Debra Harris had just retired from a 27-year career in federal law enforcement and was preparing to launch a second career as a travel advisor when, at age 51, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
A Type A personality to her core, Harris said she was stopped in her tracks by the 2013 cancer diagnosis. “It was like hitting a brick wall. I had all the questions anybody’s who’s ever been diagnosed with cancer asks: Why me? What did I do? What is the universe trying to tell me?”
Harris was enrolled in a travel professional certification course and was deciding how to structure her as-yet-unborn business, Life’s Journey Travel, LLC, when she was forced to hit the pause button. For about a year, she put her business dreams on hold while she focused on her health.
After recovering from the necessary surgeries, Harris moved from greater Washington, D.C., to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Then she took stock. “I said, OK I’ve got this. Now how can I share this path, this journey, with others?”
Awakening to her mission
The cancer experience had changed Harris in big ways, including by opening up this former “just-the-facts ma’am investigator” to her more creative side. “This was my awakening,” she said.
It also altered her plans for her travel business. “This whole cancer thing was like a long dream. When I woke up, I had better defined what I wanted to do.”
“What the cancer journey told me is that I really need to find people who need to benefit from this. Some of them are baby boomers, and some are those people at the top of the echelon who are very very busy, who just check a box when they travel. But life isn’t about checking a box, nor is travel.
“I feel that my mission is to help people slow down and savor life. Use all your senses. Recognize what’s important. Take in the moment. Breathe.”
For the joy of it
Harris’ sweet spot is small group immersive travel. “I enjoy food, wine, immersive experiences. Learning and insatiable curiosity are what drive me when I travel, and those bespoke experiences, those little things that you’re only going to get either working with me or traveling with me.
“There are people who call me who want to do 10 countries in 10 days. That is not my traveler. I want to work with travelers who are interested in lingering a longer, diving a little more deeply, and getting a sense of the place.”
Joy now serves as Harris’ guidepost when deciding whether to plan a trip for a client. “I need to get joy from the trip you’re taking and to send you somewhere that I know you’re going to get joy.”
Finding her clientele
She has found success attracting new clients from her engagement with local groups that feed her personal interests. She’s a member of two wine clubs, a gastronomy club, and a garden club, all of which happen to align neatly with her preferred style of travel.
She’s also collaborating with the genealogy researcher who did her own family tree to explore ways of pairing ancestry research and travel, and she plans to add genealogy research travel to her offering next year.
When qualifying clients, Harris draws on the high-level interviewing skills she acquired as an investigator for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
“To me, the most important question is the why, and from there continuing with open-ended questions and diving a little deeper. It’s really finding out what their dreams and aspirations are for a trip and qualifying around that.
“If I have something I can add that adds value to their why, that’s where I get joy.”
Harris will only work with customers with whom she feels a connection. “My relationship with my travelers has to be genuine, authentic, and real. It cannot be just because I see a commission check.
“I want that relationship. That’s the part that really brings me joy. It if doesn’t bring me joy then it is one and done. Life is too short.”
That focus on building authentic relationships with clients helps differentiate her, she said.
The importance of support
Harris credits the coaching support she has received through her host agency, Gifted Travel Network, with helping her to redefine her business vision and clarify the unique “medicine” she has to offer.
She encouraged other travel advisors to surround themselves “with a supportive, collaborative community in the industry that you can bounce ideas off of and ask for advice.
“In the cancer journey, there are so many support groups. You need that in the travel community too. That’s another thing cancer taught me.”