Women in Travel; Beth Santos of Wanderful

Last updated on April 14th, 2024 at 03:42 pm

Making strides for women in travel, I chatted with Wanderful founder and CEO, Beth Santos. Mother, traveler, entrepreneur, and author, she’s paving the way and encouraging more females to solo travel!

“The reality is that solo travel manifests itself in so many ways, and it doesn’t require a thousand-mile flight in order to happen. It really only consists of three things: 1) challenging your preconceptions, 2) trying something new, and 3) getting uncomfortable.” — Beth Santos

Can you tell us a little about yourself and where your story begins?

In 2009 I found myself living in a small two-island nation called Sao Tome and Principe. I moved there more or less on a whim after college, with not a strong plan for what I wanted to do in my life (I was an art history major who loved my major but didn’t find all that much to do with it after school).

I met a friend of a friend at a picnic while living in Washington DC who used to run the Peace Corps in Sao Tome. He had been living in Sao Tome for decades and operated a small guest house that took in volunteers who would help with his small non-profit (what he founded after the Peace Corps eventually left). 

Sao Tome is a Portuguese-speaking country and as Portuguese American and Portuguese speaker who had just come off of studying abroad in Portugal, a place to go with free rent in exchange for volunteer work, and an opportunity to continue to use my language skills, sounded like a pretty good deal. I ended up working there on and off for two years, running a computer science program at the local middle school. 

Living in Sao Tome felt like so much more than just a solo trip. I became so deeply embedded in the local community and culture, and in that way I got such a rich experience as a foreigner. But I also was affronted with the realities of being a woman – not just a woman in Sao Tome, but a woman in the world – and the fact that women’s realities are wildly different depending on the places we visit and the identities we have.

I don’t think any of my study abroad prep classes (the one or two meetings we had) had ever prepared me for things like gender norms, or cultural nuances. In Portugal, and in Sao Tome, I pretty much had to figure it out on the fly.

During my time in Sao Tome I started a travel blog. Travel blogging was no more than online journaling, and I loved to write. I began chronicling my experiences in Sao Tome, and invited other women living abroad to share their stories in an online magazine called Go Girl. That was the beginning of what Wanderful is today.

Is there a standout travel memory that encouraged you to pursue a career within the travel industry?

I don’t think I ever actively thought about pursuing a career in the travel. I never studied tourism or hospitality. The travel industry came to me, in a sense. I loved what travel did for me and how it taught me ways of looking at the world. And the longer I traveled, the more I reflected on how women were left out of so many dominant travel narratives.

I hated the fact that travel was made to look picture-perfect (even before social media, though social media certainly hasn’t helped), yet some of the richest part of a travel experience actually happened through the misadventures.

As I started to build my online magazine into a business, I realized how much women are an afterthought in the travel industry, even though we actually dominate the consumer purchasing landscape.

That reality invigorated me to further explore how we talk about travel, who it’s for, and to push back on the image that had been served to us over and over – the older, sun-kissed, straight white guy being the model traveler, and everyone else being sort of an exception to the rule.

Wanderful evolved from just an online magazine into a community by creating a space where diverse women could help and support one another, and where we could help amplify the voices of women who are creating content and sharing their real stories in travel, in order to better represent and serve all of us.

Starting anything new can be a huge challenge. What were your biggest obstacles you’ve faced along the way?

Oh gosh, so much! Since Wanderful was my first (but not my last) business, I don’t think even I realized what I was up against when I first started, or even in the thick of it (or even sometimes now).

A couple of years ago my husband and I became co-owners of the local café in our neighborhood, a really cool place called Ula. It was actually in my journey becoming a café owner that I gained clarity on how unique of a business Wanderful is.

Our income is driven through membership subscription; event sponsorship for our cornerstone creator event, the WITS Travel Creator Summit; and brand campaigns on our blog and social media.

When we first started, a lot of that stuff didn’t even exist. We literally have played a part in helping to build an industry and a market that is still in its infancy. In many ways, that’s very exciting, because we’ve helped shape this world. But in other ways, it means we’ve had to justify our value again and again to people who are new to these concepts (like paid social media, or the value of content creators, or even on a certain level the idea of an online membership community with a subscription model).

