The most magical travel moments happen when you are privileged to live another life for a moment. You make a real connection with someone and step into their life for an hour or a day.
It’s not just the act of traveling, but feeling empathy while traveling, that changes minds and lives. And it also—in the best kind of selfish way—helps you. In his book, The War for Kindness (Crown, 2019), Jamil Zaki says evidence shows that individuals who empathize with others attract friends more easily, experience greater happiness, and suffer less depression.
Yes, you can stay in Paris for a week and have a lovely time eating croissants and seeing the Louvre. Or you can actively try to dig a little deeper. But how? If you don’t know anyone in a city, it can be awkward to email and ask to meet up for some personal connection.
Behold the travel advisor. Travel advisors can add this secret ingredient to their clients’ trips.
The best ones have traveled the world and amassed hundreds of global connections. And they help move travelers beyond standard or staged experiences. In Paris, they might connect you to a local journalist who understands and explains the reasons behind the chaotic French transport strike that recently ended.
My favorite travel memories have often been orchestrated by advisors. There are the fun and fabulous: An early morning tour of the Rialto Market in Venice with a local chef pointing out all the exotic fish that I should try to cook. A private meeting with Stefano Bemer, one of Europe’s best shoemakers, in Florence—Daniel Day-Lewis was an apprentice in his tiny shop.
Then there are connections that helped me understand the complicated history of a place, like an incredible guide in Jerusalem who asked, “Do you want to hear the whole story, or the one I tell to religious groups?” before he started a full-day tour. (I wanted the whole story, whatever he thought that was.)
How do advisors do it?
Knowing good organizations and making the connection
Travel advisors know the best on-sites and organizations on the ground to connect travelers with. Many, like Jody Bear of Bear & Bear Travel, refuse to book a guide if they haven’t experienced it themselves.
In Panama, you might book a cruise to see the Panama Canal, a worthy dream trip. But when Bear was in Panama City, she spent two hours with a formerly incarcerated gang leader—who is now in law school and talked to her about the state of Panama today and how the city’s gang history relates back to the building of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s. She now recommends that experience to her clients.
My all-time favorite expert for China is Gerald Hatherly, an executive director at Abercrombie & Kent. He works closely with travel advisors, advising on crisis issues like coronavirus and the Hong Kong protests, but also to plan deeply cultural, transformative trips in the country.
I also love Journey Mexico, run by expert Zachary Rabinor, who once took me on a colorful, informative, delicious tour of Puerto Vallarta, a city many fly into and then leave for the beach resorts close by.
Travelers also continue to seek more and better voluntourism experiences. Even a more “typical” volunteer experience like painting a local school or delivering supplies can change lives. It is not entirely about the recipient, Jack Ezon, CEO of Embark, says: “It’s about the contributor. Giving is like a drug and once you taste it, you instantly want more. I have seen countless children and adults go home and look for ways to give back. Giving generates empathy and understanding.”
Luxury hotels like Singita in Africa are dedicated to fostering authentic local connections, rather than ones that feel theatrical. The goal is to avoid something that might go like this: Rich visitors arrive in air-conditioned luxury vehicle and watch performance by poor villagers. That doesn’t feel good on either side.
Knowing good people and setting travelers up for success
Travel advisors spend years vetting their networks and establishing relationships around the world. Even then, it’s like a blind date when they set clients up.
Brooke Lavery, partner at Local Foreigner, says that the best chance for success—like on a blind date—comes when each party goes into the interaction prepared, having seen photos and bios beforehand. “The introduction is easy, but fostering a connection is tricky,” she says. “When our clients are meeting someone I have personally met, I go beyond the bio and share more about the personalities—if someone is shy at first but opens up over time, or if they are warm, gregarious, and open. It’s all about managing expectations.” She also talks about “managing American curiosity” and guiding clients on which conversation topics to avoid, so everyone feels respected.
On a trip to Israel, Lavery connected with an interesting woman who was born in the United Kingdom as a Christian and ended up converting to Islam and moving to Israel. She is now a wife, mother, and de facto mayor of a tiny Arab village among Jewish settlements outside of Jerusalem.
“She’s kind and warm and gregarious and pursued a very different life,” Lavery says. “Our clients do as I did—the afternoon starts with tea in her backyard overlooking Jerusalem and continues with a village walk to learn about modern-day challenges and neighborhood gossip. It is a window into one perspective and in a complicated destination like Israel, providing several perspectives is crucial.”
But anything truly authentic and natural is impossible to orchestrate by definition, says Ezon, who puts clients in touch with specialist guides or interesting people like local journalists or professors. “Is the chemistry there that will create a compelling relationship? It’s pretty unpredictable,” he says. It could work, or it might be a more serendipitous moment of meeting a fascinating person that impacts your life.
The preparation that goes into a “local connection moment” should take three or four times as long as the actual interaction, says Lavery. An excellent advisor takes this time to dig more and prepare both sides as wholly as possible.
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