Article Alicia McGarry | Photography Brian Turner
From the time Mimi Comfort was a little girl growing up in St. Louis, her father’s tenacious climbing of professional ranks had always made an impression.
"My father worked his way up from sweeping the floor to owning his own business,” Comfort says. "He was my hero – so it was always my desire to own my own business, as well.” So in the late ‘80s, Mimi Comfort and her husband, Mark, both decided to take an entrepreneurial leap away from their successful, high-level careers in manufacturing and corporate retail, respectively. Between her sales, HR and finance experience working for The Jones Store as a buyer and his marketing and public speaking skills gleaned from his role as a representative for Armstrong Carpet, Mimi knew they had the right formula for success, but in what?
That answer wouldn’t come easy – or in their first attempt at striking out on their own. Mimi describes the first venture that would have been, if they hadn’t backed out before pushing through.
After a lot of research Mimi and Mark had decided to open a gourmet- ham franchise, and had even put money down on one, but something just wasn’t righ.
"After a fitful night and lots of prayer, I knew that was not the right decision, so we backed out and lost most of the deposit we had paid,” Mimi says.
Soon thereafter, while on a cruise, Mark and Mimi realized they had happened across – in perhaps the most fun way possible – the absolutely perfect business idea for them:
"We had the times of our lives – it was at that moment that we both realized this was the business for us – no inventory and no accounts receivable,” she recalls. "In both our professions, we saw the struggles retails stores had with inventory so we would be very happy to not have inventory to deal with.”
And so it began. "I opened Cruise Holidays in November of 1988, and Mark joined the agency in the summer of 1991,” Mimi says.
The Comforts have since become world leaders in vacation planning, most recently garnering the Golden Anchor Award for being the top-producing agency award for the 21st year in a row at the Cruise Holidays’ annual convention.
So, how does one couple muster the industry know-how necessary to attain such a high level of success, despite having no formal training to speak of in the vacation business? Unlike many business owners who choose to maintain a clear-cut differentiation between their personal faith and beliefs, the Comforts have kept their faith at the very core of Cruise Holidays, and give God most all of the credit for the exceptional level of success they’ve enjoyed, despite some of the extreme pitfalls they encountered on the way, including having a rental property the couple owned explode during a summer of extreme drought. "We should never have been sold the franchise in the first place, because we didn’t have enough money to pay for it,” Mimi says. "That’s why we believe in the Bible verse, ‘All things work together for good for those that love the Lord.’”
The Comforts are a true testament to the real value of jumping in and taking lessons (including the most important ones) learned as they come – and most always on the fly. "As in any business, you are never prepared with the amount of time, money, and energy that is needed to be successful,” Mimi says.
To safeguard their financial stability, Mark retained his own full-time job
with Armstrong for the first few years. Mimi says there was no way they could have afforded it otherwise, and even despite Mimi being the only one to devote herself to the business full time, the Comforts would still lose a lot of money the first year, and even the second. "Probably the biggest mistake I made in the beginning was hiring someone full time who was a ‘travel agent’ with 25 years of experience – what I found was that most travel agents are order takers and do not understand the concept of customer service, sales or marketing,” Mimi says. "The money we spent on that person’s salary almost put us out of business so I had to let her go and that was difficult,” she continues.
What Mimi did learn from the experience was about her passion for customer service – she would even call it "extreme’ – because she went on to hire Jackie Harrison, whose commitment to the customer-first concept so closely matched her own vision for Cruise Holiday. "She was such a blessing and our clients loved her… she made everyone feel like they were the most important clients in the world,” Mimi says.
In fact, customer service is at the crux of that to which Mimi attributes her success, but Harrison says the level of inspiration and support the Comforts provided were what drove her to achieve such a high level of success. "Mimi and Mark are such great teachers and mentors – they are true leaders, and really know how to motivate those of us who have ever had the pleasure to work for them,” Harrison says.
And just as in business, the Comforts have let service to others lead in their personal life. Long before Cruise Holidays, and before Mark and Mimi knew each other, even, they were both "Bigs” for Big Brothers Big Sisters Kansas City. In fact, they had both just been assigned their little brother and sister when Mark first asked Mimi out on a date, which she politely declined. Thanks to Mark’s persistence, they ended up going out anyway. The rest, of course, is history – their little brother and sister even ended up being ring bearer and flower girl in their wedding.
The Comforts’ work with Big Brothers Big Sisters was only the beginning of the couple’s exemplary commitment to kids in need. Right after getting married, Mark and Mimi took in their first foster child. "We love kids and dogs and not necessarily in that order, but since our relationship started out because of the Big Brother Big Sisters and we love kids, we decided right away that we wanted to be foster parents,” Mimi says. "We were what they refer to as emergency foster parents, so they would often call us in the middle of the night and bring children to us at that time.” They have since fostered more than 35 children, ranging from a newborn right out of the hospital to a teenager for six months. In addition, the Comforts have two children of their own – Andrea and Spencer.
With two children of their own and sometimes as many as four foster kids under their roof at once, it would be a radical understatement to say the Comforts had their hands full –making the idea of also running a successful business seem impossible to most… but they didn’t stop there. As owners of a travel agency that sends clientele to exotic destinations all over the world, the Comforts believe it is critical to give back to each of those places that have brought so much joy to clients. "For the past several years we have partnered with several different orphanages in Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Honduras – we get so much joy from working with our clients who bring toys and clothes for us,” Mimi says.
For the past 11 years, the Comforts have also hosted Young Life, a non-denominational Christian youth group in their home. Twice a week, the couple opens their home to around 100 high schoolers for Young Life.
"It has been one of the biggest blessings of our lives to be able to open our home to these kids each week – we get very close to them since we see them every week for all four years of high school,” Mimi says. "Everyone in Platte City knows where the Comforts live and all of the kids are welcome, night or day,” Mimi says.
NorthLand Lifestyle: The Comforts' Leap of Faith