Blowing Rock ONE on ONE with…Doug Holstein: Have Fun, Will Travel

Blowing Rock ONE on ONE with…Doug Holstein: Have Fun, Will Travel
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Doug Holstein, former food company CEO-turned professional photographer and luxury travel expert.

By David Rogers. July 12, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Over the years, we’ve met a lot of retired folks. One spent a good portion of his retirement years following NASCAR’s premier race circuit around the United States. Others set a goal for visiting all of the national parks, from sea to shining sea.

And then there are those guys who find life on the laze just a bit too boring — or their spouse finally throws up her hands with an ultimatum, “You need to get a job!”

COVER IMAGE: Photographic image by Doug Holstein

Blowing Rock’s Doug Holstein spent most of his professional career in sales and marketing, finally ending up in the corner office of a major food brokerage firm, Rogers American. As a senior executive — including the last eight as CEO — over a span of 15 years he helped grow the company from less than $60 million in annual sales to over $3 billion. He retired in 2000, after spearheading the company’s merger before going public.

We’ll start out with a half hour of social time, including wine and cheese.

His post-retirement life has been the antithesis of boring: in a second career, he’s leveraging his background in sales and marketing — and a very special interest in nature and wildlife photography around the world.  He now has a key role with an Atlanta-based luxury travel company, Distinctive Journeys.

Florence, Italy. Photographic image by Doug Holstein

A former football athlete himself, Mr. Holstein served as the first on-the-field sports photographer for Blowing Rock News in our coverage of Appalachian State and Carolina Panthers football.

He has since hung up his NFL photographer’s vest (shooting faux Panthers in Charlotte is not quite as exciting as shooting real tigers in the wilds of Africa), but we caught up with him last week between trips for an interview about some of his most recent comings and goings.

Blowing Rock News (BRN): Hey Doug, we usually start our Blowing Rock ONE on ONE interviews with a question about the catalyst for the interview. We hear you are hosting some kind of event this week (Thursday, July 16, 2015) at Chetola. Something about river cruises? Are we going tubing down the New River?

Doug Holstein (DH) — laughing: No, I am hosting an informational event about river cruises on behalf of the luxury travel firm I represent, Distinctive Journeys. Our guest speaker is from AmaWaterways, one of the premier river cruise companies in the world. Their destinations include Europe, Vietnam and Cambodia in Southeast Asia, Africa, Myanmar, as well as theme cruises.  For example, they have a jazz-themed cruise down the Blue Danube, through countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia. You could choose between an art- or wine-themed cruise on the Seine River, with a few days in Paris. It’s all about France. You might even consider a Jewish heritage themed cruise down the Rhine, going through France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

BRN: Sounds fun and exciting, as well as educational. So is your event going to provide details on each one of those and others, or what?

DH: Well, we’ll start out with a half-hour social time, with wine and cheese for our guests. Then we’ll have a short segment on Distinctive Journeys, about who we are, what we do, and what we’re about. But the primary segment is a half-hour to 45-minute presentation by AmaWaterways, talking about river cruises in general and why for the last six or seven years that has been one of the hot categories in international travel.  This is an informational session, but we’ll probably have some special offers for people attending our event.

I just learned to love travel — different cultures, different landscapes, and meeting different people.

Getting up close and personal. “This may not look like it, but I was really pretty far away.” Photographic image by Doug Holstein

BRN: Let’s get the business part of this interview out of the way: What is the date, time and place for your event? And do folks need to RSVP?

DH: Thursday, July 16th, 5:30 pm in the Evergreen Room at Chetola for the wine and cheese social part. At 6:00, I’ll do the introductions and provide a brief overview about Distinctive Journeys, then that will be followed by the presenter from AmaWaterways on what is so special about river cruises, as well as why AMA got the highest possible rating from the inaugural edition of the Berlitz Travel Guide on River Cruising. And yes, folks should RSVP to me at 828-295-4561 or email me at

BRN: How did you get into this travel business?

DH: Well, my professional career was in sales and marketing, but at the end I was the CEO of a large food brokerage company, Rogers American. There was a lot of travel worldwide. As a sales guy, I won a bunch of incentive trips and I just learned to love travel. I loved the different cultures, the different landscapes, and meeting the different people. When I retired in 2000, I needed something to fill my time.

I tried golf, but at the same time I picked up photography. (chuckling) They are both very expensive hobbies. To be honest, I didn’t figure out how to be very good at golf. As I kept getting better and better at photography, I quit golf and started signing up for various photography trips, which are usually booked with 8-10 people, sometimes 12.

My first major trip was to Iceland with three of the most famous landscape photographers in the world. This trip was sort of a first of its kind in getting three superb professionals like that together. There were 18 of us on that trip, so they split us up into three groups of six.

Europe is a big deal. And so is Cambodia, Vietnam and China

“We got a warm reception in Antarctica!” Photographic image by Doug Holstein

BRN: Did you organize this trip?

