Thinking about jumping off the corporate treadmill and starting a new career? Now you can try it out first. By Grainger David
By Grainger David

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I AM NOT A BASEBALL announcer or even much of a baseball player, but last month I found myself sitting in the media booth at PGE Park in Portland, Ore., announcing a minor-league baseball game between the hometown Beavers and the Tucson Sidewinders. At first I had trouble filling all the airtime. Once, I got the count backwards. Then, in the top of third, I made my first good call. "Short chopper to third," I said, picking up steam as I went, like a locomotive. "Charging ... He bare-hands it ... Over to first ... Got him! 3--1 Beavers!"

It was, I contend, a great moment in sports announcing. And it sold me on the idea behind Vocation Vacations, the company that had put me in the booth. The 18-month-old firm lets people try out their dream jobs--selling test runs in about 60 occupations ranging from TV producer to auctioneer to cowboy-boot maker. For one to three days of apprenticeship, costs range from $349 to $8,999. Some of the jobs, like being a pit crew member on the Grand-Am racing circuit, are like mini work fantasies, but there's a serious side too: About a third of the clients are people from big companies who want to leave the rat race and start a small business in a field they've always loved. So far, of 100 clients--the company calls them "vocationers"--one has actually made the leap and struck out for a new career as a cheesemaker. Two more are seriously considering switching jobs, one to become a vintner and the other to open a day-care center for dogs.

"We're forming a whole new vernacular," says founder Brian Kurth, a former marketing executive and dot-com refugee, who came up with the idea in a Chicago traffic jam. "You know--'I'm a vocationer, she's vocationing, we're on vocation.'"

Since I have no immediate plans to become a sports announcer (Vin Scully must be relieved), I was in it for a new experience. I definitely got one: I went to an organizational meeting with the ballpark staff, helped work the manual scoreboard in center field (it's run by a couple of high school kids in safety harnesses who change the numbers using pulleys), and made a few pretty sweet cross-fades on the in-park music system. On the PA system I got to say things like "Now batting, No. 17, shortstop, Jesse ... Garrrccccccia!" They even let me do the T-shirt toss. It was a little bit like letting a kid loose in a candy store. I jogged up and down the third-base dugout. I faked my toss. I cupped a hand to my ear to hear the love. Finally I let the T-shirt fly, high and deep into the third-base stands. A minor tussle ensued. "Woo-hoo!" cried a fan who was probably enjoying the discount benefits of Thirsty Thursday. "Yeah, T-Shirt Guy!"

While being T-Shirt Guy at the Beavers game was probably more fun than anyone should get to have at work, it didn't answer the big question about Vocation Vacations: What about those workaholics who use their vacation time to scout out a career change? To get a sense of what those folks were thinking, I drove across town to JaCiva's chocolate shop to meet two lawyers and a financial analyst--Kimberly Reindl, Paul Allulis, and Peter Clement--who were toying with the idea of quitting their jobs and opening a chocolate shop together. (Admittedly, the vocations offered by the company tend heavily toward retirement dream jobs and away from the everyday grind. You can't, for example, take a Vocation Vacation if you're thinking about switching from IT to accounting.)

When I got to JaCiva's, Reindl, Clement, and Allulis were outfitted like a three-pack of Keebler elves, all in white aprons and hair caps, and contemplating a tray of truffles. They were having the kind of conversation that, in my reportorial experience, is not commonly heard in the corporate world. "Is there too much ganache in that one?" wondered Reindl, a lawyer for the FCC. Clement, the financial analyst, asked, "When the bottom of this truffle is put in place, will it stay on?" He made a few fussy fixes with a chocolate shaver.

For the past year the three friends have been meeting on Saturdays in Reindl's basement to try out new recipes and make plans. They have a few ideas for a company name--maybe The Ugly Truffles or Oh My Ganache--and have been experimenting with new flavors. (Bourbon walnut was "pretty good," but the salty sour cream was "bizarre.") "We're trying to see, Is it more than just a hobby?" said Allulis. "What are the real practicalities? It's this romantic thing, making chocolate, but what is the real day-to-day?"

Helping people figure that out is probably the best service that Vocation Vacations offers. The trips can be fun, but they also serve as a kind of reality check. For the trio of aspiring chocolatiers, the experience was a mix between romantic (making chocolate is fun!) and cautionary (running a small business looks hard!). They learned about equipment, truffle technique, and temperature control. They made chocolate dwarfs (from plastic molds), tulip cups (by dipping balloons in a vat of milk chocolate), and caramel.

But the scope of the operation definitely made them think twice--as did the prospect of spending more time keeping the books than making the chocolate. By the end, they seemed unbowed but perhaps more calculating. Their next steps, they said, would be to scout expensive commercial real estate in D.C., and possibly attend a chocolate conference in Milwaukee.

"We love making chocolate together," said Reindl. "But we all have safe jobs now. The question is, Do we really want to bet our houses on it?"

When my time with the chocolatiers was over, I hopped in the rental car and lit out for the coast and my final Vocation Vacation experience, as an innkeeper at a bed-and-breakfast. Now, I confess I don't have the same love for B&B's that I do for baseball, but I know an awful lot of people who think running one is their retirement dream. (Plus, my editor had helpfully suggested that after the baseball experience I might need to try something "a little more menial.")

The job entailed helping the owner of St. Bernards Bed & Breakfast, Barbara Dau, entertain the guests, clean the house, and prepare the meals. I can't say I had a blast, but I did learn something. I am not very good at chopping parsley. I got the parsley job while preparing for the next day's breakfast. When I thought I was done, Dau just laughed. "You don't want people to choke on it," she said.

Working at a B&B is not easy or relaxing. In fact, if you were thinking of opening one, it would make a ton of sense to try this kind of Vocation Vacation first. Even Dau, who says she likes running St. Bernards, no longer has any illusions about the work. "People starting out think they're going to be the king and queen of the castle," she said. "But I ended up working 18-hour days. We keep it very elegant and quiet, but it's all a façade."

For me, the façade was broken at 7:15 the next morning, when Dau and I started back into the breakfast routine. I did some more chopping (cucumbers this time, with slightly better results), sorted spinach, mixed the scone batter, flaked salmon, served the guests--"Serve the plates from the left with your left hand!" Dau insisted. "Greet each guest and look him in the eye!"--cleaned rooms, made beds, and took out trash. When checkout time came at 11:30, I had newfound respect for Dau and her fellow innkeepers. I also experienced a feeling I have rarely encountered: I could not have been happier that my vacation was over. âñ 

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