Episode 84: Turning Travel into a Career, with Trip Sisters, Colleen Kelly and Catie Keogh
What if you got along with your sibling enough to travel with them – on a regular basis? That’s the life today’s guests are living.
On this episode, we explore the world with Colleen Kelly and Catie Keogh. We’ll talk about what it takes to follow your dream – and then market and produce something that makes your dream cash-flow positive!
Colleen is the host, creator, and executive producer of the popular national PBS television series Family Travel with Colleen Kelly. The well-known travel series airs to over 96% of the country to 17 million viewers and is currently in production of its fifth season. As an Emmy-nominated executive producer, travel expert, and engaging television personality, Colleen Kelly has been a featured and keynote speaker at high profile travel industry events and appears in numerous radio and television broadcasts.
Catie’s extensive broadcasting background includes a 2015 regional Emmy win for Best Magazine Program as Executive Producer – Host, a 2012 Emmy win for On-air Talent – Host, and 11 additional Emmy nominations across her production company and team. Catie’s insight for creating 24/7 City Secrets was to provide a much-needed insider view of the sights, sounds, and experiences of her dynamic hometown, Chicago.
In addition to Family Travel, Colleen is also the co-creator and co-host of their newest series, Trip Sisters, where she works with her co-host and sister, Catie, collectively as live contributors for the Travel Channel’s six-million-plus followers on Facebook and Instagram.
More on Catie’s Background
Thank you for joining me, Catie and Colleen. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.
Catie, your bio only tells a little bit of the story. Could you please give us a little bit more about your journey and how you’ve gotten to where you are today?
Catie: Absolutely. Well, I went to the University of Texas in Austin and graduated with a communications degree not knowing what I wanted to do with it. I did know that I loved improvising. I did acting in high school. I had an opportunity to move to Chicago, and I did, and I joined the improv troop there called Improv Olympics and Second City. This gave me the freedom to be who I wanted to be and to find my creativity. I fell in love with it. I still had a full-time job but, long story short, I did that for six years and then moved to Baltimore with my husband for his job. I thought, “Now what do I do?” The improv scene wasn’t huge there. I also had a full-time job as a pharmaceutical rep. I started with a little place in Baltimore called BTV, interning.
I did for a year, loved it, and then came back to Chicago. I talked to my sister and said, “Let’s do a TV show together,” and she said, “Absolutely! Let’s start a show.” As one does, right? It sounds crazy, but there was nothing like the show we envisioned happening in Chicago. We started the showed called 24/7 Chicago, and it was all about things to do in the cities, celebrities, new openings, and we started up together, and it took off from there.
Wow. That’s really cool. I’ve got to tell you I have a connection to Second City because my mother’s husband is Jeffrey Sweet who wrote a book about Second City. He’s very well known for that book. At family occasions, we talk about Second City all the time.
Catie: Oh, my goodness. I’ve read that book. I have that book at my house; it’s fantastic. I lived by that book.
What I think is so cool about your story is how you have this passion and as you’re moving through your career, you keep coming back to that passion. I like how you went to Baltimore, found out about this BTV program that you worked on, and came back to Chicago and thought, “Why don’t we start something like this?”
It brings you along to where you are today.
Catie: I always tell people, Colleen and I didn’t find our career, our stride in life, until after we had kids. For me, the kid’s stage took a long time. Colleen went first, and she had her first daughter, and then she had her second daughter, and I tried and finally got pregnant after a long time, so that was all happening between all of this. As much as it’s been a tough journey, at the same time, I always tell people, I didn’t find my voice until after we had kids.
That’s really interesting. I can certainly relate to that as well as I’m the mother of four daughters. It gives you a new perspective on life.
So Catie, tell us a little bit more about where you are right now regarding what you’re doing with Trip Sisters. I understand there’s a new radio show that’s coming out.
Catie: Yes. This will be exciting. How it all happened, and I’ll let Colleen tell her story as well, but long story short, after my show ended about a year and a half ago, I started working with Colleen on her show, and we just have always had this connection together. When we’d be on set for Colleen’s show, people would ask, “Why don’t you guys do your own travel show?” She and I have that sister chemistry, sometimes good, sometimes sister chemistry. I always tell people that you know it’s right when things come easily, and it’s been coming easily. We’re really excited about this new radio show that we have coming up.
