Debbie Travis made huge changes later in life and says you can, too

The iconic interior decorator and television personality stepped away from what she knew and what was safe to flip a 13th-century Tuscan farmhouse into a hotel and retreat.

High-profile interior decorator and TV star had a déjà vu moment and it changed everything

Debbie Travis now runs a hotel and retreat in Italy. She made some huge changes later in life, leaving a successful television and interior decorating career. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

The iconic interior decorator and television personality, Debbie Travis, stepped away from what she knew and what was safe to convert a 13th-century Tuscan farmhouse into a hotel and retreat and she's not looking back.

Travis's book, Design Your Next Chapter: How to Realize Your Dreams and Reinvent Your Life, documents her journey.

She spoke with The Homestretch on where her inspiration came from.

This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Debbie Travis converted a 13th-century farmhouse in Tuscany into a hotel and resort. (

Q: What made you step away from your successful television career to start a renovations project in Tuscany, Italy?

A: I've always been behind the scenes, as well, in television. I started quite young, in my early 20s in the United Kingdom. I've done it for a long time and I started to have this kind of sense of déjà vu. I'd sit in these meetings and think, I've been here before, I've heard this before. It's not the problem of the people you're with, I love the creativity of television.

It was me. I'd felt I had reached the pinnacle of my learning curve, and at the same time, I had this little dream of one day owning a little place in Tuscany. We'd filmed there a lot, we'd been on holiday like many people.

I'd had the dream for quite a long time and we didn't have the money to do anything and we were very, very busy. One day I was doing a speech in Vancouver on a stage and at the end of the speech there was an interviewer and she said, "What's next for Debbie Travis?"

And I had this strange lie come out of my mouth and I said, "Well, I'm going to be taking people from across this country to my villa in Tuscany. We're going to have lunch in the lavender field and we're going to hike through the olive groves and we're going to do yoga in the vineyards."

I talked for about five minutes and it was deathly quiet.

It was like people had these huge doe eyes and they were all staring at me. All these women from the audience, and then suddenly there was this intake of breath that only women can do, right from the core, and all these hands went up and it was like a religious thing. "Take me, Take me."

The next day, I got e-mails of men going "take her, take her." And so I had an idea and I flew to Italy and in the area that we liked, I rented a property and that summer 18 women came out and it was a phenomenal success.

The villa was tatty, it wasn't particularly nice. It didn't matter. The women never stopped talking, they never stopped drinking, they never stopped laughing and sharing ideas. So I really got the bug. We sped up our search and we found very nearby this rundown property, and over five years we renovated it.

And then I started to meet these wonderful people from across the country. And then from other countries, we had people from Australia and South Africa, but there was this thread of change of people saying "You know, I've raised my children, what about me? What's next?"

It's like a moth to the flame of change. You start to hear stories on the radio about people who've done something. So I started to jot all this down and then I started to go and interview people who jumped from being a surgeon to being a singer or from being a CEO of a bank to baking cookies.

I found there's a fascinating kind of renaissance going on of people saying, you know what? It's not regret that you did that role, but you know what, I'm going to make a change. I want to do something new. And I became fascinated by it.

This is the 13th-century Tuscan farmhouse before the renovation. (

Q: Big change can be scary. How do we overcome that?

A: I divided the book into three bits: dream it, do it, live it. The dream is this idea, this seed that we all have, what if one day?

The do, it is exactly that. It's the tools on how, if you're at that crossroads, how to move forward. And it is, of course, it's terrifying. But the big word that comes up is fear.

So the first thing I try and tell people is, put fear into perspective. Fear is really having a sick child or can't pay the mortgage or a lion runs in this room — that is real fear.

The rest is scary. You're anxious and you're worried and you're not sure.

So what I love to do and suggest is that you write it all down and then write what are just excuses. If you've got three children under four, maybe it's not a good time. Maybe it's not a good time at the moment to pack in that paycheck, but maybe you can stagger it.

There were so many people that I interviewed that I asked about money. How much money did you need?

And one woman, she started an online bakery, and her answer was the best. I asked, "How much did you invest?" She said a bag of flour, but then she waited until the children had left home and then she got the industrial kitchen.

There was another woman I interviewed in Toronto who had this dream of owning a design store and an online decorating store but she was a publisher.

So she started to work at night and on the weekends and bit by bit she went on to half days so she could bridge it, so she could actually afford to make the leap. And when she was ready, the business was kind of ready, you know?

I interviewed a fascinating lady in England who said she was fed up walking through department stores where some kind of 20-year-old gorgeous girl tells her, "If you use this cream, you're going to look like me." She was like, "No, love, I'm 65 and I'm never going to look like you." She decided that she would start her own product line.

When I interviewed her, I said, "let's go for lunch next week." She said, "I'm going to the Oscars to put the product in the Oscar bags." That was in just two years.

She said, if you're older and you have downsized your house and maybe you've got $100,000 in the bank, don't invest $100,000 because you don't have the time to make it back. If you're 30, you can go get a job if it doesn't work out.

But the remarkable thing was, I interviewed nearly 300 people and nobody said, "I should never have done this. This was a disaster and we were ruined."

Most people said, "It took me down another path. It wasn't what I expected" — and that's my case. I'm not living in paradise but I have other stresses like the wild pig who keeps digging up my garden. You know, there are different stresses but I chose them.

Debbie Travis says women from around the world come to talk, drink, laugh and share ideas. (

Q: What surprised or challenged you the most in this journey?

A: There are daily challenges but now it's like, "Oh my God, we've run out of toilet paper." You know, for 14 rooms. Or when 14 or 20 women turn on the hairdryer at exactly the same time before dinner, it's like will the system make it? But, you know, it's a different type of stress. And I still have the production company but we've made people partners now so that they can run it.

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch.


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