DETROIT — Husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Jim and Julie Welch quit successful finance industry jobs to create their own: They now have their own company, Amaze Travel. It’s an agency that, in the age of name-your-price online travel agencies, caters to people seeking luxurious — and personal — experiences.
“We like to throw in extra touches that make for special moments that you wouldn’t be able to make a reservation for,” Julie Welch, 38, said. “No two trips are the same.”
Last year, the Welches had the entire Louvre in Paris closed down for three hours so their clients — a couple — could go on a private, romantic tour of the museum, a former home of French kings. The cost for that rare and unusual experience: $15,000-$20,000. That’s not including the rest of the vacation.
But, not every trip experience they set up is that glamorous — or that expensive.
For clients vacationing in London during the winter holidays, the Welches had a Christmas tree set up in their room.
“We just love to have clients be happy, even if it’s not the most exotic trip,” said Jim Welch, 37. “Client happiness is a big thing for us.”
The Welches don’t charge their clients directly. They make their money through sales commissions with the companies providing travel and accommodations.
For now, the business is run out of their suburban Detroit home, and there are no other employees. They earn less than they used to but enjoy their jobs more, they said. And, in the 2 1/2 years they have been operating, the couple said, they’ve grown to about 300 clients and about $1 million a year in sales. They hope within the next five to 10 years to have 10 times the annual sales, and move into an office and hire eight to 12 employees.
“The cool things about being an entrepreneur are that we get to grow our business,” Jim Welch said. “Every day we work, we’re growing our business and we get to build it the way we want.”
In a conversation edited for clarity and brevity, the couple talked about their business; travel agencies in the age of the internet and, now, a government crackdown on immigration; and what it takes to be entrepreneurs.
Q: Talk about your business.
Julie: We both built decade-long careers and accrued this great business knowledge and had some serious conversations about what our own company would be like if we took that leap. We came up with three criteria: We wanted to make sure we had knowledge of the industry we were going into. We wanted to make sure there was an opportunity or niche we could fill, and we really wanted to wake up every day and enjoy what we did. We were fortunate enough to have traveled a lot in our lives, separately and together. We discovered through the surge of online travel agencies and do-it-yourself travel agents that there was a niche for more concierge services in travel.
Q: So what does your company actually do?
Julie: (Laughter.) I would call it a relationship business. That’s because we focus on getting to know our clients, their personalities, their styles and what’s going to appeal to them. And on the other side of the coin, we focus on our relationship with our industry connections and getting to know their products, services and locations.
Q: But, isn’t that just what a travel agency is supposed to do?
Julie: I agree. That’s what a travel agency should be. But, what we were finding is if you are doing travel yourself, the online information is not only overwhelming, but extremely subjective. It’s a risk. We really try to personalize and customize.
Q: What is the profile of your customer?
Jim: In general, we serve executives. We serve families. It’s the type of people who crave the concierge service we can provide, and also the expertise we can provide. The want someone to handle the details for them because, frankly, they want the piece of mind the trip is going to be taken care of. They get to save the time and effort of going through the information themselves. No two trips are alike.
Q: How did you go from working for firms to opening your own travel agency?
Jim: We’ve been fortunate to travel a lot in our lives and we say how the travel agents would work with us — or with our families — to set up trips, so that’s what gave us an indication to see what was possible in this space. Inspired by that, we saw there was this opportunity to provide this service.
Q: There wasn’t a eureka moment?
Julie: No. It wasn’t overnight. But, it’s kind of the dream. We had these great finance careers and that gave us all the confidence in the world that we could run a business. It’s like that question: If you could win the lottery, what would you do? It’s hard, until your are in that situation and you try to define your passion, you don’t think about it.
Q: So who is ahead on the country count?
Jim: I might be slightly ahead on Julie.
Julie: I think I’m around 26? 23? I don’t know.
Jim: I think Julie is at 23, and I’m at 26 or 27.
Q: Do you keep score?
Jim: It’s hard for either one of us to get ahead now because we travel so much together. But we do sometimes travel separately.
Q: What qualifies someone to be a luxury travel expert?
Julie: It’s not regulated like the CPA or bar exam. Anybody can technically call themselves a travel adviser. I did go through a certification process because in my finance world, I’m used to having credentials after my name. But in reality, what makes you a luxury travel expert is your first-hand experience and your relationships on the ground. And also having that high-touch sense of service.
Q: How much did you invest to start your business?
Julie: Not much.
Jim: We are all self-financed. The startup costs are not tremendously high. I would estimate them to be $30,000 to $40,000.
Q: What is the future of travel?
Julie: It’s all about service. The generations, especially that are coming up, they want personal experiences. People want to experience places that are local. They want to spend a month there, not a four-day weekend. So, what they want to do is to go and feel like they have actually experienced the place, not just checked off the major sites and taken their photos.
Q: Do you have any sense that this new immigration situation from the president’s executive orders will affect your business?
Jim: It’s a great question and we stay on top of current events, whatever the issues of the day are. We have partners throughout the world we can reach out to. It’s probably too early to tell. There is a lot of wait-and-see.
Q: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Julie: The hardest work, the most effort you should put in is when you are developing your business profile. That is the time to do your due diligence. Once you have that set, that is your guiding light. As soon as you open the doors, people are going to want to give you advice, and you are going to want to follow it, and you are going to want to try everything. But, you need to ask yourself, “Does this follow my initial profile and vision?” If it doesn’t, then you are working against yourself. And of course: Have fun. If you don’t start a business you have a passion for, you are not going to do it on weekends, on vacation, on maternity leave. You have to enjoy it because it’s a lot of work.
Jim and Julie Welch
Ages: Jim, 37; Julie, 38
Jim’s education: Bachelor’s degree, accounting, University of Detroit Mercy; masters degree, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Julie’s education: Bachelor’s degree, accounting, Michigan State University; bachelor’s degree in teaching, University of Detroit Mercy.
Family: Cabo, a 13-year-old dog
Hobbies: Jim, country music, history; Julie, live music, boating
Cars: 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 2004 Jeep Liberty
Organizations: Autism Alliance of Michigan, Imerman Angles, City Year Detroit
Couple quit their jobs to start high-end travel service – MyAJC