Recently, The SLG Editor had a chance to sit down with Beth Santos, Founder and CEO of Go Girl Travel Network to find out her insights on travel, running a travel business, and making the most of your time abroad.What inspired you to start the Go Girl Travel Network? What gaps does GGTN fill in the travel industry?
In 2009 I was living for a few months in Sao Tome and Principe, a small two-island nation off the coast of West Africa. It really is a small country — the population is about 150,000, and because it’s so small and so far off the coast of continental Africa, there’s a very limited tourism industry there. People don’t really travel to Sao Tome to go on vacation.
For these reasons, I had to learn very quickly how to live locally — because there was basically no other option. I learned to ride a motorcycle so I could get to school everyday, where I taught a computer class to middle school students. I remember what a hilarious sight I was for people — this young white American woman bumping along on her motorcycle each day, thinking nothing of it. People used to shout “motoqueira!” to me, hollering for the “female motorcycle taxi” to come give them a ride.
It was during this time that I started to write. I wrote about two things: the intersection between being a foreigner and living hyper-locally, and about my identity as a woman in a place where gender dynamics were very different. I was interested in the idea of global citizenship, of being a woman in the world. But I was also interested in the idea of access — both as a woman and as a foreigner in a new place.
Over time, I had a lot of people respond to what I was writing. They were studying abroad, living abroad, volunteering abroad. They had been in my situation before. Being a female traveler isn’t always about shopping and spas — it’s also about cultural norms and expectations, safety, religious expression, dress, biology even. I wanted to talk about these gritty topics that all women experience when they travel abroad. And over time we really grew — as a magazine, then as an event series, and now as a network for women to connect with one another over these experiences abroad.What does ethical travel mean to you? How do you practice it in your own travels?
Ethical travel is an amazing topic. The first thing that we usually talk about is sustainable travel — literally not being wasteful, especially in situations where we’re with nature and trying to “leave no trace”.
But I think there is a lot to be said for practicing ethical travel when we interact with people. It’s the idea that as travelers, we are there to learn about the community we’re visiting, and should try not to negatively impact it or change it.
In many ways, I think traveling ethically in a social context can be more difficult. Sometimes our own personal ethics tell you that something you’re seeing is wrong; yet unless you are committed to living in a place in the long-term, it’s not so easy (or even appropriate) to try to change someone else’s culture. So sometimes I think ethical travel can actually be about going against your own personal ethics, and realizing that ethics, in their very nature, can be subjective.
I think overall it’s about understanding. Keeping your mind open to other experiences, yet finding a way to respectfully hold true to your own values as well.
There has been lots of discussion geared towards women about how to look “beautiful” when they travel or how to backpack in heels, or sort of “do it all” as you travel. What pressures do you find women travellers face in the field?
Oh my gosh! I hate this! Why do women have to look nice when they travel? Why do these stereotypes still follow us? And why do we let them?
I don’t like to submit ourselves to stereotypes. If a woman wants to wear heels when she backpacks, good for her. Heck, if a man wants to wear heels when he backpacks, great for him. I personally think it’s not very functional, but people can make their own choices about that.
I think one of the most interesting parts of travel is seeing how the social pressures toward women change depending on what country they’re in. I’m Portuguese and Italian by heritage, and have a lot more facial hair than the average woman. I often go to great lengths to remove it, because here in the USA it’s not looked upon too fondly. I remember one time when I was in Haiti I was subjected to the all-too-unfortunate experience of not having the right measures to remove unwanted hair. So I went outside anyway.
It turns out, facial hair on women in at least this particular part of Haiti was considered something very attractive. A male teacher that I worked with told one of my colleagues how beautiful he thought my chin was, and she nearly died laughing. She said, “don’t EVER tell that to Beth — in the USA they see these things very differently!”
On a less light note, I think the debate of —if it’s safer or less safe for women to travel alone than men is very interesting, and both perspectives have their own points. That’s why I love Go Girl — we allow people to share their opinions, and encourage a good debate. We’re not necessarily there to discourage one thing or another. For us, the bottom line is that women can and should do anything.
What advice do you have for women who are about to take their first trip abroad?
Keep your mind open. Do a little research, or as much as you feel works for you. Learn to say “hello”, “please” and “thank you” in the local language.
Make sure you really get a chance to feel the air wherever you are. Look for a good restaurant for dinner, then pass that place and turn down two side streets to find a local spot. Be smart, as everyone should, at night and when you’re in a place you don’t know. Watch your drinks, as you should at home anyway. But most importantly, listen, learn, and have an amazing time.
Can you weigh in on the traveller vs tourist debate?
I used to feel strongly about this. I said that a traveler is someone who is really connected to the world around them — they travel for global awareness, for cultural understanding, to be a citizen of the world.
I still feel this way, but I don’t necessarily have such a negative feeling toward the word “tourist” anymore. Being adventurous and open-minded is different for every person. For some, being adventurous is showing up in a tiny community in Fiji and sleeping in hammocks for two years. For others, being adventurous is just leaving your hometown and driving somewhere new, or trying the new coffee shop that opened up down the street. I’m not one to judge. I just encourage everyone to challenge themselves and step outside of their comfort zones, wherever that is.
