An Entrepreneur’s Story: Turning A Passion For Travel Into A Career

There isn’t a cure for the travel bug, but the disease isn’t one that Shari Harper plans to cure anytime soon.

In fact, the more she gets the opportunity to travel, the better because the feeling of going somewhere new brings about a rejuvenating feeling. For Harper, there’s nothing quite like chowing down on exotic cuisine, meeting new people, trying something new and exploring different cultures.

“When you travel, it changes your entire personality. You see things, you learn things and do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. It leaves you wanting more,” she explains.

“I’ve never met anybody that travelled once and didn’t get bit by the travel bug and not want to see more.”

A well-seasoned traveller, Harper has visited well over a dozen countries including England, France, Ireland, Bermuda, Cuba and Scotland and she’s loved every minute of it.

But it was a visit to Greece that really cemented her desire to explore the world.

At 19, Harper celebrated her graduation from college with her first vacation; a three-week trip she took with her friend to Greece. It was the first time Harper says she got a taste of travelling and it would be an experience that she wouldn’t forget.

After more than 10 hours in the air, Harper’s plane landed in Athens where she was supposed to catch another flight to Santorini where she was planning on staying. But all flights were grounded due to the wind.

She could have spent the night in the airport waiting for the next available flight, but another opportunity presented itself; Harper opted to take a late-night ferry ride to Santorini.

Harper remembers the rain pouring down hard, while the ferry rocked violently in the wind. It was 11 at night when Harper finally arrived in Santorini, and to make matters even more interesting, the plank wouldn’t lower properly to the ground to let passengers off the boat. There she was in the dark, forced to jump off the boat with her suitcases in her hand.

“It was cold and it was awesome. I won’t ever forget it.”

Harper’s wanderlust could be considered genetic. Her mother, Joyce Elaine Harper, always made sure her children were exposed to as many cultures as possible, whether it was through food, cultural events or stories from her own travel experiences.

“My mom was always making different meals and talking about different cultures. Travel was always a discussion in our house.”

When Harper was faced with losing her job in 2015, she was left wondering what she wanted to do next. The uncertainty kept creeping into the back of her mind.

She didn’t want to take just any job. She didn’t want to be a travel agent, but Harper did know she wanted to help fellow travellers.

After some thought, it only made sense to turn her passion into a job so she took a chance and started her own business. She went to the Fort Erie Business Success and Loan Centre, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting small businesses and entrepreneurship in Fort Erie, Ontario, where she found help in creating a business plan. She also received a small salary to keep her going until her business took off.

J.E. Harper and Company—named for Harper’s mother—is nestled in between other quaint shops in downtown Ridgeway, Ontario, and it has become more than just a travel and retail store. It’s also become a hub for local travel enthusiasts in the community to share their adventures and helpful tips with each other.

When travellers walk up the front steps and through the door, they are greeted by Harper’s warm and inviting smile.

It’s hard not to feel at home in the small shop with a large palm tree in the centre, neatly arranged travellers’ essentials, and a tropical orange painted on the walls.

Harper invites her customers-turned friends to put their travel pictures on the wall.

If you ask, Harper will even share her own stories, like the time she visited Ixtapa, Mexico, for instance.

It was the Pacific Ocean-side of the country, and “very beautiful,” Harper remembers.

She went off the resort and ended up finding an open-air bar with an outdoor pizza oven. The owner was a man from Windsor, Ont., named Frank who met and married a Mexican woman.

“It was at the end of the Junior hockey season and there we were watching it playing on a big screen projector. I’ll never forget it.”

Or the time Harper travelled to Italy and stayed in a 16th-century farmhouse.

The owner, Harper recalls, ran a cat rescue outside where roughly 30 cats called home.

At night, the sounds of wild boars lulled her to sleep.

Harper would wake in the mornings to explore Medieval cities that were just a 10-to-15-minute car ride away.

“I don’t know what is cooler than that,” she says.

It hasn’t been easy, operating her own business. Harper is usually behind the counter of her store before the doors even open, and she’s there after business hours.

There’s always something to do, whether it’s posting new products in her online store, ordering items, or cleaning and arranging the storefront. And there hasn’t been much time for her own travelling these days—something which Harper says she’s looking to do more of in the next five to 10 years as her business matures.

At one point, Harper admits she thought about closing the store because business was thin.

“But then I thought to myself, what am I going to do?”

So, she makes it work. Harper runs the store mostly by herself and has been lucky enough to be able to hire a part-time employee to fill in where needed. At other times, Harper says she is fortunate enough to have family that steps in and take the reins so-to-speak behind the till.

There’s nothing else Harper says she wants to do, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

If there’s one piece of advice Harper could offer someone who is wanting to start a business, it’s for that person to find what they are passionate about, and make a business plan. Without a plan, running a business is close to impossible.

When you have a plan and a passion, she says nothing can stop you if you don’t let it.

“If you have a passion for something, and you want it, you have a feeling and you just go for it.”