How to Stand Out From the Crowd
That’s awesome. I’d like to start with some of these questions for you Catie, and I’ll look for Colleen’s perspective as well. Creativity is one of the things we like to focus on in this show, specifically: creativity in the tourism and hospitality industry. There is of course also a lot of competition in this industry. I’m sure the world you work in is also very competitive regarding building those audiences and finding the right stories to feature. Can you talk a little bit about what you have done to stand out from the crowd?
Caite: For me, it’s all about social media. It’s interesting how our world is just changing. I think you have to be able to be flexible in this whole word, this every changing world of social media. That’s for me, where I’ve been focusing a lot of my strength. I work on observing, researching, and trying to be the best social media person I can be. I feel like that’s where it’s at. Ten years ago it might have been the broadcast world; now it’s more in the social media. So in term of my strength, I’d say that’s where I’m really focusing on, building my brand and also being authentic to who your brand is. Don’t let anyone tell you what your brand is. Only you know what that brand is. Does that make sense?
“Don't let anyone tell you what your brand is. Only you know what that brand is.” - @CatieKeogh #podcast Click To Tweet
Yeah, absolutely. Can you give an example of how you are true to your brand and stay authentic?
Catie: I would love to say I don’t use filters but I do so that’s not as authentic. How do I stay true to it? If you know me then you know I have this love and passion for social media. I know that sounds crazy. My husband thinks I’m nuts because I’m always trying to find that perfect photo. It makes me happy. It brings me joy in a lot of ways, finding that perfect sunset or capturing whatever moment. I don’t know. I don’t post too much about myself. Do people want to know that? Sometimes I feel like it’s just a little bit too much. No one needs to know what I eat for breakfast. I guess just try to stay true, don’t repeat things. When I record something on social media, I don’t tape it over again. I just put it out there, and I push that send button right away. I try to keep that as authentic as possible.
Catie: A lot of people edit. They’ll edit their photos, not to say I don’t do that; I’ve done that for sure, but I think just keeping in the moment. That’s what I try to do all the time.
When you’re working with a destination, or you’re featuring somebody on your show or through your social channels, are there certain things they should be thinking about as they’re looking to work for you? Is there any advice you can provide for them?
Catie: People want to know the latest and greatest, right? As much as we just talked about social media, people want to know where’s the best spot to take that Instagram photo or how do I show my friends on Facebook that I’m doing this cool activity? The question I always ask: what best represents your destination? Not just the big touristy places, but what is your best place off the beaten path that maybe only the locals know about? That’s what I want to know about. Or places that have been around a long time but they may not have the funding behind them to have big ad campaigns, but are great finds. When you have people coming to visit where are you taking them? That’s where I want to go.
“People want to know where's the best spot to take that Instagram photo or show their friends on Facebook that I'm doing a cool activity. The question I always ask: what best represents your destination?” - @CatieKeogh #podcast Click To Tweet
I think that’s a great point. This whole idea of off the beaten path that plays into what you were just talking about with authenticity. It seems that people are most interested in what locals know. We really want to know and see a destination from the locals’ perspective. Have you found that that has changed over your career as you’ve been doing this? Do you see a trend in folks being more interested in those off the beaten path kinds of experiences versus those more well-known places?
Catie: Definitely. I had someone tell me “I have this ‘been there’ list or ‘check it off’ list.” I said, “What’s a check it off list?” She said, “Well I just want to tell people I’ve been there. I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower, check. I’ve been to the Louvre, check.” I thought that’s so interesting. Should I just not tell people on Facebook or wherever that I’ve done that? I thought that’s sort of interesting because I thought I do too. I want the checklist of been there done that, but I also want to find the hidden gems. I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower, but if you go six blocks to the west, you’ll find this cute little café that no one knows about. So I think travel professionals, our goal always is to find that hidden gem that nobody else has found.
