“Living Big” may be Mary Cecchini’s mantra, but it’s more than a state of mind—it’s an international destination.

Though she’d been saying the phrase since childhood, it really took hold in 2011 when Mary’s mother became ill after suffering a brain aneurism.

“I saw right in front of me how fragile life is. People always say, ‘Live like you’re dying,’ but it just became very, very real in my world,” said Cecchini. “For me, I needed to reassess what it meant to ‘live big,’ which is all about living with intention and purpose and being mindful of the path you’re on.”

Thankfully, Cecchini’s mother recovered (and is “feistier than ever,” according to Cecchini), but Cecchini continued to contemplate her straight and narrow path. Realizing she couldn’t melt into her familial mantra with PowerPoint presentations and budget balancing in the mix, Cecchini, who was 27 at the time, left her “cushy,” salaried, marketing job to backpack across Europe for five months.

“I knew I wanted travel to play a larger role in my world,” Cecchini said. “I knew I wanted to be more mindful of how I show up in my community and how I serve my community.”

Once she was out of the office and in the world, Cecchini was able to analyze her future and get her mind right. She learned a lot about herself along the way and realized personality traits that would help in her next venture, thought she didn’t know quite what that would entail.

Photo: Iwalani Carr

Photo: Iwalani Carr

“I knew going into this big trip that my personality lent itself to connecting with people even if they’re strangers. I just felt really confident about it and sure, I was scared—I’d had just done something that everyone thought was crazy—but it was the best gift, hands down, I’ve given myself, just to give myself that mental space to figure out what it was I wanted to get out of this next season of life,” Cecchini said.

It was this connection with other travelers and the opportunity to meet up with friends and family during her trip that led Cecchini down the path less traveled.

“I made some amazing friends. I have a lifetime supply of stories,” Cecchini said. “I was able to host a handful of friends and family that would visit me along the journey, so that’s where I really started to lean into that producer mentality; to help craft these experiences when my friends and family visited that they might not otherwise have because of the way I travel.”

That’s when Living Big went from being an encouraging phrase to a business plan. Cecchini was able to bring everything she learned on the road back home to Portland, Ore. where her life could grow bigger through a process of simplification and where she could use her experiences to dive deeper into her community and her passion for travel.

“I did everything from trekking through the Turkish mountains to staying in hostels and caves to staying in beautiful bed and breakfasts and resorts to cooking classes to kayaking events,” Cecchini said. “That’s how I even craft trips now with my clients. I want them to see the full breadth of accommodations of personalities and food types, so we’ll do everything from five-star dining on the cliffs of Dubrovnik, but we’re also going to do crackers and cheese and wine and pack a picnic in the mountains, so we get to see the full range.”

Photo: Iwalani Carr

Photo: Iwalani Carr

Building a female travel community

Cecchini presents this appetizer of travel to women with three to four international trips a year. She purposely keeps the groups small, at 10 women max, to maintain that sense of a girlfriend getaway. That’s right: No boys allowed* (we’ll get to that asterisk soon).

“I’m taking them to my favorite small corners of the world,” Cecchini said. “I’ve been to all of the places before. The trips are really designed to feel like if you were just joining me with my friends, because that’s essentially what we’re doing. It’s not big box travel. It’s making places accessible to women that otherwise might not have an opportunity to go there because they feel like they might not have anyone that they can travel with; they don’t have a companion or maybe their friends don’t want to go to that destination or they can’t afford it or they don’t have the skillset to plan it.”

Last year, Cecchini took groups to Switzerland, Croatia and Costa Rica, and this year she’s got trips to Iceland, Japan and Croatia on the calendar. Though she keeps one foot in the marketing world still, working as a full-time consultant, Cecchini wants travel to be her legacy. It’s not so much about the destination, but getting women out into the world.

“I’m hoping to build community and enable more women to travel, because you know, I just feel like it has such a substantial impact on our life, how we show up to our own life, how we effect the lives of others around us,” Cecchini said. “It’s just such an important thing to me, and I want that to be my legacy, not necessarily, ‘Man, she just killed it at her quarterly presentation.’”

Cecchini is already mapping out her 2017 travels with India and Italy at the forefront of her wandering mind, and the two trips could not be more opposite.

“I want to spend a few weeks in India—I’ve never been, but I’m really drawn to it,” said Cecchini, who wants to dabble in tea, street food and yoga as starters during her research trip. “I feel like it’s the type of vacation that will appeal to women who have experienced traveling, but it still feels out of reach, like it’s kind of beyond what they might feel comfortable doing on their own. So, it’s definitely appealing to a younger, more experienced traveler. “

Italy, on the other hand, is more of a starter trip, Cecchini said—her “bait-and-switch” to hook women on eventually seeing even more places.

“For people that might only have a few opportunities to travel in their lifetime, Italy’s at the top of their list. So, if I can show them and teach them how to travel and use Italy as their first step, I might be able to open their eyes up to see more places down the road than they might have originally thought possible,” Cecchini said.

One thing Cecchini didn’t anticipate was the amount of emotional support she would have to provide on these trips—women are, after all, emotional creatures whether in the comforts of their own forests or riding the rails in India.

“It’s a really cool part of the work and part that I can really grasp,” Cecchini said. “I knew that I could produce a trip, that I could be a host on a trip and make women feel welcome and comfortable and show them great things, but I didn’t anticipate how much the women would need support from each other, support from me, that comes from an emotional place.”

