The travel industry attracts a hugely diverse range of people from all over the world and all sorts of backgrounds. But they do share something in common. Few people enter the travel industry strictly to get rich. People throw themselves into travel with their hearts and souls. They join because they believe in travel. It’s not just about moving around from place to place. For some people, promoting travel is a mission. That is certainly true of Mariette Tipton, owner of Great Getaways Travel, of Clermont, Georgia.
For Tipton, travel was in her blood. It was a major part of her life before she was old enough to know anything different. She was born into a global consciousness. By the time she was seven years old, she had lived on three continents.
But although travel was part of her life from the beginning, it did not become a profession until much later. Looking back on her varied career, it is clear that the themes of travel and service were woven together throughout her life.
Out of the ruins
It started in the Netherlands, the ancestral home of Mariette’s parents. Like much of Europe, Holland was largely in ruins after World War II. There was little housing available, and Mariette’s newlywed parents would have a long wait to secure a home of their own. Her father’s nine siblings all left Holland, spread out to different places, and became a global family. Tipton had cousins all over the world.
Mariette’s father wanted to take his family to America. But there were limits on immigration to America, so he took an opportunity to work as a watchmaker in South Africa. Tipton was born in Johannesburg. When she was 3 years old, she was struck down by polio and spent nine months in the hospital recovering. The lonely experience marked her formative years.
“My parents were not allowed to visit,” she said. “I guess it molded my independent nature. I don’t really remember it. I probably blocked it out. I do know that I was paralyzed and couldn’t walk. I’m really thankful that I have no residual effects. I was very fortunate. I was one of few who came out without any lasting damage.”
In 1960, her father’s brother was able to sponsor the family to move to America. Tipton was six when the family left South Africa. She retained few memories of the country. “Riding the turtles at Kruger National Park is all I remember,” she said.
The children stayed in Holland while Mariette’s father went ahead to America to secure a job and housing. The children spent nine months absorbing the culture of Holland.
“I lived with my grandmother,” she said. “It was during Christmas time. I remember St. Nicholas. In the Dutch tradition, he comes with Black Pete, who makes sure you behave.”
Nation of immigrants
When Mariette’s father got things in order, the rest of the family followed him to America, and settled in Elkhart, Indiana. When she started school, she was a foreigner who didn’t speak English.
“English was my third language,” she said, “after Dutch and Afrikaans. But I found my way and adapted quickly. I had an older brother and a younger sister in the same boat.”
Tipton was drawn toward helping others, and she studied to be a special education teacher at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and Indiana University in Bloomington. “I was a special ed teacher,” she said. “I worked with children with learning disabilities.”
She taught in the classroom for 14 years, and worked with deaf and blind infants for an additional 12 years, taking off a few years in between to raise her three kids. But travel continued to be a strong element in her life.
“I spent five years in Puerto Rico,” she said. “My husband started a business in Aguadilla on the west coast near Rincon. I transferred there with my children, who were eight and nine. My youngest child was born there.”
She continued working as a special ed teacher in Puerto Rico, and again, when the family moved to Georgia. Then she went into business for herself developing resort properties in Florida, South Carolina (Daufuskie Island), and the highlands of North Carolina. She did that for eight years until the market dropped, and then she moved onto other things.
Travel with a mission
Mariette’s propensity for travel merged with her desire to help others in 2006, when a friend invited her to join a mission team that took her back to the continent of her birth. A group of friends from her church traveled to Zambia, not to convert people, but to bring aid.
“We don’t go with the intention of changing people,” she said. “We accept them for who they are and try to figure out how to help.”
The group worked at a crisis nursery in Zambia. “It was essentially an adoption nursery,” she said. “It rescued infants whose mothers had died and they were abandoned. We went several times and built a pre-school. Our group of women from the church named ourselves The Sisters of Zambia. It’s still in existence. Four of us built a school.”
The group did missionary work around the world, including in the Yucatan, Mexico; the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Pakistan. During those years, she also took personal journeys to Scandinavia, India, and other places.
Why don’t you be a travel agent?
The more she traveled, the more she wanted to travel. But her husband was pursuing his own aspirations to run a horse ranch, and wanted to stay home and work on his ranch.
“My kids were grown,” she said. “I was getting itchy feet to travel. I tried to encourage my husband to travel with me. I was constantly saying, ‘Let’s go here, let’s go there.’ In frustration, he finally said to me, ‘Why don’t you be a travel agent?’”
It was an epiphany. “A lightbulb went off in my head,” she said. “I had never thought of that. He had retired as a school superintendent and got into raising horses. It was what he wanted to do. He wasn’t interested in leaving that.”
The next day, she got onto the internet and started figuring out how to become a travel agent. “A friend of a friend in South Carolina had an agency, and said I could work under her,” said Tipton.
After she had practiced the trade for six months, and attended a CLIA conference and many webinars, she realized, “I can do this on my own.” In 2012, she started her own agency.
Getaway gets off the ground
When Tipton discovered her calling as a travel advisor, all the wheels of her life started clicking in sync. As the business grew, she hired three agents. After two years, the agency had grossed $500,000 in sales. It is now on its way to breaking a million. But for Tipton, travel is still a mission.
“I always felt like a citizen of the world,” she said. “When I do my presentations to people, I encourage them to look beyond the architecture, to talk to people, try to understand the culture — not just visit the city, but try to understand a little of the politics, the culture, the living environment. The personal experience people get from travel is so valuable.”
Being a perennial outsider herself gave her a perspective to understand and empathize with people from different cultures. “It’s my little way of making the world a better place; to support local economies; to not be that ugly American; to travel for the heart experience and not just the head. I like what travel does to people. Once you have been to a country, when it gets in the news, you are more aware.
“It’s good for people to travel. We do need to become more aware, to appreciate what we have.”