I think you make a good point there, too. That’s why you have your audience looking to you for those hidden gems. They’re relying on you to find those for them. You’re looking at it from your perspective as it’s your job. This is what people are asking me for, and this is what I need to deliver. Whether or not that translates into your audience racing out to see that most obscure that most Instagram shot, that becomes that next step, right?
Catie: I think too, even with destinations, I love when destinations give us examples or places they’ll say, “Okay you have to go to this place, and you have to go there.” I love that, but I also like, as a professional, the ability to just walk and find it on my own. That’s what I love when I go into cities or towns. I’ll go to that bakery you just told me to go to, but I’m going to go explore on my own. That’s when I find these gems, and that’s where, again, it separates us regarding this is a cool place you need to know about. Not to say that destinations can’t give us that because they do but sometimes you just have to find it on your own, what speaks to you. I love being able to walk a city. I do that everywhere I go, on my own.
I think that’s great.
Catie: Sometimes you can’t read about it. You know what I’m saying? You can research. I’m a huge researcher. Before I go to any city I will research everything I can about it, but sometimes you have to go there, and you don’t even know what you’re going to find. That’s what I love so much about this job. I don’t know what I’m going to find, but if I find this awesome little coffee shop, nothing makes my heart skip more than that.
That’s awesome. Well, we have to say goodbye to Catie, but Colleen is here to fill in the rest of the blanks. Thank you, Catie.
More on Colleen’s Background
So, Colleen, as Catie gave us her background, could share a little bit about your journey and how you’ve gotten to where you are today?
Colleen: I started out in sales. I worked for Heineken and Jagermeister years ago. As Catie mentioned, after we’d had our kids we came up with this concept of 24/7 Chicago. We didn’t know how to do a television show; we just figured it out. We ordered a mic flag, we got a camera guy that needed some celebrities for his reel, and we just showed up wherever celebrities were and started interviewing them, which is interesting. After a crashing a few places where NBC was also showing up, NBC said to us, “Who are you?” And so we said, “We’re a television show. We have a website, and this is what we want to do.”
So, the short story is: we created something out of nothing and NBC took notice of it and picked us up for a half hour show right after Saturday Night Live in Chicago.
That show went on for many years. After about two years, I left to start my own thing. Catie was the host of that show, which she went on to win Emmy’s for which is awesome. I really wanted to do a travel show. This had always been my dream, but of course, if you tell anybody you want to do a travel show, they all look at you like you’re crazy especially when you’re a mom with two kids.
Some of the best advice I’ve gotten was when a friend of mine said, “find the hook and do what you know.” I had two kids, so I thought there should be a show about family travel. I did my research, found one show called Travel With Kids, but other than that nothing about family travel as a whole. I was shocked. I created a pilot, brought my kids into it, and then started pitching it. It was called Family Travel with Colleen Kelly. I went to tons of places; Discovery, Travel Channel, everything, and finally PBS said, “You know we love this concept. We can’t believe it hasn’t been done. Let us do our research; we’ll get back to you.” They did their research, they were like, “Okay. It hasn’t been done. You’re going to be one of two shows that go national.” My dream came true, but then the hard work started.
Family Travel took about a year or two to shoot. We had to travel to different destinations, but as I said, I was able to bring my children. My husband has a regular job, but he came every once and a while. We moved on to 96% of the country. It reached 17 million people, and it also airs internationally now, so we’re now in season six. It’s been a long road, a tough road but it’s been a good one.
There are so many interesting things about that. Family travel is a huge segment of the travel and tourism industry. The fact that you were able to create something that includes your own growing family is great. I can see those strange looks that you must have gotten when you talked about starting a travel show.
Colleen: I didn’t leave them as a travel host. It was the best of both worlds.
That’s incredible. It also actually reminded me of an earlier episode on this podcast with Rainer Jenss from the Family Travel Association. Do you know Rainer?
Colleen: He’s one of my friends. I know him well. I love Rainer.
He talked about his year-long journey with his family around the world. I was just in awe that he was able to do that and what an incredible gift to give those kids. I think that’s really awesome.
Colleen: I think it teaches them a lot about culture. My mother is a retired teacher, and she always believed travel is education and I believe that, too. They’ve been very lucky to be able to travel and learn about different places.
