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Beth Santos is founder and CEO of Wanderful, a global community and lifestyle brand that specializes in helping all women travel the world. Wanderful reaches a diverse audience of over 100M each year through chapter events in 50 cities, an international homesharing network, global summits and small group trips, a thriving membership community, and dynamic online content and forums. She is the creator and host of the Women in Travel Summit, a leading event for women travel creators and industry, happening on two continents each year, and co-founder of #AtTheTable, a national dinner series and community for female founders. She is a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management and Wellesley College, and is an acclaimed thought leader in entrepreneurship and travel. She lives in Boston.
Lindsay Gearheart: Tell me about your background and how you came to found Wanderful.
Beth Santos: When I initially started Wanderful, it started as a blog. I was living on my own in a country called São Tomé and Príncipe, which is a Portugese-speaking country off the West coast of Africa. I’m originally from southern New Hampshire. I had graduated the year before from Wellesley with an Art History degree. It was a terrible time to graduate and to graduate with an Art History degree, and so I traveled.
When I got to São Tomé, one thing I realized was what it was to be a woman traveling by herself in the world. Even at that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about travel for women and solo travel. Even now, the types of things we talk about when we talk about women traveling solo often have to do with safety, or “Eat, Pray, Love,” which is the other side of the spectrum. I was looking for more resources that were not available, so I started to write about it.
I eventually went to Craigslist to build an editorial team (back when you could post jobs on Craigslist and it wasn’t too creepy). We had 30 writers that were contributing content once a month, and that’s how it existed for a while, sharing very diverse stories from different women who were having very different experiences, but at the same time, there were a lot of things that tied us together. We realized how big a marketplace we were operating in, and how many women there were who were actively traveling or wanted to but were held back for some reason.
That’s when I moved to Chicago and went to business school. I was working in the nonprofit world in international development for a number of years when I realized what I had been doing on the side for a few years was actually a business. It was a lifestyle brand that we were building to support and empower women.
LG: Why do you believe solo travel is important for women’s personal and professional growth?
BS: First off, I think everybody should travel alone. It teaches you so much, not only about the world around you but about yourself and how you fit into that world. I think you build so many skills, whether it’s adaptability or understanding that people who can seem very different from you can have a lot of the same fundamental values. I think it also teaches people to be a lot more tolerant and to celebrate those differences. I think it also helps with anxiety to have an experience of traveling by yourself and realize what you’re personally capable of and that you can be OK and make decisions on your own and not necessarily have another person who’s guiding you. When you travel by yourself, it becomes very personal. I don’t think we have a lot of opportunities nowadays to take that time and really connect with ourselves, and even disconnect from the internet and our phones. We’re just so busy that I think traveling solo gives you a moment to take a step back.
As we’re getting older, women have a lot of people and responsibilities that are vying for their attention. I have a two-year-old, and it’s been an incredible experience to travel solo when you also have children because parents don’t typically get that kind of time. I think it’s something everyone should do at least once.
I also don’t think that you only have to travel solo in your life. I think a lot of people think it’s an identity thing, either I am a solo traveler or I’m not a solo traveler. That’s not true. Sometimes you travel with family, sometimes with friends, sometimes on your own. These are all different ways to do it and they each have different qualities. I think they should all be tried at least once.
I think there’s a lot of expectations of what solo travel is and what it should be. I think when people think of solo travel they think of a round-the-world trip with backpacks and sleeping in hostels. That’s not it. Sometimes it’s just you’re going on a business trip and you spend some time to explore the area.
One of the things we talk about in our community is deep issues in travel, like travel shaming, which is, “I have more passport stamps than you, therefore I’m an inherently better person than you, etc.” I think one of the things related to that is how far you have to travel for you to be a traveler. Are you justified if you travel 1,000 miles away, or 100 miles away? What is it to actually travel? One of the things we always say is that travel consists of stepping outside your comfort zone, fundamentally challenging your preconceptions, and allowing yourself to learn something new. If you can do that while walking down the street and turning the corner and finding yourself in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, trying something new, or challenged, that is as much travel as going to Thailand and sleeping on the ground for three days. It is so much more of a mindset thing than a where you’re going thing.
LG: Do you have any advice for helping women balance work, family, and personal pursuits like travel?
BS: The first thing you have to do is decide to do it. There will always be reasons to not do it. There will always be other obligations that are asking for your time. Putting your foot down and saying “I need to have this time for myself,” even if it’s just a week out of a full year, that is the essential part. I think the biggest hurdle is buying that flight. So many times we say, “OK I’m going to plan this out, but I’ll just wait until the flights are good.” Just book the flight, because when it becomes real, it’s much easier to make everything happen. Now you actually have to find child care and figure out your time off at work. Until then, all that stuff is abstract. Number one tip, book the flight.
Number two is recognizing that you deserve this time for yourself. Being able to travel on your own not only gives you time to connect with yourself, it gives you time to improve yourself. When you can come back refreshed or have learned something, that’s going to make you a better employee, parent, sibling, or whoever it is. There are studies that have shown people who take their vacation time are generally much happier at work, they’re better adjusted, and they have better performance reviews. There’s definitely a connection to all of that. I think being able to advocate for yourself and saying, “This is something that’s important to me, this is time that I’m going to take, this is time that I’ve been given for my job and I’m going to use it. And I’m not going to use it on another thing that ties me down; I’m going to use it for myself.”
