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Women-only travel company aims to coax women beyond their comfort zone and into cultural bliss



PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Mary Cecchini in her back yard, Forest Park.Mary Cecchini’s mom always told her, “love big, live big.” So when the corporate life was getting too claustrophobic, Mary started a women-only travel company and called it Living Big.

The concept is simple: women often want to travel to exotic places, but they don’t want to do it solo. They also don’t want the group dynamic that comes with a mixed-sex trip: all that mansplaining, flirting and competition can distract from experiencing the host country.

Last year she took nine women to Costa Rica ($2,100 for eight nights, plus air fare). When her usual chef who hosts an empanada-making lesson said his restaurant was out of action, Cecchini told him how much the ladies had been looking forward to it. “So he said ‘I don’t think my wife would mind,’ and offered us his home kitchen! We ended up having a great time and holding his kids....”

As part of a reunion, the Oregon-based women all came to Cecchini’s house this spring and made empanadas again.

A good fit

The goal of her kind of travel is making a connection with people. She says she almost considers them her friends. She meets or Skypes with everyone before they sign up, to make sure they’ll fit in.

“I’ll meet them at REI to pick out a backpack. Or I talk to them, someone calls, saying ‘I got mom shamed by the idea of taking a vacation on my own...’”

They have to be able to hike for two hours, share a room, and be OK with what she calls “highs and lows” travel style.

For example, one night they might stay on cots in a mountain hut in Appenzell, Switzerland, brushing their teeth with bottled water. The next night she makes sure they go somewhere nice like a four star hotel. Again: picnic lunch, swanky dinner. (She also takes women on “glamorous camping” trips in Oregon, and actually uses the word “glamping.”)

Cecchini plans to run about four international trips per year. Successes so far include Croatia, Switzerland and Iceland. She also does Oregon trips, such as Crater Lake, crabbing and yurting at the coast, and day trips such as hikes and snowshoeing. $50 for a day of snowshoeing is more of a loss leader, or marketing, she says. “It’s a way for women who are wondering if Living Big is for them to dip their toe in the water.”

Bliss this way

Living Big is selling more than just foreign culture. Cecchini holds up her own story of following her bliss, and suggests others may be inspired by it.

She graduated from Portland State University at age 20 and after an internship planning events on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., she made her way up the marketing ladder, starting locally with Henry V. (She was a project manager on the Tillamook Baby Loaf cheese-tasting camper vans.)

“I was working in marketing, with agencies and brands, and aggressively grew into my career because other people thought I was good at it.”

In 2012 she had rumblings of “How did I get here?” doubt. When her mother had a brain aneurysm, it hit home. “It’s such a cliché but you think, you could die any moment. I realized the path I was on in the corporate world wasn’t the path I’m supposed to be on.”

So, in 2013, she quit her job and went travelling solo for five months, mainly around Europe. It gave her space to think. She also went through the Heart Spark program, which helped define her new mission.

“When I got back I knew I had to do something new, otherwise it would have been a waste of time. I forced myself into a place where I had to make a decision.”

Men are from Mars

In a way Cecchini is a classic millennial: “My generation has the drive to connect the work we do on a 60 hours a week basis with something that’s meaningful to us.”

It became clear to her that her gift is to empower women to fulfill their travel dreams. And not just the young and the restless — women at any stage of life.

“For me the audience I find so sacred is the women who want to travel but are not, either because they don’t have anyone to go with, or they’re scared to go alone, or their partners don’t want to go with them.”

She has to answer the question often: Does she not like men? That’s not the case. She’s just trying to cater to women who feel more comfortable travelling without them. And no, she has never experienced cattiness. On the contrary:

“I think women are curious and sensitive, they want to learn about other lifestyles, relationships and work dynamics and parenting dynamics. That feeds a lot of the dialog and conversation.”

There was a trip to Japan on the docket for this year that would have welcomed male partners or friends of women, but she cancelled it for lack of interest.

Making emotional bank

Cecchini still does marketing work, mainly for big Oregon brands, but as a contractor.

That pays the bills so she can take research trips — this year to India and Italy — with a view to taking groups there in future. The Living Big trips break even right now, but she regards the fulfillment they give her as more valuable than money.

Her method is quite hands-on. She meets with hotel owners, tour guides and minivan drivers in advance so as to know what to expect. “I don’t want my people in a van all day with a driver who is grumpy.”

Kinder, gentler Type-A

Likewise, she finds hotel and pensione owners who will go the extra mile for her clients, such as serving up a tray of ice cold beer at the end of a hot day.

These are the perks and personal touches she micromanages. The first few days of a trip are about making sure everyone settles in and bonds.

After that, she says she’s often just the person who picks up the tab after meals.

Ten is the maximum number in a group before the bonds get weakened, and she would like to scale Living Big the business, but is wary of it starting to feel like a job.

Perhaps outsourcing some of the admin work, the booking and communications, might help. But she is still all about serving the women she travels with.

“Any more than 10 people puts me in classic tour operator space, you know, fanny packs and headsets.”

Like many small businesses, content and storytelling will keep it alive.

There’s a blog always to be kept fresh.

“I am exploring doing an e-book, a content series,” she says. “Maybe it’s the marketer in me but first priority is to nail the brand.”

LIVING BIG

Web: livingbig.org/adventures

Instagram: @marylivingbig


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