To say that Sophia Kulich is passionate about her specialty is an understatement.
Kulich’s Palm Harbor, Fla.-based EMCO Travel sells Jewish heritage tours through its subsidiary, Jewish Travel Agency.
In a niche known for life-changing journeys, Kulich’s own life story is an inspiration itself.
Travel: an escape
As a Jew growing up in the former Soviet Union, Kulich couldn’t travel. Moreover, her access to the outside world was completely dictated by the state. Her one escape: a TV program about travel that she watched faithfully.
After years of failed attempts, Kulich, her husband George and young sons emigrated in 1982. Settling first in Vienna and then Rome, they eventually joined relatives in New York City.
They had $42 in their pockets.
Fortunately, Kulich’s engineering degree landed her a job at General Electric.
A failed vacation, a new job
She fell into travel after the family’s first vacation to Disney World didn’t turn out as planned. Their travel agent failed to mention that their Daytona Beach accommodations were hours away from Orlando and overrun with spring breakers to boot.
After that experience, Kulich began planning her own family trips.
She joined a local travel agency part-time to learn the business and in 2000, she and George formed their own home-based agency.
George passed away in 2007 but Kulich has continued to build the business. Two agents help her with reservations and marketing but she remains Jewish Travel Agency’s driving force.
Kulich specializes in bespoke independent itineraries, using local guides and transport companies she gets to know personally.
Europe and the Middle East are big sellers for clients looking to reconnect to their Jewish heritage. Sites significant to World War II and the Holocaust are of prime interest, of course.
But Kulich thinks it’s important to also emphasize architecture, music and art appreciation. “I love Marc Chagall and have put some itineraries together focusing on his life and work,” she notes.
Tours of Vienna, Prague and Budapest are top-sellers but Kulich is also keen to promote destinations like Bosnia which she calls a hidden treasure.
She also has branched out into Jewish Heritage port tours for cruise ship passengers.
Working with a Jewish clientele can call for special planning. Kulich arranges for kosher catering practically anywhere in the world. She even sells kosher safaris.
“There are certain things travel agents need to remember with Jewish people,” she said. “They can’t handle money on Shabbat, so it’s best to make sure any pre-payments are made before Friday. And we only plan walking tours for Shabbat.”
Business from agents
The majority of Kulich’s business comes from fellow travel agents. She offers a 12% commission and works with agents throughout the country who find her on the Internet.