Behind The Scenes With Colleen Kelly

Behind The Scenes With Colleen Kelly - Feature Image

Before Colleen Kelly (MS, ’98) was married, she explored the United States from coast to coast and traveled throughout Europe from Ireland to Malta.

And even after she was married and had a family, she continued to travel so she could share her passion for adventure with her husband and two young daughters. But she soon discovered that traveling with her children, although great fun, could also be challenging because the interests of the kids and parents were often different.

Kelly, a professional television producer in Chicago, and her friend Tricia Fusilero saw an opportunity: Why not help families who want to travel by creating a television program specifically for them? That idea led to the development of Family Travel with Colleen Kelly, a program that now can be seen on nearly 90 percent of the 360 public television channels across the country.

“I’m obsessed with traveling and I knew this could be successful,” said Kelly, who used the lessons she learned while earning a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications from Roosevelt in 1998 to help her market and promote the idea to potential television carriers.

After talking with networks that wanted more of a reality-type family travel show, Kelly and Fusilero, who would become Kelly’s business partner and executive producer, decided public television would be a better fit for their vision. They pitched the show to executives at WTTW-11, Chicago’s public television affiliate, who ended up presenting it to American Public Television, the series’ eventual distributor.

Family Travel with Colleen Kelly began airing its first 13 episodes in the fall of 2013 and is in the process of filming its second season, which is scheduled to air in March 2015. The show also was picked up by American Public Television Worldwide and is scheduled to start airing internationally by summer 2015 or sooner.

“She’s so determined, she’s so smart and if she sees an opportunity, she makes it her own,” said Dana Hughes, a longtime Harpo Productions producer who now works as a producer for Kelly’s show. “How many times do you think of an idea but it just stays an idea? Colleen gets an idea and she runs with it.”

What makes the series unique is that instead of visiting well-known tourist hot spots like Orlando, Kelly and her team strive to feature, and make accessible, places that don’t automatically stand out as family-friendly. For example, she has filmed episodes about New Orleans, Los Angeles and even Holland, Mich. Internationally, the show has highlighted destinations such as Montreal and Ireland.

Although she often travels with her husband and daughters who appear on the show, Kelly focuses on what each destination has to offer all types of families. She said that in addition to highlighting popular tourist spots, she seeks out educational outings, such as a trip to a children’s museum as well as inexpensive or free activities like watching talented street performers.

Some of the locations the Family Travel with Colleen Kelly show has visited are (clockwise from left): a homestead; Milan, Italy; a farmer’s market in San Antonio; Grand Turk on the Turks and Caicos Islands; Pirate Adventure Park in Westport, Ireland; and SeaWorld in San Antonio.

Most of the featured destinations are chosen by Kelly and her team while others are a result of cities having invited the show to film their locations. Given time constraints, places are not typically scouted ahead of time. Instead, Fusilero researches each destination and communicates with experts in that city as well as with mom bloggers in the area. Fusilero then creates a detailed schedule, outlining each spot the crew will visit while filming at a particular location.

The show’s first season was funded by Travel Film Productions, a company Kelly and Fusilero created, a private sponsor and City Pass, which bundles prepaid admission to top attractions in various cities. This summer, Kelly was seeking a travel-related underwriter, such as an airline, to help finance the show’s second season, which will feature Wales, Switzerland, Palm Beach, Fla. and other locations.

The series seems to resonate well with viewers largely due to Kelly’s personality, said her friends and colleagues. Kelly’s positive energy, warm smile and zest for travel practically jump out at you from the television screen. She’s also relatable because she’s like many other mothers trying to balance work and their children’s school and family time.

“She’s credible because she’s a mom herself, she’s attractive, she’s great on camera and she’s funny,” said Rob Morhaim, of You and Me This Morning on WCIU-TV in Chicago for which Kelly has done travel segments. “You put all that together and it’s a pretty successful recipe for a television show.”