We explored membership for years before we actually succeeded at it, because we were too small of a business to build our own membership platform but no other platform had really made membership work yet. We were too early to market sometimes, and had to wait for the industry to catch up, to build what we needed, or to understand our value.

Compare that to a café, that’s had a proven business model for hundreds (thousands?) of years. Everyone knows generally how much a cup of coffee should cost. But we still can’t really agree how much an Instagram post should cost, or what it does for us in the long-run.

I think all of those things made my own belief in myself harder. When I failed at something, I would look at myself – am I just a really bad entrepreneur? Am I horrible at sales? But owning Ula has given me this new confidence that actually, I’m not a bad entrepreneur. I’m just building a business while I’m simultaneously building the market that this business operates in. 

What do you think sets Wanderful apart from other companies out there?

Wanderful has always been about supporting women who travel, and especially women solo travelers. It’s about creating a supportive environment of women around the world that can rely on each other and help each other, whether that’s through tips and advice, or actually meeting up in person. I think beyond that, though, there are definitely a few things that set us particularly apart.

The first is our focus on DEI and representation. I think a lot of times the “solo female travel” conversation can fall easily into the “young, white, hetero, solo female traveler” bracket, ignoring the experiences of other underrepresented communities and intersections. So we spend a lot of time making space and encouraging intersectional dialogue that allows us to all be seen in our own many identities.

This happens in some of our online conversations and webinars, as well as the way we approach our toolkits and guides (from our solo travel guide to our creator-focused anti-oppression toolkit, or events we’ve hosted like the Moving Forward Anti-Racism Town Hall that we hosted in 2020 and 2021).

I also think our focus on creators is unique. This is the space where we came from ourselves, and we strongly believe that we can change the literal face of travel by amplifying more diverse voices and getting those stories out in the world – stories we can all relate to, not just a small portion of us.

So Wanderful isn’t just about supporting women who love to travel, but also helping women build meaningful and lasting creative businesses in travel that disrupt the current narrative and create a richer, more representative story of what travel is and who it’s for.

Can you share anything that’s new or in the works with Wanderful this year?

So much, as always! We have been investing a lot in our membership community lately, building new features and bringing in new team members to create an even more supportive and collaborative environment in our membership. We’ve added creator and small business memberships while help women with the growth of their businesses.

And as of March 5 I’m a published author as well! My book, Wander Woman, will be hitting bookshelves. It’s published by Balance, a Hachette imprint. Wander Woman is part solo travel guide, part manifesto, pushing back on many of the messages we’re told as women about traveling alone.

It’s the book that I hope every woman reads before traveling alone, but I think experienced travelers can glean a lot from its more universal lessons, too. I’ll be touring the country sharing the book throughout the spring, and especially at our next WITS Travel Creator Summit, which is taking place in Salt Lake City in April. It’s an exciting year for us for sure. 

What’s one piece of advice you can give the solo travelers out there, or those looking to take the leap into traveling alone?

We have so many expectations about traveling alone. We think we have to be alone for days or weeks on end, marinating in our solitude. For many of us, that feels unattainable. And having these pictures – of beautiful people quitting their jobs and traveling the world forever, seemingly perfectly – well, that’s great for them, but it doesn’t help us feel like travel is any more accessible or possible.

The reality is that solo travel manifests itself in so many ways, and it doesn’t require a thousand-mile flight in order to happen. It really only consists of three things: 1) challenging your preconceptions, 2) trying something new, and 3) getting uncomfortable. If you can achieve these things even five minutes from your house – getting yourself into a position of openness, and learning, and welcome discomfort – that’s much more of a travel experience than flying thousands of miles away and not feeling anything at all.

Seek out opportunities to grow, wherever you find yourself. And if you’re thinking about that first solo trip, use those key ingredients to guide you. You might have a totally life-changing weekend just 90 minutes from your house – and exercising that travel muscle will make you stronger and better prepared for the next round.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *