money on advertising (including Facebook ads) until you understand what you are selling, what your messaging is and who you are selling to. I wasted a lot of money on this in the beginning.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Whisked Away Surprise Travel
- Facebook Travel Group
- Get in Touch (Yes, really! I’d love to chat travel with you!) [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!