An idea born on an airplane

Surprisingly, Kelly admits she knew next to nothing about the broadcast business 10 years ago. Still, at that time she believed Chicago was in need of an entertainment show that highlighted the city’s fantastic dining, visiting celebrities and fancy events. She thought of it as Access Hollywood, Chicago style.

So she and her sister, both mothers with young children then, found a business partner with production knowledge and the three of them developed from scratch what evolved into the Emmy-winning NBC-5 Chicago show now called 24/7 City Secrets. To get the series off the ground, the women created a pilot episode and established a web site. They then pitched their idea to local NBC executives, who loved it, Kelly said. Within three weeks, the group had to find an office and develop future shows.

“Even though I didn’t have a television background, I always wanted to do television and I just thought the only way to get into TV was to create your own reality,” Kelly said. “We were three moms from the suburbs chasing around celebrities and people thought we were nuts. We didn’t know if it was going to work out, but we took the chance.”

As part of the 24/7 show, Kelly and Fusilero traveled to Italy in 2008 to highlight Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics and showcase the city’s relationship with its Sister City, Milan. On the plane ride home, they started discussing the possibility of creating their own travel show.

“I just turned to Colleen and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to do a travel show?’”
– Tricia Fusilero, Executive Producer of Family Travel with Colleen Kelly

“I just turned to Colleen and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to do a travel show?’” said Fusilero, executive producer of Family Travel with Colleen Kelly. “We brainstormed like crazy and kept coming back to this idea and the concept of family travel. There had never been a show about family travel the way we wanted to do it.”

Kelly’s sister, Emmy-award winning television host Catie Keogh, agreed to handle the 24/7 show so Kelly and Fusilero could explore the family travel idea, Fusilero said. Keogh’s show continues to air on NBC in Chicago after Saturday Night Live at 12:30 a.m. And while it took more than three years to develop the family travel show, Kelly said it has been one of the best things she’s ever done.

The Family Travel with Colleen Kelly crew hams it up at Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland. Kelly's program is expected to start airing internationally this summer.

The Family Travel with Colleen Kelly crew hams it up at Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland. Kelly’s program is expected to start airing internationally this summer.

Supporting Female Entrepreneurs

Kelly said she’s proud to be an entrepreneur and surround herself with many women and mothers. Travel Film Productions is a women-owned company certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. It employs eight people on a full-time basis, including seven women. The business, which produces other shows in addition to Kelly’s travel show, also works with many independent contractors to help keep things running smoothly.

“When we first started out, the only two guys on the crew were me and the sound guy – otherwise it was all women,” said Jordan Campagna, one of the company’s independent contractors and the director of photography for Family Travel with Colleen Kelly. “This is a male-driven business from crews to producers and Colleen shows that women can do this as well as men.”

A native of Chicago, Kelly moved with her family to Phoenix, Ariz., when she was 3. They returned to Chicago when she was 10 and then moved to Houston when she was 15. She went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin, receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

After college, Kelly moved back to Chicago for a job as a district manager at Heineken USA where she was the first woman in the country to be hired in management at the company. It was while she was working there that she decided to pursue a master’s degree at Roosevelt to advance her career.

In addition to her travel show, Kelly, a resident of Chicago’s northwest suburbs, is a family travel ambassador and featured speaker through the Illinois Office of Tourism. She also has been a national speaker for the Travel & Adventure Show, the largest travel convention in the country as well as several other travel and marketing organizations. She is regularly featured as a travel expert on WGN-TV and WCIU-TV in Chicago.

“You just can never give up when you believe in something.”
– Colleen Kelly

“It’s been a long road and often a hard road, but you can’t ever give up. You just can never give up when you believe in something,” Kelly said. “If you just keep working really hard and believe in what you’re doing, you can achieve anything. Roosevelt gave me that foundation to persevere.”


  1. says

    I enjoy your show but the one thing I wish you would let us know how long your stay was in each destination. Was it a weekend in Boston/Chicago or a week in Amelia Island. It would make it easier to plan if you let us know your itinerary.

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