Though she embraces what can sometimes be a wild roller coaster ride, the emotional ups and downs are one reason Cecchini has decided to host local trips, beginning in Oregon—this year it’s a Crater Lake excursion and a Yurt and Crabbing getaway.

“Often I find women on this trip that are coming, and they’re scared; they’ve never left the country before or they’re nervous to go with people they don’t know,” Cecchini said. “We’ll also have women that are on their first trips and are struggling with being away from their families and they’re getting mom shamed by their community. There’s a whole range of emotions, and they’re coming for community and peace.”

She has also opted—and this is where that asterisk comes in—to open up one trip a year to the opposite sex.*

“I really, in my mind and in my heart, want this business to be all about serving women—that’s my community, that’s my tribe—but if by enabling women to see the world with their companion or a group of mixed men and women makes them feel comfortable, what matters at the end of the day is that they are learning to travel and they’re seeing the world and feeling more empowered to travel on their own.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the women who are just ready for a break, Cecchini said.

“I generally find that about half of the women are so excited not to be responsible that they are footloose and fancy free, and it becomes a very funny thing when they realize that they’re reverting to a childlike behavior. They’ll ask, ‘Mary, what’s the time we’re supposed to meet tomorrow? Are there snacks on the bus?’ They are just such masters of their universe when they’re home, then when they get there, they’re like, ‘I don’t want to have to do anything,’” Cecchini said.

And, that’s exactly the freedom and freewheeling Cecchini accommodates. She also strives to provide unique experiences for her clients. Cecchini’s fondest memory, in fact, is the result of one of those unguarded excursions off the beaten path.

Iceland

“I don’t often do things on trips I haven’t done before, because it goes against my Type-A grain, but I had this gut feeling like this could be epic if it would work out,” Cecchini said of the top secret side trip in which she took her Costa Rica group last year.

During a research trip to Costa Rica, Cecchini had purchased a painting and learned its story—it was created by one of the women of the Corazones Valientes (“Brave Hearts” in Spanish), a group of women in rural Costa Rica that had been formed by Peace Corp Volunteer Rebecca Hart McElroy in the ’90s. The group was created to help the women of this small community better communicate their feelings. After multiple phone calls and conversations, Cecchini was able to track down McElroy and schedule a visit with her group and the women of Corazones Valientes.

“It was just such a special bond created,” Cecchini said. “These women invited us into their community. They welcomed us, they showed us their art, they taught us to paint—we just bonded in a really cool way. Stuff like that, you don’t get all the time. It’s just a really special memory.”

While she bubbles over with recaps of her favorite memories and upcoming agendas, Cecchini said one of the big questions she gets asked is not one that she likes to hear.

“A question I get asked is, ‘Don’t the women argue the whole time?’ and I just want to flick that person’s ear, because there’s this terrible assumption that when you get women together they’re just gonna argue,” Cecchini said. “But in reality, as women get older, there’s fewer opportunities to interact with different women. You have your sisters, kids, neighbors, co-workers, but to stretch your comfort zone and meet women that live in different places in the world that have different backgrounds, that experience different things; when you can bring that degree of diversity together, it’s amazing how you can inspire people, what you can learn from each other. There’s magic happening and it’s my job to find women that are ready to receive that and empower them to find the will to do something outside their comfort zone. It’s just a blessing.”

So, to answer your question: No, the women don’t just argue with one another all the time, and Living Big is living proof.

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Living Big = Living differently

 That decision to quit her job, sell her stuff and travel Europe solo for nearly four years ago didn’t just provide a new career opportunity—it changed Cecchini’s entire course.

“My life is different. I live very simply. I don’t drive fancy cars. I don’t go to the spa as much as I used to. But, I know that I’m living simply because I’m creating space for cool things to happen,” Cecchini said.

And, her online bucket list is a testament to that. Cecchini’s bucket list is a collection of 65 items (so far) that range from my personal favorite— “Become BFF’s with Anthony Bourdain, or at least get invited to join him on a trip”—to writing a book and building a tiny house to visiting the Seven Wonders of the World and sailing around the Caribbean on a private yacht. Some of her list items are as simple as a song.

“When I published that bucket list, a friend of mine in Los Angeles that I would see once a year, called me and said, ‘No. 38 Sing karaoke. Next time you’re in L.A., you’re doing it,’ Cecchini said. “And I was like, well, why? It came out of left field. I’d known her for years, but what I didn’t know is that she actually paid her way through college by winning karaoke contests.”

Not only has Cecchini created the “space for cool things to happen,” but she has made herself accountable to the world—and to her dreams. And, she has invited others to join her. 

“I think anytime you make your passion known, you make space for people to be a part of it,” Cecchini said. “People come to me for adventure now. They come to me to talk about travel. They come to me for inspiration, which is awesome. I love being a part of the conversation; it helps me fulfill my own quest as a dreamer.”

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Like Mary said, her mother’s mantra “Living Big” is not just a meditation, but it has a backbone, a life of its own now—a life that Mary lives out on a daily basis.

“It’s a personal challenge to get out of life what it is you want to get out of life and about being mindful of how you spend your time and where you invest your energy,” Cecchini said. “I’d say, ‘Mom, I don’t know what I want to study in college. I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.’ And she might respond by saying, ‘Oh Mary, don’t stress about it. Just make sure that whatever you decide to do, you’re living big.’ This is really my true form of ‘living big,’ and that’s sharing my passion to travel, connecting people with cool experiences around the world and bringing to life things they might have never thought possible.”

Check out Mary Cecchini’s complete bucket list and learn more about Living Big by visiting livingbig.org.