It sounds so easy, but I recognize that it’s really hard, and it’s not always something that’s straightforward. I think talking to the people who are close to you first and saying travel is something you want to do, that it’s important to you, and then booking that flight, those are the things that eventually, hopefully, get you on the plane.
LG: I want to talk a little more about what Wanderful does exactly. When I first looked into the company, I thought, “Oh, it’s like Airbnb for women,” but it seems like so much more than that. It’s really a community. Can you talk about the different things you provide to the members of your community?
BS: So I mentioned that we started as a blog, and that’s where a lot of our existence thrives — in the online space. We have an active membership community with their own platform they use to connect with each other and get travel tips and advice. We operate some open things too like a big Facebook group called “Wanderful Women Who Travel,” and are regularly publishing content.
The best way to describe what we do is that we create spaces for women to feel safe and to feel vulnerable. Those spaces can be virtual, like our membership space, or they can be physical spaces. We actually host a lot of events. Our cornerstone event is called the Women in Travel Summit, which is a conference for travel content creators and influencers. Often on the industry side, we’ll get a lot of industry marketers and people who want to work with bloggers. We’ll talk about the development of the travel industry, building engaged communities, and marketing tactics in travel. The undertone is that this is a community of incredibly diverse women talking about an industry that is dominated by women, but in terms of decision-makers at the top, it’s a lot of white men still. So how do we make sure that the travel industry is staying inclusive and thoughtful about the needs of women when we are clearly the dominating audience but not the leadership.
The Women in Travel Summit is one of our biggest events and is really the thing that allows us to grow and thrive because we have sponsors and ticket sales. We now do that on two continents. We also have local chapters. We have 50 local chapters around the world that are all independently operated. They’re for women to connect with each other in person, to take all of the things that happen online into the offline for events, brunches, days out, etc.
The home sharing network is one of the newest parts of our community and definitely one of the fastest growing. What we found in the network itself was a lot of women in our message boards were constantly looking for places to stay. Now that we have 50 chapters, they are going to places and looking for where the local chapter is, and it’s almost like a tourism board where they can connect and be helpful to each other and provide tips and advice. They really want to travel locally, they want to get to know a local culture and connect with someone one-on-one, but they’re not feeling super comfortable doing that in some of the existing platforms, so we built our own. And that’s where Wanderful’s home-sharing network came from.
We have listings in over 15 cities now. They’re all women-owned properties, though we use an inclusive definition of the word women. You don’t have to be a solo traveler to participate, but we do identity verify everyone. We talk to everyone through a video call where we make sure you match your profile and we take some time to get to know. We’re creating opportunities for women to feel vulnerable, and you can only have someone feel vulnerable by their own choice if they feel safe enough to do that. So, opening spaces, building a sense of humanity among women who are different and from all around the world, and giving them an opportunity to feel like they’re part of a sisterhood.
LG: Your website mentions that in 2021, Wanderful plans to launch its first consumer festival. Can you tell us about the goal and plans for that event?
BS: That’s called Wanderfest, and we are officially announcing it in a few months, so I’ll just give you some teaser information for now. The Women in Travel Summit, our conference, has been doing great. I mentioned we’re doing it on two continents now, and we’ve been running it for six years. What we realized is our biggest show is actually for just a small segment of our community. Still a really powerful segment, but more of the women in the Wanderful network are travelers and not necessarily building businesses in travel. Also, for how big a market this is, there are not many in-person events that focus on celebrating the achievements of women in travel. So we thought that would be a great thing to do, to bring women together. We’re doing an outdoor festival style. We have a partner who’s going to bring in underground female artists to perform onstage, we’ll have inspiring speakers, we’ll have a women-owned product vendor showcase, we’ll have food trucks. It’ll be a whole big celebration. The hope is that you might come solo, with your best girl friend, with your mom or your daughter, and that it’s something that women who love to travel can coalesce on every year to make a plan to go, to feel inspired, to get energized, to get that push they need that they’ve been looking for to go and take that trip.
It’s been interesting running a business that primarily functions online with offline events. We don’t have an office; our whole team is remote. What we’ve found is that the more we as a society are attached to the internet, the more we hunger for that in-person connection and the more thoughtful we are about who we’re going to spend our time with. I think that’s how we’ve become this online business that does great offline events, and part of that is because the women are very intentional about wanting to meet face-to-face and having a connection. I think that’s our chance to bring all of the greatness that’s been happening online and fuel it into one big event. Hopefully all of the chapters will come and represent.
LG: To end on a fun question, what’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to, and where is next on your list? Or to make it a little easier, what’s your favorite place you’ve been to this year?
BS: That’s not a fun question, it’s a mean one! *laughs* I absolutely love Brazil, I think it’s so much fun. I’ve been there a few times for work and for pleasure. I do think it’s underrated. I think a lot of people get overwhelmed because it’s such a big country. Rio de Janeiro is one of my favorite places in the whole world.
I will also put in a vote in for Haiti. My in-laws are from Haiti. I think sometimes we hesitate to visit developing economies as tourists, but actually sometimes the best thing that we can do for those economies is to go and be a tourist. In Haiti’s case, I don’t want to straight-up say, “Everyone should go!” because there are times when it is not safe. But there are some very great organizations owned and operated by Haitians that can take you around and show some of the really cool history of that country. Especially here in the U.S. it’s so easy to get to and we have such a challenging history with that country, so I think it’s somewhere Americans should spend more time to actually visit.
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