Thought travel agencies were a thing of the past? Think again.
Like any business model that has experienced a degree of irrelevancy, the only hope for survival is through adapting to cultural evolution and reinventing the aging model. Sometimes a young mind with a fresh outlook can go a long way in making that happen.
Enter Kalamazoo startup Cluventure Travel
. Still in its infancy, the operation has had close to 70 clients hit the road, open water, and international air space over the past year-and-a-half and word-of-mouth is quickly spreading. In fact, Cluventure Travel and its burgeoning mystery business model have even been noted by Frommer’s
as one of the top trends expected to shape travel in 2018.
At the helm is Desi Taylor, a Western Michigan University student who, while finishing her Spanish degree, is in adventurous entrepreneurial cahoots with longtime friend Monica Stefanac.
Taylor will be quick to point out that it’s quite true anyone can plan a vacation on their own these days with a few clicks on the Internet. The question looms though: What if you don’t have the time or energy to plan? Or are looking to break away from the same ol’, same ol’ and want to head somewhere new and different, but have no idea where to begin?
If you can relate to those questions and are adventurous enough to let go of the reins and embark on a tailor-made trip to a destination unknown, Taylor and Stefanac have got you covered. Since the business’ inception, the duo and their team has sent fearless travelers on extended vacations to Aruba, weekends in Austin, themed overnights in Midwestern cities, and even planned corporate retreats and localized birthday celebrations.
It begins by getting to know the client, says Taylor, who recently presented a short pitch on Cluventure at Western Michigan University’s Starting Gate program Demo Day
Once on board, travelers-to-be undergo an interview process that covers what they are and aren’t looking for in an adventure, how long they want to be away, how much they want to plan (or not plan) once they reach their destination, what their travel budget is, and how they are willing to travel — by car, plane, boat or train, or any combination of those. Taylor and Stefanac then start to piece the adventure together and come up with a series of clues that set the path in motion for their clients.
An idea was born
Stefanac and Taylor had been trying to come up with an original idea for a travel agency for some time. But it wasn’t until Taylor took her partner on an anniversary trip a couple years ago that the light bulb went off.
“I organized a three-week road trip and each day there was a new envelope to open,” an excitable Taylor recalls. “There were clues like ‘wear hiking shoes and follow these directions.’ Every day there was a new envelope. We got back, and everyone was saying, ‘Oh, I wish somebody would do that for me. I wish my significant other would do something like that for my anniversary.’ People were telling me that they would pay for someone to do that!”
That’s when Taylor called Stefanac, the now vice president and fellow adventure specialist with Cluventure.
“Desi was so excited because she had this awesome idea about starting a travel agency that had clues embedded in the travel experience,” Stefanac recalls. “We had always talked about starting a travel agency, because we both love to travel, but there are so many agencies out there we had been trying to figure out how to make ourselves different. Once she called, we got the ball rolling and decided to try and make it work and see if it could be a thing.”
Part of the idea behind that “thing” is not just taking the planning out of the vacation for their clients, and implementing the element of surprise, but to keep people from spending half of their trip researching where to go and what to do next.
“We are trying to get people off of their phones,” Taylor says. “In addition to departure clues, we also give on the ground clues, which could be a treasure map, a riddle, directions to go to a cafe and find someone named Sally who is sitting there with your next envelope. What we really want is for people to actually be paying attention to the places they are visiting while increasing cultural diversity and awareness.”
Embracing the adventure
Kelly Dunchenskie heard about Cluventure by word of mouth through a business associate. She’d been trying to come up with the perfect getaway for her boyfriend’s 30th birthday and decided “why not give it a try?”
“Personally, my creative juices aren’t the best and I’m terrible at keeping a secret and always ruin surprises,” Dunchenskie says. “I wanted to do something cool and different and outside of the box and decided let’s do something where none of us know what is going to happen. That way I won’t ruin the surprise.”
Dunchenskie, her boyfriend (Nick Intgroen) and a good friend (Jeanie Lozano) of theirs then underwent the interview process with Taylor and Stefanac, chose a small overnight package, and after receiving a few clues in the mail leading up to their trip headed out on the road.
Destination? Indianapolis. An underrated Midwestern city none of them had visited before. Huge fans of super heroes, their first clue led them to the Hall of Heroes Super Hero Museum in Elkhart, Ind.
“We had never even heard of it before,” Dunchenskie recalls. “We walked around for about an hour, it was a little place but really cool and right up our alley.”
From there the trio was guided to an Airbnb in downtown Indianapolis and were greeted with suggestions of where to head out that night, leaving some of the decision-making up to them, as requested, but narrowing it down to a few locales based on tastes and interests. They headed out for dinner, an arcade bar, and a distillery. The next morning they were greeted by their final clue.
“We were told that we had to go to a fieldhouse and had absolutely no idea what we are in for,” Dunchenskie says. “When we got there we opened up our last envelope and it was tickets to the Marvel House Universe Live Indianapolis.
“It turned out to be the perfect 30th birthday surprise for Nick. We all had a blast and he was super grateful that I didn’t ruin it.
“It was a little hard to give up control, but I had two people that I trusted taking care of everything and they were on call the entire time in case, for some reason, we got to a place we didn’t like or if something went wrong, they could change or fix it. I’d definitely do something like that again.”
While Dunchenskie’s adventure was one of the shorter trips, Taylor said for longer excursions, clients can expect to receive a resource guide, a packing list, weather report, baggage restrictions, and more.
For a couple she sent off to Aruba, clues leading up to departure included lyrics from the famous Beach Boys song, “Kokomo,” another with a number that is the distance from Michigan to Aruba, and a third written in the Aruban language of Papiamento. It wasn’t until the night before, when the couple received information on the airline they were going to be boarding and their time of departure that they were able to figure out exactly where they were headed.
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Ryan Boldrey is a freelance journalist and editor living in Kalamazoo. A Michigan native, he returned to his home state in 2016 after spending the better part of a decade working as a writer and editor in Colorado. He spends much of his time traveling to see live music and is an avid Michigan State and Detroit sports fan.