Best Practices for Approaching Hosts for Your Destination
That’s incredible. A lot of our audience members would be pitching you or hosting you or wanting their destination showcased. I just asked Catie about being creative and what kinds of creative things she has done to stand out from a crowd. I’m curious, from your perspective Colleen are there any creative ways that you’ve seen destinations approach you or work with you? Are there some best practices or some advice that you can share with our listeners about that?
Colleen: That’s a really good question. We’re moving into season six, and we’ve been on now for seven years. We’ve done a lot of zoos. We’ve done a lot of children’s museums, and they’ve been fantastic, but we’ve been looking for really unique destinations. Maybe it’s not what you think of. I love Orlando, but we’re looking for something that’s different and unique. We’re also looking to get out more into nature, do more adventure because the best part about adventure is kids getting detached from their devices. We are looking for more destinations in those terms and really something unique and something that maybe families haven’t thought of before but want to do.
We’re also working on Trip Sisters with Catie and myself. That’s a little bit more of the girlfriend getaway concept. I don’t know if Catie mentioned, but we work with the Travel Channel on the digital side, and we also write for them. So we’ve got Family Travel and then Trip Sisters where we are still both moms but more like the women going off on an adventure type of thing and bonding with the girlfriends.
That’s so needed especially when you are a working mother. You do have to have your girl time as well, right?
Colleen: There’s nothing like it, especially now. Just to get away with a bunch of girlfriends, it’s special, and it’s not easy to get away, but we’ve all got to make time for that for sure.
Absolutely. Is there a difference in how you’re looking at Trip Sisters versus the Family Travel show that you’re doing? Are you looking at different destinations or different types of segments? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Colleen: That’s a good question. Most destinations can fulfill both angles, and we do a lot of shooting where we shoot Family Travel. Catie is the executive producer on our show, so after that’s wrapped up, we’ll do the Trip Sisters segment from a completely different angle. There are some destinations that prefer just Trip Sisters like Napa, although it can be very family friendly. Napa, Vegas, a little more Trip Sister-ish but most destinations lend themselves to both girlfriend kind of getaways and family travel. You just do different things. There’s a lot more wine in Trip Sisters than Family Travel.
Creative Solutions to Challenges within the Travel Industry
I imagine there would be. One of the things I like to ask our guests about is a challenge they may have faced and the creative solution that might have come from facing that challenge. Do you have a challenge that you can share with us and the creative solution that came from that?
Colleen: I have many challenges I could share with you. Being an entrepreneur and starting this show, first of all, there was nothing for women to watch. The travel industry as a whole typically has a lot of male hosts. It was a challenge trying to find a show that appeals to women and getting these networks to understand that women make the majority of travel decisions. 80% of all travel decisions are made by women. That was a huge challenge, trying to get past that and having a network pick us up. In the end, PBS saw that. They believe in women, so we were able to get through to PBS and make the show national.
That was a huge challenge for me. I was told by several networks that women don’t watch travel shows. But the majority of us women are planning the trips. It really was an interesting challenge in this day and age to hear that, but I was able to overcome that. I’m still working on the other networks, trying to get them to understand that women make the majority of the travel decisions; thus we are also the ones purchasing a lot of products and so forth. So it was a huge challenge, and I’m still actually working on it now with the other networks. I’m sure we’ll get through. It’s the year of the woman in my opinion.
“I was told by several networks that women don't watch travel shows. But the majority of us women are planning the trips... 80% of all travel decisions are made by women.” - @FamilyTravelCK #podcast Click To Tweet
It hadn’t really occurred to me, and I’m in this industry, and I hadn’t thought about it like that that there are so many of these shows that have those male hosts. My husband loves to watch those and if it was marketed more as a travel show my husband probably wouldn’t be interested in it. But because it’s Andrew Zimmerman, right, eating crazy foods he’s all about it.
Colleen: Right. That’s cool. I’ve met Andrew. He’s a nice guy but watching Bizarre Foods for me, as a woman, is not my cup of tea. It’s much more your husbands, which makes sense. Samantha Brown and I, and we’re friends, she now has moved to PBS, are the only national travel hosts that I know on broadcast. We need to change that and get some more women out there.
