Virginia’s First Lady of Travel

A talk with Josée Covington, President and CEO of Covington Travel

President and CEO of Richmond-based Covington Travel, Josée Covington, founded her company in 1967. Last year, the now 47-year-old agency earned $86 million, employing 87 people in its three divisions located in Glen Allen, Richmond and Charlottesville. The consummate traveler and classically-trained cellist originally from Luxembourg sat down with Virginia Living to share her thoughts about her industry and her own travels around the world as well as the true meaning of luxury travel.

MY FAVORITE CITY  is Paris, there’s no question. I often say my favorite country to visit, though, is Peru, with Machu Picchu; it’s just divine. Italy is fabulous, so is Spain. Barcelona, my God, I’d go there tomorrow just for the architecture by Gaudí.

LUXURY MEANS A BEAUTIFUL HOTELwant to go to a hotel to eat.

THE BIGGEST THING FOR ME is when you get to a foreign city and there’s somebody there waiting for you to take your baggage, to take you to your hotel and guide you through the maze of traffic. That’s luxury travel, when you have that kind of attention.

RIVER CRUISES, particularly in Europe, are very popular now. You do the Danube, the Rhine, the Seine. There are lovely bars and restaurants on the very upscale barges. When you go on a regular ocean cruise, you see water for two days and not a soul; maybe a fish or two. But with a river cruise, you can walk out on deck and see a village or a castle or green rolling hills.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE TRIPS was to Argentina. The entertainment that we had in the Buenos Aires Hippodrome was over the top—the horses were dancing while tango dancers were mixing in.

CURIOSITY RECENTLY TOOK me to Cuba. Tauck Tours began offering them in 2011. I tried for six months to book it, but they kept being sold out. We finally went with a program called Person to Person, and we met medical staff, looked at their schools, saw ballet lessons, learned about agricultural initiatives and saw concerts. We were busy from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. When we were leaving, I asked the others in the group if they could describe their impressions of the trip in a word or two, and the best answer was “mindboggling.” I agreed. It is mindboggling how the Cuban people do so much with so little. If we could only do business with them, American business would truly flourish. *Note: Travel to Cuba is only allowed for missionary or educational purposes.

I GIVE CEO CLASSES for VCU graduate business students, and they ask me how I have combined a family with business? [Josée and her husband have three adult sons, two of whom work with her at Covington Travel.] I say it’s very simple. The first thing is your spouse. If they understand that this life is 50/50 then anything is possible.

I THINK AMERICAN WOMEN put too much thought on the fact that they are women. I was brought up in Europe, and my mom was a concert pianist. She worked from the day I was born, so I was used to having that role model. American women think they’re the natural underdogs and they’re not—they’re the super-dogs.

YOU DON’T walk in a big, beautiful gorgeous city with short shorts or dressed like you are on the beach. Dress according to the destination—it’s a symbol of respect, and that’s what I would like to see from the people visiting us, too.

TAKE TRAVEL AS IT IS. It’s not like your home, and it’s not supposed to be. Be prepared for the surprise and accept it.

Here are some trips recommended by the team of expert travel agents at Covington Travel.  Bon voyage!

Rhine River Cruise:

Visit Baroque churches in the Black forest, take a pub crawl to taste local Kolsch beers, and visit the famous Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam and the Roemisch-Germanisches Museum of Cologne.

Viking Cruises, rates start at $3,256 per person (airfare not included).

African Safari

Take guided vehicle tours through the national parks and game preserves of Kenya and Tanzania, visit a Maasai village, sample local dishes (kachumbari, anyone?) at a Chef’s table dinner, and visit the site of George Leakey’s famous ancient fossil discoveries in Olduvai gorge.

Abercrombie and Kent tour operators, rates start at $7,300 per person (airfare not included).

Australia by Air

Split your journey down under over several locations using local flights as connections. Jump from the Opera House in Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef to Kangaroo Island to Tasmania.

Rates vary depending on season and availability, contact Covington Travel for details.

Walk Provence

Provence is known for rich wines and decadent food. Visit the local farms and vineyards for a new appreciation of the region’s terroir, then savor the products of Provence in the local cafes and restaurants.

Backroads Tours, rates start at $4,198 per person (airfare not included).

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