What do you think of the 10,000-places-to-see before you…. lists? or the listicle style 10 Things to See in Vienna, type of lists. Are they changing the way we travel? (and what places are on your list?)
Psychologically, people go crazy for numbers. That’s why you see so many lists nowadays, not to mention “shock and awe” articles (god forbid I’m making one of the “Top Five Travel Mistakes” when I get on an airplane! Etc). I think they can be great ways to help quantify an experience — I think a lot of people appreciate knowing the “big hits” of an area. Do I want to travel to Giza only to realize when I got home that I missed the Sphinx? No way — I hear it’s amazing. But I also don’t think experiences can necessarily be quantifiable.
Are lists changing the way we travel? I think the way we travel is always changing. A “must do” experience might be completely different five years from now than it is now. And what might be “popular” now might not be so popular later.
So here’s what makes up my “must do” list:
1) Find some of the top hits of an area and check them off your list, if you so desire
2) Do something crazy local, like get a haircut or buy groceries
3) Sit in a coffeeshop and watch people for a while. Let the time pass
4) Try to have a conversation with someone, preferably someone local
5) See if you can sneak your way into a home-cooked meal
6) Open to spontaneity 🙂
What is the biggest challenge you face as a woman working in the travel field and how do you work to overcome it?
I actually don’t see many issues with being a woman working in the travel field — I think there are a lot of women in our field and so many of the challenges have been surpassed. I also work from home, so I’m not constantly confronting any “office politics” that may exist for other people.
I do think that my age can be off-putting for some. I can be really self-conscious about it. Oftentimes I’m talking to CEOs that are my parents’ age, and I get very concerned about how I talk or how young I sound on the phone. I worry that they won’t take me seriously.
I recently heard about the book The Confidence Code and am interested in reading it. It talks about under-confidence in women and I think it’s a topic that’s very relevant. If I were a 28 year-old man running my own company and managing 30-40 people at any given time, I don’t know, I get this feeling that people would think “wow, look at how amazing this guy is”. But because I’m a 28 year-old female, I feel like sometimes (though certainly not always) people are thinking, “is this company legitimate?”
Can you tell us a little bit about your time in Haiti and any lessons learned from that trip?
I think it’s almost impossible to tell you only a little bit about my time in Haiti. It’s a country that’s very close to my heart. I used to do a lot of work there when I worked in the international development sphere. It turns out that my husband is Haitian American so I’ve maintained a strong connection to the country and to the language. It’s a fascinating place — both poor and rich. There’s a lot of patriotism, yet at the same time many people seek emigration as a way out.
It’s a country that’s over-saturated with non-profit activity, and I think it can ultimately hurt people in terms of building local capacity.
But then you drive 12 hours and you get to Tiburon, the tiny town where my father-in-law’s family lives, and there are people catching fresh fish from the ocean and children playing and mangoes that you pluck off the trees, and you feel like you’re in a completely different world.
Tell me about the Women’s Travel Summit 2015 coming up in Boston. What is the summit about and who can attend the summit?
The Women in Travel Summit is a summit for female travelers, bloggers and entrepreneurs. We put together our first event this past March in Chicago with just four months of planning, and it was a hit. We had 180 people from 25 US states and 8 countries join us. Next year we’re expecting 300 when we join up in Boston.
The summit is an amazingly inspiring, empowering event for women who love to travel. We run content over three tracks (the traveler, the blogger and the entrepreneur) so that people from all areas (or even a combination of the three) can get some hands-on experience and insight. There are lots of networking opportunities so we can create a global sisterhood, and some really amazing travel companies that want to connect with female travel bloggers.
We’re so excited to have Dina Yuen (the Asian Fusion Girl) and Kate McCulley (Adventurous Kate) as our speakers. It’s going to be incredible and I highly recommend everyone attend. But don’t take my word for it either — Andrea Arzaba, our poster girl, made an amazing video last year so you can see how it went for yourself.
How has the Go Girl Travel Network evolved, and what is in store for the future of GGTN?
We are growing during an amazing time. More women are traveling than ever, and they’re doing it more often. Though we started as a blog, now we function as an online magazine with a great blogger program to help new and growing bloggers grow in their travel writing skills. We also have meetup hubs in different cities for women travelers to connect with one another over their travels, and do that in seven cities at the moment. We run a weekly Twitter chat on Mondays called #girlstravel, and send our writers to destinations to review them for our community. We host a Go Girls of the World group on Facebook where women can share their travel tips with each other, and we even started a book club.
Go Girl is really growing as a home base and a community for female travelers. I’m excited to say that we’re also completely re-creating our website for just this reason. We want to bring all of the different parts of our network together under one roof, so that female travelers can connect with one another both on and off the web and really develop the sisterhood that is already blossoming. There may also be a trip in the works, but you didn’t hear that from me!
Beth is the creator and lead of the Women in Travel Summit, for female travel bloggers and brands, organized by Go Girl Travel Network. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and a current MBA candidate at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where she serves as President of the Women’s Business Association. A New England native and resident of Chicago, Beth serves on the board of Chicago Adventure Therapy and eats entirely too much dessert.