Absolutely. What did you do to convince those networks? It sounds like you did your research and your homework and were eventually able to convince PBS. Is that really how you went about that?
Colleen: Yes. PBS believes in education and history. They saw that the show had a lot of that as well, so they really liked that aspect.
Regarding the other networks, Discovery said no and Travel Channel, we now are starting to work with them as the Trip Sisters on the digital side and write for them, but still, we don’t have a broadcast show with them. I think it will change in the future. We’re still working on those challenges. It’s not easy for women, but we keep chipping away at it, and we’ll get there.
I think you’ve done amazingly well already with the 96% of the country with your reach, and all the awards that Catie has received.
Colleen: It’s funny because you mention 96%, but it wasn’t me that reached that 96%. PBS was a vehicle to get me there. It just showed us how many people needed a show about family travel. It was the viewers that took us to 96%. It was a great testament to that need for family travel and multi-destination. It wasn’t all me.
Sounds great. Looking into the future, is there a project that you’re excited about?
Colleen: Yeah. We’re excited about Trip Sisters. Family Travel is going really strong. We’re moving into a new season so if anybody does want us to shoot in their destination; it’s a great time to get in touch with us. But Trip Sisters is super exciting. I’ve never seen anything like this. When Catie and I were separate and suddenly came together, the show was on fire. I think what I’ve heard from other people is they love our sister banter. Catie’s very funny. She’s a lot like Lucy, so I guess that makes me Ethel. She’s very funny, and of course, you see the competitiveness between us. We’ve done a lot of things now, like I said working with the Travel Channel on the digital side, writing for them, doing videos, digital vignettes, and now we just got offered a radio show.
We’re super excited about that. I get to travel with my sister. It’s so much fun, and it’s definitely a show that is needed. I had a lot of women say, “Oh my god! I’m so glad you’re doing this because I’ve got sisters. I love traveling with them.” I’ve had other people say, “I don’t have a sister, but my best friend is like my sister.” It’s been interesting to watch this over the last year and a half and how quickly it’s grown. That’s super exciting for myself and my sister too.
That’s awesome. What a great business the two of you have built up. You get to do what you enjoy doing with your own family, who you enjoy being with. That’s great.
Colleen: We are sisters, though. It’s not always perfect.
Oh, I’m a sister as well, so I totally understand it’s not always roses and sunshine.
No, it’s fun.
How to Reach Colleen Kelly
You mentioned you’re starting season six and now’s a good time to reach out to you. Is there a specific way that folks should reach out to you? Could you expand on that a little bit?
Colleen: They can reach out to us through social media on Family Travel CK, on Instagram and Facebook, Twitter as well or TripSisters.com and we’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They can PM us or they can also email us. My production company is called Travel Film Productions and Audrey, our producer handles and fields all the calls for destinations. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to email@example.com. We’ll definitely respond.
Do you focus just on the US or do you go all over?
Colleen: We go all over. Mainly we started the show Family Travel because most families travel domestically, especially with younger children but we just talked to Australia not too long ago. They like to focus on older kids because it’s a longer flight, but we go all over. We go to Europe. We’d love to go to South America. We haven’t done anything with them yet or Central America. There’s a lot of opportunity in this world to do so many destinations. We go all over.
Do you find your destinations mainly from them reaching to you or are you doing your own research internally and identifying some gaps or some places that you want to bring to your audience?
Colleen: That’s a great question. A lot of destinations do reach out to us, but we also reach out to destinations. We might have a couple of Florida episodes and realize we need to get to the west coast and do something over there so it’s a little more even across the country. We also like to highlight all different size destinations. We don’t want to just highlight the big cities; we want to highlight smaller destinations like Holland, Michigan which we did a couple of seasons ago, or Shenandoah Valley which was fascinating. We like to highlight small, medium, and large destinations. Whatever is great for families but as I mentioned before, we are looking for some more adventure this year, so if there’s a destination that has a lot of adventure, we’d love that.
