When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Stacey Peters had to cancel more than just a few trips. Putting off upcoming plans to travel to Canada with her mother, a Florida trip set with her daughter, and a solo spa trip to the Grand Canyon and Sedona, Peters joined the legions of travelers who were grounded due to a virus.
Roughly half of Americans had to cancel their summer trips in 2020 due to the pandemic. The numbers show an unprecedented decimation of the travel industry, which in 2017 generated $1.6 trillion in economic output for the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Travel Association, travel has seen a 40% drop in spending from 2019, resulting in a $500 billion revenue loss.
As with most things this pandemic, the numbers are shocking but it is the human stories that paint the real picture. For Sofia Martin, who got the travel bug at age 16 after a high school trip to Europe, canceling six upcoming trips has been difficult. “Usually once a month, I would try to get away somewhere,” Martin says. “Sometimes that would include a work trip, sometimes it was a quick weekend getaway. I flew almost 80,000 miles in 2019.”
As the travel industry reels, a new term has entered the lexicon: armchair travel. In response to shutdowns, closed borders, and government-enforced quarantines, armchair travel promises the experience of seeing the world while staying home in pajamas. Museums like the Louvre now offer virtual tours of their galleries, while tourism boards tout virtual walking tours of places like the Great Wall of China. Yet, despite the power of technology to visually transport someone to a far-flung locale, it can often fail to simulate the power of human connection.
This is where Wanderful steps in.
“When travel started to close down, we saw Wanderful women were looking for an outlet, for someone to share in this experience with. That’s when we took a step back and realized this is what we’re about…it’s about supporting women for whom travel is a huge part of who they are.”
Wanderful is a women’s travel community with more than 45,000 members spanning across 110 countries. With local chapters in over 50 cities, the Wanderful brand creates spaces that aim to connect women with a shared passion for travel. Their Wanderfest (the world’s first outdoor travel festival for women) and their Women in Travel Creator + Brand Summit (an industry event for travel influencers and creators) provide attendees with the resources needed to both travel the world and carve out a career in the industry. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wanderful—like so many other travel companies—has had to address traveling at a time when people are advised to stay home.
“What we realized is that our Wanderful members are not just coming to us when it’s time to plan a trip. Rather, they are the kind of women for whom travel is an essential part of themselves,” explains Beth Santos, the Founder of Wanderful. “When travel started to close down, we saw Wanderful women were looking for an outlet, for someone to share in this experience with. That’s when we took a step back and realized this is what we’re about. It’s not just about us helping women in the moment of travel, it’s about supporting women for whom travel is a huge part of who they are.”
Prior to the pandemic, Wanderful had largely been focused on fostering in-person experiences in tandem with cultivating their online community. In an effort to deepen that online-offline connection, the team launched a membership portal to connect women virtually. In March 2020, as a silent virus swept across the globe, engagement in that membership portal spiked. For Wanderful women like Peters and Martin, the membership community has proven instrumental in both fueling their travel passions and connecting them to other like-minded travelers.
“[The membership community] has been a great way for me to quench a bit of my wanderlust and connect with fellow travel lovers across the globe,” explains Martin, who is the Chicago Chapter Director of Wanderful. “I’ve gotten to virtually travel to Peru and learn more about the culture of woven textiles. I’ve been able to practice my Spanish with native speakers in some of our language circles. I’ve turned my living room into a gym with relaxing yoga classes. I’ve picked up tips for future travel and, just a week ago, I attended a great session on planning road trips.”
Wanderful hosts an array of virtual events—ranging from cooking classes to weekly travel chats—that aim to keep the spirit of travel alive. For members like Peters, this online community provides a forum to express her passion for travel in a way that is uniquely hers.
“I’ve gotten to virtually travel to Peru and learn more about the culture of woven textiles. I’ve been able to practice my Spanish with native speakers in some of our language circles…and, just a week ago, I attended a great session on planning road trips.”
“Before I joined [Wanderful], I thought there was a singular way to express my love of travel. But there isn’t. There are so many people out there who love the stuff I love and I don’t have to ‘fit in’,” says Peters. “Wanderful members understand how integral travel is to me, because they feel the same way. I don’t have to explain how I feel. I don’t have to defend my choices or feel ‘some kinda way’ because I’d rather eat ramen noodles if it means I could squeeze one more adventure into my life.”
Wanderful not only provides a space for women to talk about travel but supplies the resources for women to pursue a career in the industry. In many cases, that means launching a travel blog from scratch and mastering skills such as targeted SEO and blog post writing. Seeing her members take time out of their days to cultivate a new passion is what truly moves Santos.
“We are told throughout our lives that whenever you have spare time, you should use it to invest in yourself professionally, tend to family, or improve yourself,” Santos explains. “When people join our Wanderful Woman Wednesdays, for example, they are actively deciding to spend an hour talking about something that they love, simply because they love it. I think that is really special.”
Jason Seagle / WITS by Wanderful
“We talk a lot about mindful travel, sustainable travel, and social justice because travel is all of those things, and more.”
Too often travel conversations are distilled down to recommended places to see, efficient packing tips, and airfare hacks. But, throughout this pandemic, important conversations about social justice, racial equality, and responsible tourism have redefined what it means to be a traveler. The Wanderful community tackles many of these issues head-on by introducing forums for women to candidly discuss topics such as racism. Following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the Wanderful community launched a series of Anti-Racism Town Halls to discuss ways to move the industry forward.
“We talk a lot about mindful travel, sustainable travel, and social justice because travel is all of those things, and more,” Santos says. “What we are really talking about are topics that make us better as travelers.”
Where travel may have once been defined by the number of miles traveled or fresh stamps in your passport, today an emphasis is placed on human connection and stepping out of one’s comfort zone—two things that can be found close to home. At a time when people are socially-distanced, the Wanderful community has managed to help women look at traveling through a new lens.
“Traveling really only consists of three things: challenging your preconceptions, trying something new, and putting yourself in a position of discomfort,” muses Santos. “If you can do those things five minutes from your house, that is just as much a travel experience as going thousands of miles away.”
With the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, the travel industry is beginning to look ahead to the future. From vaccine passports to a rise in sustainable tourism, the future of travel looks at once hopeful and different. There will be new regulations to navigate, new concerns to address, and new questions to answer, but the Wanderful community is ready to help its members tackle the new normal. When asked about the future of Wanderful, Santos anticipates a triumphant return to travel but hopes to maintain the intersectionality of her growing virtual community.
“This is the first time our members have been able to hop on a computer and instantly chat with another member who is based in Berlin or the Philippines,” Santos says. “Even though we’re excited to go back to traveling again, nothing will replace the experience of hopping on a Zoom with 25 women from various countries.”