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Launching a Surprise Travel Agency From Scratch

4 Launching a Surprise Travel Agency From Scratch

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Today’s guest is Charlotte McGhee, the founder of Whisked Away, which is a travel agency that exclusively plans mystery trips for clients. Her customers literally have no idea where they’re going until it’s time to travel, making for a super fun surprise! I had never heard of the concept of surprise travel before discovering Whisked Away, but I absolutely love the idea and think Charlotte has done an amazing job building this business from the ground up.

If you’ve ever dreamed of one day starting your own online travel agency, or maybe you just love planning trips for people and want to know how to turn that passion into a profitable business, then definitely listen in. Charlotte is an open book and really dives into some of the challenges she’s faced and what she’s learned since starting her mystery travel business in 2017.

Launching her own surprise travel agency

While enjoying drinks on another perfectly planned weekend trip away, Charlotte’s husband made a suggestion: she should do this for a living. “What, drinking?” Charlotte laughed. But it was then that she decided to turn her passion for travel planning into her profession.

Charlotte launched Whisked Away in 2017. Though her company has evolved over the years, she eventually settled on the surprise travel niche. “I wanted to come up with a way to provide travelers with zero work and stress on their end.”

So what is surprise travel? Clients fill out a survey answering basic questions such as which region they want to visit, how much they’re willing to spend, what type of weather they prefer, and what sort of activities they are interested in.

Charlotte then designs a customized mystery vacation that is perfectly suited to them. “It’s like online dating for travel. You have a professional matchmaker for you and your perfect trip.”

Whisked Away is also different than most traditional travel agencies because they don’t work on commission. Charlotte emphasizes, “I wanted to be focused on what is best [for each client], not what is best for getting me a kickback.”

When creating customized trips for her guests, Charlotte dedicates a lot of time to finding the right accommodation and suppliers. “If you walk into the accommodation that someone else has booked for you and you’re not wowed, that’s going to be an issue.”

In addition to taking from her own travel experiences, she reads through travel blogs to gather honest feedback about a place. The entire process usually takes between 10-12 hours, though it can sometimes be much longer.

Finding her first clients

Despite launching her website in March 2017, Charlotte didn’t receive any bookings until June. She urges first-time business owners to be patient and to “give yourself some grace as you start your business.”

Her very first clients were friends and of friends. From there, bookings slowly increased as she began using social media and attending local events to promote her business.

Soon more and more clients were finding her through word of mouth. Finally, after a year of business, Charlotte was able to leave her teaching job and go full time with Whisked Away. Eventually she hopes to outsource some of the social media and marketing roles of her business, but for now she remains a one-woman operation.

Bringing Christmas to her clients

In the weeks leading up to their mystery vacation, clients receive a brief email about the weather conditions and instruction on what to pack. Otherwise, the destination remains a complete surprise. “I want them to feel like a kid on Christmas morning,” Charlotte says.

And they definitely do. A week before departure, clients receive a package in the mail revealing their surprise itinerary.

Charlotte commissioned a local artist — the gentleman who designed her wedding invitations — to handcraft her itinerary template. This makes the packages sent out to client feel even more special and personalized.

Pivoting her travel agency during Covid

Charlotte is extremely honest about mistakes she has made along the way. She reveals that back in March, she sent out a newsletter to her subscribers largely dismissing covid. “I am so ashamed by this, knowing what we know now.”

But her honesty is just one of Charlotte’s many amazing qualities. She is also incredibly adept at learning from her mistakes and rebounding against the odds.

As international travel became an impossibility, Charlotte focused her attention on road trips instead. “It’s kept things steady and I think it’s a really good first step into surprise travel because there’s less risk. If I tell you I’m willing to drive 4 hours from Charlotte, there’s only so many places you can send me and I’m not scared of any of those places.”

More from this episode

How has Covid actually been a blessing to Charlotte’s business in some ways? What has been the biggest challenge of launching Whisked Away? What she includes in her newsletter to attract more clients? What advice would she give to someone hoping to start a travel agency? Tune in to hear more from this inspiring entrepreneur!

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kara blythe creative

Kara Myers

PODCASTER + WEB DESIGNER

I’m a former tourism professional turned web designer and podcaster. Tune in each week as I interview inspirational women crushing it in the travel industry. 

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