DH: No-no! This was my first trip as a customer with the luxury travel agency, Distinctive Journeys. And it was really something. In our groups of six, we rotated between the three different photographers every day. That’s also when I first went to digital photography. I bought my first digital camera two weeks before I went on the trip and took to it like a duck to water. I took 40 rolls of film for my traditional camera, but never used one of them. I REALLY learned digital on the trip and a couple of those professionals were absolutely fantastic in helping me. They accelerated my learning curve, bigtime.

From there, also as a customer of Distinctive Journeys, the next photography trip was to Antarctica. After that it was to the Galapagos Islands, then two trips to Africa. All of these were planned by Distinctive Journeys. I had become one of their most devoted customers because of the great job they did in both planning and execution.  The second trip to Africa was again a photography trip and the owner of Distinctive Journeys was in the group. It was on that trip that she learned about my sales and marketing background and finally approached me about joining the firm to help them promote Distinctive Journeys.

“This leopard cub was about three months old.” Photographic image by Doug Holstein

I don’t do any of the planning. We have better people for that. I just let people know who we are, what we do and what we are about. It’s been four years for me now and it has been extremely gratifying. I make a couple of bucks. I travel somewhere every year. I am very involved in the production and planning of our marketing materials. And I put on informational events like the one we are hosting Thursday night at Chetola. The other bonus is that I get to receive a lot of compliments and make a lot of new, strong friendships among the customers that we work with.

Thursday night is our third informational event in Blowing Rock. The first two were at Blowing Rock Country Club. For the Chetola event, I am really looking forward to advancing my education about river cruises.  AmaWaterways is one of the premier service providers in the industry. You know, for about the last six or seven years, river cruises have been one of the hottest travel categories.

I couldn’t figure out how to be good at golf, but I kept getting better and better at photography.


BRN: Talk a little bit more about the transformation from your role as CEO of a food brokerage company doing more than $3 billion in annual sales to accomplished photographer and travel agency representative.

DH (smiling): Truthfully? If I was to be reincarnated I’d like to come back as a travel agent. What I have found is that the people in Distinctive Journeys who plan your trip have quite often been there. They have been to that country. They have been on that safari. Good travel agents actually spend a lot of time travelling. The owner of Distinctive Journeys, for example, is Janie Bullard and she has been on every continent except for Antarctica. After you have had 28 years of experience, you have been to a lot of places.  I’ve now been on every continent other than Australia.

BRN: How much of an appetite does the travel market have for these kinds of custom trips instead of going somewhere and then sort of spontaneously going places and doing things?

DH: That is not only a great question, it is an important question. You have to remember that we are talking international travel. You can do that sort of spontaneous travel domestically because for someone living in the U.S., you have a pretty good idea of where you are going, what you can do, and when you can go.  You have maps. You have neighbors and friends who have been there and done that.

But when it comes to international travel, it just isn’t wise to go off on your own, exploring through the Internet and putting something together yourself.  We’ve had several customers who, in the middle of their planning, realize they are getting in way over their heads. We had an event last fall where a woman asked during the presentation whether we plan trips to China. Of course, I told her. Then she disclosed that her daughter was in the middle of planning a China trip for the two of them and her sister. We ended up doing that vacation for them and they had the trip of a lifetime.

They had the trip of a lifetime.

Photographic image by Doug Holstein

BRN: As a salesman, what is the greatest challenge in getting new customers?

DH:  Well, for sure there is an interest in travel and learning about new places in the world.  Demand is rarely the issue. The biggest challenge, I suppose, is there is a pretty broad impression that it costs more to plan and book your vacation through travel agents vs. doing it yourself on the Internet.  The reality? It simply isn’t true. For cruises, the cruise lines pay us a commission. Our compensation doesn’t come from the traveler. It is the same price that you would see in booking it yourself over the Internet, but the reason to do it through us is because your are going to have only one person with whom you talk in planning your trip – and then we execute the plan.

Think about it: if you plan it yourself, your first challenge may be acquiring a working knowledge of the language. Then there are concerns about local laws and customs. And if you are planning it yourself, you are having to make arrangements and book reservations with each different service provider.  But with us, you are talking to one person who knows how to get things done — wherever your destination.

Booking an international flight, for example, requires attention to detail.  You want to leave enough time between connecting flights in case one leg of your trip gets delayed for whatever reason. And that happens, all the time. And if it should happen that you miss a flight, we jump right in and reschedule it. You don’t have to deal with it. And let’s say that because you missed a flight you have an extra day.  Well, wherever that layover its, we’ll come up with suggestions for how to turn what for most is an inconvenience into part of your vacation adventure.

You MIGHT pay a touch more by using a travel agent, but you are going to get much more bang for your buck by using us. Because of our connections around the world, whether it be hotels, cruise lines, restaurants, we’ll get a price and a service that you are unlikely to get. In many cases you will actually save money.

BRN: Other than saving money and headaches, are there other benefit to using a luxury travel agent like Distinctive Journeys?

