Born and raised in Cusco, Peru, Mery Calderon started working at her mother's souvenir store at an early age, where she developed a passion to meet new people and learn about the world and other cultures beyond her own local context. When time came to find a career, it was natural that she chose to study tourism at the university in Cusco. After graduating, she worked for some of the best hotels and travel agencies around, absorbing a wealth of knowledge in how world travelers saw her region. With a constant passion to learn and evolve, Mery founded Kuoda Travel in 2004 after seeing the need for a company that would better serve visitors to South America, by offering truly personalized and unique travel experiences. With many years building real connections with local communities and other companies with similar ethical views, Mery has witnessed how her vision (to not only share her corner of the world with Kuoda’s enthusiastic guests, but to make a difference to those living in Peru as well) has now become a way of life with her trusted network of partners.
How did you get into the industry?
When I was eight years old, I used to accompany my mom to her souvenir shop in the main plaza. It was fun for me: I could meet people, learn about different cultures, make new friends. When time came to choose a career to study, I naturally looked to tourism at the national university in Cusco.
One of my first jobs after university was as a trainee at what´s now Belmond Hotels. I learned a lot about customer service, and I was lucky enough that my bosses were from hotels around the world. They were direct, with high expectations. Working for them, I rediscovered how much I liked daily interaction with clients, like in the souvenir shop.
After five years, I joined a luxury travel company, where we specialized in luxury travel experiences around the world.
In 2003, I decided I wanted to do something smaller and more specialized on my own, and I started Kuoda. Since then, we have developed a passion for providing the ultimate travel experience for each and every guest we have the opportunity to serve.
Any emerging industry trends?
In the past, luxury travel was only about sleeping in good hotels. Today, luxury is about experiences. People want to be immersed in the culture of the destination they are visiting---they´re asking, “How can I take cooking classes? Where can I take dance lessons?” Guests still want tailor-made trips that are customized and personalized, but they also want to experience living like the locals.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
The biggest challenge at the moment is technology. Our guests are starting to demand more services be available online; they would like us to be more tech-savvy.
As for opportunities, right now those are mainly in developing new itineraries focused on the specific needs and interests of clients from a more global market. Kuoda´s main market at the moment is the United States, but I would like to be able to approach other ones, too, especially the Chinese and Asian markets.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the business?
When I was working for other companies, I saw a need for learning a more about customers as individuals and crafting personalized journeys depending on their unique needs and interests. We adapt proposals to them, rather than asking them to adjust to us. When I started Kuoda fourteen years ago, there were fewer than five companies doing something similar to what we did.
Kuoda´s concept of luxury is, “Do whatever you want, at your own pace.” At Kuoda, we want to help make the best travel memories of our guests´ lives!
What´s next for the business in the near future?
In the future, I see Kuoda maintaining its reputation as a leading travel company with excellent customer service. We would like to be able to extend our tours to the rest of Latin and South America, and will soon be reinforcing Kuoda experiences in Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.
We have also been focused on being more sustainable---for example, we provide all of our guests with lovely aluminum water bottles to encourage lower waste during their journey, and support many social projects in the region around Cusco, Peru.
Your key initiatives for the success of the business?
From the beginning, I have tried to be personally involved in the experiences of our guests. I want to know who they are and what they want. Very often, I make personalized recommendations---where to eat, for example. I try to meet most of our guests face to face and learn about their perspectives, their dreams---the more I know them, the better I can serve them.
It´s also imperative that our Kuoda family members know the hotels, destinations, and activities we promote, so we provide those experiences at the expense of the company. Having such a knowledgeable team, that can listen to a client and then respond with real understanding of the opportunities we offer, is key to Kuoda´s excellent customer service.
One other strategy is that we attract the best guides---that´s a must for us. Once we hire them, we still reinforce their education and training. They really know how to share our culture as a friend, rather than just a guide, while prioritizing guests´ own stories and perspectives.
Your most difficult moment at the business? (And what did you learn?)
At the very beginning, when I had just started Kuoda, we had great ideas and we knew what we were doing, but things didn´t come easily: we didn´t have the background, or the customer base. Reputation is everything. I learned that a good reputation will bring new customers, and highly satisfied customers will turn into referrals almost instantly. Currently, forty percent of our guests are referred! But reputation takes time and work—it´s something you have to build.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
The ideal experience for our clients is feeling understood, and that they are traveling with and being taken care of by knowledgeable friends, rather than strangers. I think they appreciate when their needs are anticipated, and they enjoy their trip the most when we can embed really meaningful experiences. For example, we include exquisite meals in the local homes of renowned chefs and artists, but we might list them on the itineraries merely as “lunch,” in order to give our guests a really remarkable, pleasant surprise!
Ideally, the client feels that the trip is theirs in all senses. Many of our guests leave Peru knowing that they are saying goodbye to good friends who know, understand, and care about them on a personal level.
How do you motivate others?
I believe in role-modeling. I always think that, more than listening to you, your employees will watch you. Honesty, a sense of humor, good energy, etc.. The little things matter. When you treat your team with care and respect, they will do the same with your clients.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Love what you do! Otherwise, learn how to love what you do. I feel so blessed that, from the very beginning, working in this industry was a pleasure for me. There is so much to learn every day!
Also, build a strong network of highly qualified individuals, and try to be surrounded by the best in your industry---you will always learn something, and you will always teach something.