Jim Johnson ’76

If you’re in a box, you can only be as big as the box; when you’re outside the box, there are no constraints. At Wesleyan, you realize rather quickly that the box might have four sides but it doesn’t have a bottom—so you better learn to swim or fly. And it doesn’t have a top, so you have the chance to soar. The unacceptable alternative is holding onto the sides.

At Wesleyan I learned how to thrive without imposed structure and was given the space to evolve and grow: to think critically, to question the way things were done, and to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit and follow my passions.

My most influential professor was Arthur Wensinger. Professor Wensinger wasn’t just a German professor or scholar to me; he was also a mentor. My second biggest inspiration was a Wesleyan grad: John Chivers ’56, my German teacher at Phillips Academy, Andover, who had been taught by Professor Wensinger at Wesleyan. The circle was complete.

After I graduated, I was involved in marketing and promotion: as a consultant putting on festivals, as marketing director of a performing arts center, working for a state arts council helping arts startups, as the founder of my own copywriting business, and as marketing director for a consortium of German cities. Eventually I headed up public relations for a Fortune 100 company.  Almost from the start, I did freelance travel writing part-time, focusing mostly on German-speaking countries. I did most of my research by bike, immersing myself in the culture to fully experience each area. I remember reading that seeing Europe by bus, train, or car is like having a movie unfold around you. But when you’re on a bike, you’re actually in the movie. It’s true.

In 2002, after 10 years in corporate America, I lost my job. At first, it seemed rather tragic, but then I decided to take a look at things in an entrepreneurial Wesleyan way: What do I want to do with my life? What’s my passion?

I love riding my bike, I love traveling, and I love travel planning—something I did for my family even as an eight-year-old.  I also had extensive experience creating websites. How could I turn all these interests into a career? While I didn’t want to get involved in the logistical aspects of tour planning and operations, I thought some of the small local European bike tour companies I had worked with during my travel writing years might want someone to represent them in the U.S. To the companies, I would be a North American representative; to the clients, I would be a specialized travel agent only selling bicycle tours.  So I reached out to my contacts, designed a website and started selling European bike tours to the North American market.

During the first year, BikeToursDirect had about five tour operators and 40 tours and booked 130 clients. Today we represent about 140 small overseas bike tour companies offering nearly 550 tours in more than 70 countries. This year we expect to advise and book nearly 4,500 clients.

Since 2003, BikeToursDirect has helped change the model of overseas bicycle touring, taking it from being only for the very adventurous or very affluent to making it accessible to the mildly adventurous on more modest budgets. Rather than offer our own tours, we sell tours organized by the local operators. It’s a win-win-win: clients can find well-priced quality tours, tour operators gain access to markets they never would’ve been able to reach, and my business and staff do well, allowing us to give back to our community by supporting many outdoor initiatives here in Chattanooga. We also support sustainable tourism: Bikes are good for the environment, and using local companies allows most money to stay local.

I can say I’m in the bike tour business or in the travel business, but I like to think I’m in the business of helping make people’s dreams come true. There’s nothing more rewarding than when a client comes back and tells you the trip is something they’ll always remember or that their family will be talking about the trip 20 years from now. That’s the best part.