Elena Bowes

New York-London travel & design writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with Travel Visionary Melissa Biggs Bradley

January 7th, 2021
Wanderings: ElsewhereWanderings: EuropeWanderings: USWanderings

As anyone familiar with my blog knows, I love to travel, move around, experience other worlds. In the words of our new Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, “Travel… is synonymous with growth, with adventure — even love.” He proposed to his husband in O’Hare airport. Not sure that would be my top choice, but at least Pete didn’t propose at LaGuardia.

Sticking with the travel theme (vs airports to propose in) I am a huge fan of fellow nomad Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder and CEO  of Indagare Travel, who was recently profiled here in a series by NBC about innovative, thoughtful leaders across industries.

I’ve known Melissa for nearly twenty years dating back to her time as Travel Editor at Town & Country Magazine. I freelanced for her then, and followed her in 2007, as did most of her staff at T&C (she’s always been inspiring) when she launched a digital magazine called Indagare. This was in the early days of the internet when print magazines were doing just fine. Melissa saw the future then, and she continues to today. What started as a digital magazine soon became one of the country’s leading luxury trip planners. In 2019 Indagare sent members to 122 different countries. Then the pandemic hit, and Indagare’s revenues plummeted to zero. Below is my Q&A with Melissa, one of my all-time heroes.

You’ve always been an impressive editor and entrepreneur, but during the pandemic you have shown your grit and creativity in other ways. Indagare has launched a variety of programs to keep your community inspired and connected, if not physically on the move.  Global Conversations, Global Classrooms, a Podcast, you have been anything but silent. You recently   hosted the Future of Travel Summit and you went to Rwanda in November, leading your first Insiders Journey since the pandemic began.

What are a few of the key lessons that you have learned over the last ten months?

Covid has certainly taught all of us to be more flexible, and I think being open to change is one of the great lessons that traveling teaches us too. You have to surrender to what happens and make the best of it. I always tell my kids you cannot control what happens in life, you can only control your reaction to it. Our team has been amazing at adapting and finding the opportunities in new challenges.

For instance, at the start of lockdown what I really missed was the global perspective one gets from interacting with people while on the road, learning about how we are different but also similar and to keep that exchange alive. So, we launched our virtual Global Classroom series and our Indagare Global Conversations podcast. Both of these programs allowed our members to continue to learn and be inspired by amazing people around the world who share their expertise and unique stories and remind us how connected we are even when borders are closed.

Ambition or talent- which matters more to success?

To me, the key is persistence, preferably driven by passion. Talent is a bonus but if it isn’t backed up with hard work, it usually isn’t enough.

How many Insider’s Trips have you led? Did your recent trip to Rwanda feel different? How?

I have led dozens of our Insider Journeys over the past ten years, including ones in partnership with Vogue, Architectural Digest and WSJ, and none has been quite as profound an experience as the Rwanda trip because the positive power of tourism—as well as the danger of the loss of tourism—has never been so starkly apparent. The country overcame a horrific genocide and has become a beacon of inspiration. It is the safest and cleanest country in Africa with one of the fastest growing economies. It has managed to rewild Akagera National Park after its animals were eradicated and grown the population of endangered mountain gorillas—and yet much of this progress has been built on tourism, which disappeared in March when the world locked down.

On this trip everyone we met—from women who ran artisan cooperatives to park rangers and trackers and the hotel staff—was thrilled to welcome us not just because we represented some of the first business that they had had in months but also because they saw in us the hope that tourism would return. In a moment of global crisis, it was truly inspirational to spend time with people who overcame a genocide and transformed their tragic history into a light of hope. They have handled Covid 19 better than the vast majority of countries and are really leading the way in how travel can be managed safely even in a pandemic, so it was a bit like visiting a bright future. We all felt enormously grateful for the opportunity to take a truly once in a lifetime trip at a critical moment.

What is your earliest memory of travel? Can you tell us some highlights? Is that when you got the bug?

