Field Guide

Carrie McDougall introduces travelers to the world’s local cultures, up close and personal

by Sharon Faelten

Carrie McDougallCarrie McDougall operates her tour company, Cultural Crossroads, from her state-of-the-art home office in Barre, surrounded by items from her travels and watercolors by her late father, a talented painter.

The travel bug bit Carrie McDougall early. She was 10 in 1967 when her parents took her and her 11-year-old sister, Sandy, to Europe for five weeks. Montrealers, they were seeking a way to get out of the city, which they knew would be overrun with tourists coming to Expo ’67.

“I was hooked,” McDougall says. “The cultures were different, the food was different, the scenery was different.” The influence was so strong that years later, when she returned to some of the places they visited, she could still find her way down certain streets. Then in her teens, McDougall spent part of one summer in Mexico and another in France, where her French became fluent. “I even dreamed in French,” she says.

Travel has influenced many of McDougall’s vocational choices, and she has turned her passion for it into a flourishing business called Cultural Crossroads in Barre. Specializing in small-group tours with custom itineraries, she has visited 55 countries and all seven continents.

A 1978 degree in physical education from the University of Western Ontario gave her an entrée into various career posts that laid the groundwork for Cultural Crossroads.

“I taught tennis at a resort in Jacksonville and worked for Disney World, an airline, two travel agencies, and a television station,” she recalls. Next came a four-year opportunity to set up education programs in India and Nepal for the Canadian government. True to her interests, McDougall returned home via Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Hawaii.

A two-year stint in PR and sports marketing at Golf Digest and Tennis magazines in New York was followed by various jobs in alumni relations, fund raising, and community programs at Harvard. While working in the Harvard alumni office, McDougall earned a degree in International Relations at Lesley College (now Lesley University).

She speaks with pride of her accomplishments at Harvard. “One was to get seatbelts into the hearts of the public and to get Hollywood and TV to have characters in their shows use the term ‘designated driver’ and wear seatbelts.”

As it happened, the alumni office shared space with the university travel division. “One day, the travel office asked me to lead a group trip,” she says, “so I did, and ended up leading 14 trips all over the world for them.”

McDougall showed a knack for troubleshooting the typical glitches that can occur during organized trips, such as itinerary changes or medical emergencies. She recalls an incident in Italy where a passenger had a toothache, and she had to find a dentist and act as go-between. (“How do you say `root canal’ in Italian?” she jokes.)

Soon McDougall was planning events with alumni clubs all over the world, emphasizing local talks by local people. “I want people to understand the culture through the people of the culture,” she explains.

After 13 years, McDougall was laid off by Harvard — an opportunity, she says, to step back and ask herself what she really wanted to do. Serendipity stepped in.

“While I was figuring this all out, my brother, Duncan’s, girlfriend, Belle [now his wife], who was living in Waterbury Center, asked me to house-sit,” she says. “Then a neighbor of hers who ran a travel tour business asked me to cover the business while she traveled. Two guys in Hyde Park asked me to house-sit for five months when they had to go to Mexico.” In effect, she says, she was paying for an apartment in Boston but living in Vermont. She decided to move.

“I love Vermont,” says McDougall, who hikes, bikes, skis, kayaks, and plays golf and tennis. “I used to drive through Vermont from Boston to Montreal and back and think, ‘Wow! People actually live here! This is gorgeous!’”

She moved to Vermont and took a couple of years off, consulting for two Internet startups, then took a job in the alumni office at Norwich University.

She continued to ponder the possibility of starting a tour business of her own. Six years ago, she met Lincoln Lahue. They married in 2005, and he encouraged her to take the leap. “I had money saved, I had medical benefits through Lincoln’s job, and I thought, it’s time to do this,” says McDougall.

Carrie McDougall photographs copyright 2008
Click photo group to enlarge.
(Courtesy of Carrie McDougall, ©2008)

“Starting a business is a big decision, but once you take the jump, things start coming to you,” she continues. “If you’re excited about what you do, and you believe in it with a passion, people see that, and doors open.”

McDougall exhibits photographs from her travels in local art shows. Clockwise from above left: A seller in a longboat trades his wares in the Damnoen Saduak fl oating market southwest of Bangkok. ◊ The world’s largest solid-gold buddha, it weighs 5 tons. ◊ The Buddhist monk at left had just blessed McDougall. ◊ A hat-seller paddles through the Damnoen Saduak floating market.

The network of contacts McDougall had accumulated during her years of experience served her well. As soon as word got around that she’d decided to strike out on her own, travel professionals she’d worked with over the years began to phone her.

“Operators of good tour companies called me to say, ‘We really want to work with you,’” says McDougall. “Great — but I didn’t have any clients yet.” Membership in associations such as the Educational Travel Conference, Africa Travel Association, the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Women Business Owners of Vermont generates business, as do annual industry events such as The New York Times and Boston Globe travel shows.

Cultural Crossroads leads 20 to 25 trips a year all over the world. McDougall personally researches each destination. Making reconnaissance trips, she works with local guides, operators, and attraction directors to create experiences otherwise unavailable to the traveling public.

Small groups of eight to 16 people can access attractions that large groups cannot, she says. “We can go to a small local restaurant, because we fit, and enjoy food with the local residents. We can have a private visit to the Sistine Chapel by ourselves, after hours, and lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling fresco for an hour if we want to, while the art guide explains the artist’s work. Otherwise, you have to wait in line, get assigned a time, and have 20 minutes to view the artist’s work with a whole room full of other visitors.”

Creative thinking, savvy negotiating, and direct relationships enable McDougall to arrange other exclusive events, such as a luncheon and private horse show at the Royal Stables in Jordan, attended by the queen —the stables are not open to the public; a behind-the-scenes visit with families of hand-crafters at a bazaar in Egypt; access to the pilot room of a cruise ship on the Nile, talking to the captain, whose family has been navigating the Nile over generations for 500 years; a trip to a camp in Australia to view rock art never seen by anyone other than the Aboriginal people.

“Those are the kinds of local interactions that bring culture closer to the people and people to the culture,” McDougall says. “These excursions change people’s perception of the world and its cultures one person at a time.”

Cultural Crossroads’ customized cultural trips earned spots in Condé Nast Traveler’s annual features “50 Trips of a Lifetime” in 2006 and “40 Trips of a Lifetime” in 2007. Both listings generated new business for McDougall. A film producer from London called to book a trip to view Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan as a birthday present for his wife, who was reading The Da Vinci Code and wanted to see da Vinci’s work.

Andrew Cramer, a physician in Portland, Ore., and his 20-year-old daughter booked a trip to Israel and Jordan through Cultural Crossroads. Cramer says, “I’d been to Israel before on my own, but having the tour arranged though Cultural Crossroads was especially helpful. The trip was a profound experience for my daughter, who was in college at the time.”

A portion of Cultural Crossroads’ revenues is donated to organizations that benefit communities visited, such as the Jordan River Foundation in Egypt and the Maya Educational Foundation in Guatemala.

While Cultural Crossroads is best-known for its tours abroad, McDougall wants to run more trips to Vermont. “A lot of people outside the state don’t realize that Vermont has so much more than skiing, foliage, and maple syrup,” she points out. “We have so many other offerings—furniture making, chocolate companies, farms, museums—I could go on and on.”

McDougall is optimistic about the current downturn in the economy and its effect on her tour company. In her experience, people with disposable income are still traveling. Small, customized tours appeal to people who want to celebrate special occasions such as reunions or birthdays. Companies offer trips as incentive rewards to salespeople, clients, and other associates.

“There will always be money for travel,” concludes McDougall. •