Successful Collaboration: Shenandoah Valley
That’s great. That’s awesome. Just switching gears now, we like to also talk a little bit about collaboration. I’m wondering about what I call “coop-etition” where you might perceive two destinations to be competing against each other, but they come together to collaborate to make something bigger and better for the visitor.
I’m wondering if you have any examples of a collaboration working out for you, or where you’ve seen or been part of a collaboration that you think has been very successful.
Colleen: Wow. That’s a really good question. A lot of destinations want the attention, but they’re not sure how to get it.
For instance, I was working with Shenandoah Valley. They had 12 counties, and all 12 of these counties were trying to promote separately. So they all worked together, all 12 of them, and I remember I had 12 of them on a conference call, but it was so smart. They worked together to create one show about Shenandoah Valley, trying to get people to the destination. We picked the eight best things because we couldn’t cover all 12. We kept the eight best highlights, and it turned out to be a fantastic show. It was really interesting to watch all of these people join together for the greater good of the destination.
I think that’s such a great example. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Because a visitor doesn’t know what county they’re in, right? They just know they’re in the Shenandoah Valley. I think that’s really incredible when you can get 12 counties like that together and agree on eight things to feature which means probably four were left out, but they understood they were working for the greater good, so that’s cool.
Colleen: That’s exactly right. But that was fine with them because they said, “It’s okay, just get everyone here.” It was one of my favorite episodes. We had a lavender farm which we’d never done before. We went into caverns. They had such unique things to do, and the weather was beautiful. I would highly recommend if anyone wants to go to Shenandoah Valley for a vacation. It was just breathtaking.
Oh, that’s awesome. Well, this has been a great conversation as I knew it would be. Is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners that I haven’t asked you about?
Colleen: That’s a really good question. I’ve been keynote speaking for a while, mostly on travel and tourism. Catie and I just started to keynote speak, and a lot of people have been asking me, “How did you do this because this was your dream?” I think that a lot of people are looking for advice. Don’t give up your dream. Never give up, and I always tell people too, if you’ve got a dream, and you’ve got a regular job just do something for 15 minutes a day towards your dream. Suddenly after 15 minutes, time goes by and 30 minutes are going by, and you’re working on your dream and every day it gets a little bit more. After about a year, you’d be surprised. You know you’re working towards whatever that dream is in your life. That’s basically how we started. This was just little bit every day that grew and grew and grew. Never give up and don’t listen to the naysayers. Surround yourself with positive people.
“Don't give up your dream. Never give up. If you've got a dream, and you've got a regular job just do something for 15 minutes a day towards your dream.” - @FamilyTavelCK #podcast Click To Tweet
Colleen: I had a lot of people tell me I couldn’t do.
Excellent advice. Don’t give up and surround yourself with positive people. I think that just holds true in so many different areas of life and I think that’s wonderful advice. Thank you very much for sharing that with us.
Colleen: Absolutely. It’s part of life like you said, that can be true everywhere.
Exactly and you know what? I didn’t say it earlier, but I loved when you said, “So I decided I was going to start a TV show and we didn’t know what we were doing but we just figured we would do it.”
Colleen: We made it up. We literally didn’t have a TV show, but in our heads we did. We made it up and that was the thing to, we just did it. When we were asked about this radio show, we just said yes and knew we would figure it out later. I didn’t know how to do a television show. Catie had some background when she was in Baltimore, but we didn’t know what we were doing. We figured it out. That’s what’s so amazing. If you just say yes, you’d be amazed what you can figure out. And Google helps too.
“I didn't know how to do a television show. We figured it out. That's what's so amazing. If you just say yes, you'd be amazed what you can figure out. And Google helps too.” - @FamilyTavelck #podcast Click To Tweet
My kids tell me that all the time. I’ll say, “What are you doing?” “Oh I’m making this cake in a mug in the microwave,” and I said, “How do you know how to do that?” “Well, I saw it on YouTube.”
Colleen: It’s true. That’s really how to start a television show – on Youtube.
It probably is. Well, this has been great. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, and I appreciate you are spending some time with us and we will catch up with you and Catie in the future.
Thank you again. This was wonderful. I just really enjoyed talking to you, Nicole. It was great.
Thanks. You too, Colleen.