On a trip to Italy, John Simon made sure Lynn Flewelling and her fellow travellers saw its famous tourist attractions. But it was a trip to a family farm in a small town that made a lasting impression.
“They grew olives and lemon and made their own limoncello and made their own wine and made their own olive oils,” says Flewelling. “The farmer’s brother owns a pizza place so we went and threw dough around and made stone-baked pizzas.”
Flewelling said the family made them feel at home on their holiday.
“It was amazing,” she says. “My husband is almost 6’5″. He’s like the Friendly Giant. And when we got there the grandmother just loved my husband. By the end, she was kissing him and you felt like you just wanted to pull up a chair at their dinner table and hang out with these people.”
For years, Simon has been organizing these kinds of trips for his family and friends. As many as 40 at a time have tagged along with him to places like Spain, France, Greece and Italy. He’s done it all free of charge, just because he enjoyed travelling like this himself and giving others the joy of having shared experiences like this.
Simon has taken his passion and his talent for organizing these kinds of trips and started a business called Kefi Travel Club.
Kefi is not a typical travel agency. In fact, it’s not an agency at all. It’s a club for like-minded people who want to plan trips together. The yearly membership is $50 and it connects people from around North America through an online hub.
We’re building a club of people who want unique experiences that they can share together,” he says. “They want to travel and enjoy themselves, and they want to share that with other people.”
Members can request trips for anyone in the club or privately for themselves, which Simon and his team will organize. The benefit of the website is that it can connect people with similar interests who live in different places, and in some cases don’t know each other, but would love to travel with a group of like-minded people to new destinations.
It also gives them the ability to communicate via the portal prior to the trip to build anticipation and then share photos on the site after the trip to relive the memories.
Simon is not a traditional travel agent who books flights and off-the-shelf pre-packaged trips. He’s a facilitator who works with members to plan trips and itineraries, and in certain cases designates what he calls “lead bulls,” or people who rally participants and take the lead on the ground for trips that interest them or they are knowledgeable about.
“People will have their own passions, so you may be a cycling fanatic and you say, ‘Listen John, I’d love to take people and show them the canals of the Netherlands and bike in that region.’ I’ll say, ‘Great, you put it out to the club members, we’ll help you put things together and off you guys go.’ ”
Simon will also use the online hub to connect people once they return, encouraging them to use the online portal to share photos and stories about their experiences and maybe get started planning their next trip.
He will also organize several trips a year that members can join. There are currently 13 trips listed on the site for 2018 to places like France, Spain, Madagascar, Vietnam and Italy. They are oriented toward people at all stages of life and interests.
There is a March Break trip to Greece geared toward students and family that want to learn about Greek history and experience its culture. A trip to Ireland in the early fall is organized around tours of pubs – as many as 666 of them! In October there’s is a birding and wildlife tour of Madagascar and a trip to Vietnam that includes visits to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
People who travel with Simon visit most of the popular tourist attractions, says Flewelling, but they also meet the people and experience life off the beaten track.
What I like about it is you can go see the Eiffel Tower. You can go look at the Coliseum,” she says. “But to see those things and also experience the culture is totally different. You get an experience that you wouldn’t get with a cookie-cutter travel agency.”
Paul Manz, who has been travelling with Simon since 2010, has memories of similarly unique and very personal experiences.
“In Spain, we were in a coastal town near Gibraltar during the Euro Cup finals and Spain was playing Italy,” says Manz. “Spain won and it was an all-night party and we were in the thick of it.” John arranged all of that, says Manz, apart from Spain’s winning of course.
Many of these trips are ideal for traveling groups of adults who want to tour wineries, see the countryside and eat nice meals. But Simon says the club is geared toward families too.
Last year, he took seven families – 37 people including teenagers – to Ireland. The kids were always entertained.
“They all had the best time, the only times the phones came out were when pictures were being taken,” he says.
There was no sitting there texting because they were having so much fun. They were running around wild in the Temple Bar district in Dublin. We went hiking the cliffs of Moher led by a local farmer and his son. We ran sheepdogs. The kids had a ball.”
Simon says while people love the trips themselves, he starts getting people excited up to a year in advance, gathering them together to plan an itinerary and cooking food from the country they’ll visit. After they get back, he’ll put together a slideshow and get them together for a party.
In the case of people who live in different places, those interactions will take place online but still be very much part of the experience.
“It becomes not just a two-week trip, it becomes a year-long event,” he says. “People build up, they get excited. They go and have a great time and then come back and relive it all. After that last party, everyone asks, Where are we going next?”
Become a member or learn more on the Kefi Travel Club website.