Seeing the travel-business opportunities with the end of the Cold War, Helms moved to Washington with her husband and established Blue Heart Travel, buying the trademark in Arlington’s U.S. Patent Office.
She started putting together cultural tours of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Ballet, and advertised to take Americans there from Washington. The big break came when The Washington Post mentioned the company in a special travel section on Russia.
A chorus traveling with the National Symphony Orchestra and its world-famous Russian conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich, asked her to make the travel arrangements for its concert in September 1993 on Moscow’s Red Square, where it performed before more than 100,000 people.
After 21 years, the company has settled into a two-part business, each of which comprises around half of Classical Movement’s revenue. Helms also owns the rights to four lucrative choral festivals in Africa, South America, Europe and the United States.
One half can best be summed up as travel agent to professional symphonies. This involves managing travel — including transporting musical instruments — for musicians, staff members, family, soloists and conductors from the world’s orchestras. Most of the preparations are done years in advance, and Classical Movements handles about 10 of these tours a year. A professional orchestra with 120 musicians and staff members might spend $2 million for airlines, hotels, meals and local transportation. Helms said her rates are a state secret, but I estimate that the clients pay 5 to 7 percent of the tour’s cost for her expertise.
The second part of the Classical Movements business involves booking travel and finding gigs for volunteer music groups and singers, from universities to choral arts societies. Members of these groups make their living as lawyers, doctors, educators or anything else. But these volunteers are passionate about their music, so they pay their own travel expenses, which includes a fee to Classical Movements, to see the world while performing. Classical Movements books the travel, books venues, finds local orchestras and choirs to collaborate, and gins up marketers and publicity people to help sell around 200 concerts a year in 40 to 50 countries. Individuals generally spend about $3,500 on average.
When I visited Classical Movements last week, there were about six associates beavering away at their computers. Not everyone works in the office. The business manager, for instance, lives in Connecticut.
Operations director Alessandra D’Ovidio, who is fluent in Spanish and Italian, was sitting in front of her personal computer, booking hotel and flights for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, which will perform at Carnegie Hall in November. Helms said the concert is an important one, honoring the 100th birthday of British composer and pianist Benjamin Britten.
On my way out, I couldn’t help notice a paperweight near Helms’s desk. It was inscribed with the following platitude:
“A Woman’s Place is in Command.”
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.