Melissa with her mother, grandfather and sister in Sydney.

 

My earliest memories of travel are of visiting my mother’s parents in Sydney as a child. Everything about their world—from the passion fruit trees around their house and the unfamiliar candies like Violet Crumble and snacks like Tim Tams that we ate to the cricket matches that my grandfather watched—was totally different from my life in New York City. The exposure to such a different way of living, to me, represented the infinite array of possibilities and to this day, that is the magic of travel—that it reminds you of the endless options one has to choose from in how you want to live your life. Do you want to wake up in Tokyo and eat steamed rice and pickled vegetables for breakfast or in Paris and have coffee with croissants? There is no right way but hundreds of beautiful choices.

Do you think Covid has permanently affected the way we travel? Do you see ‘considered travel’ versus ‘consumptive travel’ as the new normal? Will Indagare be offering more ‘slow travel’ trips?

I think the travel landscape will be drastically different in the next five to ten years in part because air travel will likely be vastly reduced in terms of number of flights and likely much more expensive because of a permanent drop in corporate travel. Plentiful cheap flights are probably a thing of the past, so I think people will be more thoughtful about the trips they do plan. I also think the loss of the right to travel has made people think more deeply about what kinds of trips are the most meaningful, so we will see a more considered and conscious focus on travel and a less consumptive one.

Melissa in Egypt

People will also likely see just how important travel is to conservation and community and cultural preservation, and I hope that will give rise to more responsible travelers who use their trips to have a positive impact and become more aware of their carbon footprint and how to offset the negative impacts of travel.

In his latest book A Life on Our Planet, the 94-year old natural historian Sir David Attenborough describes in sombre, depressing prose how we are destroying and losing our natural world. If we have learned one thing during the pandemic, it’s how much we should treasure nature, how nature can restore the soul in difficult times. What are some of the most notable ways Indagare addresses conservation and saving the planet?

I loved David Attenborough’s latest film and think its message is critical for all of us to heed. From Indagare’s founding, we have always highlighted responsible travel and emphasized travelers’ commitment to safeguarding nature and cultural heritage and supported organizations that do the same. We also run Impact trips that specifically focus on sustainability like the one I am hosting next fall to Antarctica.

Our voyage has been carefully designed by our Global Impact team to reduce unnecessary energy waste and support sustainable travel practices. Additionally, a portion of the trip’s cost will go towards supporting conservation initiatives to protect vulnerable environments like Antarctica all around the world. And perhaps most of all, our journey will help raise awareness around the damage that is being done to this most precious environment, to inspire faster and more meaningful action.

What drives you on?

Curiosity. I am eternally curious about the world and the people in it, so exploring is like breathing for me. I cannot imagine not discovering something new every day, whether it is a new or old book or a foreign or familiar city.

You have seen more of the world than most people. What is still on your bucket list?

So many places. I haven’t been to Detroit or Mexico City.  I am hoping to visit Tunisia this year and also Antarctica, but I am also a big believer that return travel offers great discoveries too.

Anything unusual in your carry-on?

I use Zicam swabs in my nose and tiger balm on my wrists, behind my ears and under my nose to keep viruses at bay on the plane, and I love a hydrating powder from Italy called Polase, which revives me after a flight.

Tell us something surprising about yourself, something people wouldn’t have guessed. I recently learned that a campaign reporter for the NYTimes has a fear of flying – any of those surprises up your sleeve?

In some ways I am a serious homebody. In fact, I live in the same apartment building in New York that my parents brought me home from the hospital as a newborn to. Someone once told me that you have to have very solid roots to be able to feel truly at home anywhere in the world. I am deeply nomadic but that side may have been able to flourish because I feel so connected to my family and my roots.

If you weren’t working in travel, what would you be doing?

I would be writing biographies of women I admire.

In what place are you happiest?

At home, in the African bush

or in Paris.

 

What would your 20-year-old self say if she could see you now?

Not a bad result for not having a solid plan.

January, 2020