DH: Well, again because of our relationships and connections, there are so many amenities that we can give our travel clients. It might be a special breakfast or a surprise bottle of wine. On the last cruise we booked for a group of four couples, one morning they each got a surprise envelope under their stateroom doors with invitations to sit at the Captain’s Table during dinner. Individual travelers booking themselves typically can’t do that. Let’s say you want to go to a famous restaurant in a European city and they are booked up for a year in advance. We can get you in there. Tickets to a nice theatre sold out for two years – we can get you in there.

The Terracotta Warriors and Horses in China is a funerary art exhibit that dates back to before 200 B.C. They are terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of the first Emperor of China. The lines to get in stretch back for a mile, but at 9:00 in the morning, we march you to the front of the line and get you a private tour. How about the panda bears. We get you in there to actually hold them and be with them for a half hour or so.

We get it done.

“Fall colors in the High Country are enhanced by the bright blues and whites of the sky.” Photographic image by Doug Holstein

So these very special moments are what we call travel gems that you just can’t do on your own – and you may not even think about them. Even if you did think about it, you more than likely wouldn’t have a clue about how to go about securing that opportunity.

Some people want to go places overseas and live in private homes for, say, three weeks. We arrange that. People come to us and say they want to go to Patagonia, or Easter Island, or Europe. We don’t try to change what they might plan, but we make suggestions and we work with the traveler. Planning the trip is an exciting part of the whole travel experience.  We don’t take that away from our clients, but we enhance their planning. We include them into the planning process at every step of the way. Of course we ask for price points. How much of a budget do they have? We’ll maximize the impact of that budget.

BRN: Where are most of the river cruises? I’m hard pressed to think that you’d get many takers for a luxury cruise down, say, the Watauga River or New River!

DH (chuckling): Europe is a big deal, and so is Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

BRN: Vietnam…you mean like the Mekong Delta?

DH: Yeah, I want to do that one.

BRN: Gosh, it is hard to think about the Mekong Delta as a destination for luxury river cruises when just a half century ago it was the source of horror stories during the Vietnam War.

DH: That it is, but the reality is that it is absolutely beautiful country.

Travel gets in people’s blood. You want to go wherever you can go and for as long as you want to go.

BRN: Getting personal, how do you feel your interest in photography has enhanced your ability to sell travel?

DH (laughing): Well, one of the biggest advantages that I have is that after ten years of retirement I had been to so many places on photography trips and had such marvelous outings that it really made me a great ambassador for Distinctive Journeys. Other than my earlier professional career in sales and marketing that led me into the corner office at Rogers American, it was a natural fit for both Distinctive Journeys and me because I had firsthand knowledge of what they do.

For a lot of people, travel just gets in their blood. You want to go wherever you can go and for as long as you can go.

BRN: Your particular photography specialty is what, nature photography?

DH: Yes, definitely.

“Now this is what I call Swan Lake!” Photographic image by Doug Holstein

BRN (smiling): Now I have inside knowledge that you dabbled in sports photography as the first professional shutterbug for Blowing Rock News on the field at Appalachian State and Carolina Panthers football games. What do you think about the differences in the disciplines, nature vs. sports? Is it physical? Is it creative? WHAT are the differences?

DH: Well, in sports photography you are pretty much always on the move. You need to anticipate the action. Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you are not. In football, shooting for Blowing Rock News, I had an advantage because I knew the sport. I played as a youth and as young man and have remained a big fan of both college ball and the NFL, so I could anticipate whether the next play would be a run or a pass and where it was likely to go. So I would position myself accordingly, even when most of the other photographers would go to a different position on the field. Those are really the times when you can get lucky and your knowledge of the game shows up in your images.

Landscape photography is stationary. It really is about lighting, being at the right place at the right time.

Wildlife requires a lot of patience, but lighting is a big deal, too. Sometimes it is what it is and you just shoot the best you can under the conditions.

In sports photography, you are always on the move. You need to anticipate the action.

BRN: Other than discussing a cure for cancer and Alzheimer’s, what have we missed in this discussion?

DH: Well, I really want to emphasize how big my choice of Distinctive Journeys was for not just my own travel planning, but also for my second career. This was not a casual, spur-of-the-moment decision. I learned in business a long time ago that you increase your chances for success if you surround yourself with more knowledgeable, perhaps even more skillful people than yourself.

A great reinforcement of my making Distinctive Journeys my travel partner was the firm’s original selection as one of the very first firms to represent Virgin Galactic, which is Richard Branson’s space travel program. That’s a pretty prestigious thing and a major feather in our company’s hat.

BRN: OK, just a couple more questions. You said you don’t play golf anymore, but can Distinctive Journeys plan a golf vacation?

DH (smiling): Of course. If you want to go golfing at St. Andrews in Scotland, we can do that for you.

BRN: How about North Korea?

DH (laughing): Well, we can plan a trip just about any place that someone really WANTS to go and the country wants you to come. The universe of travelers wanting to vacation in North Korea is probably pretty small!

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