Perspectives from a Former Techie Entering Sustainable Travel

17 August 2021

Hilary Matson spent eight years working in product and marketing roles at e-commerce behemoth Amazon before switching tracks and founding her sustainable travel company, Yūgen Earthside in June 2020. 

Hilary Matson, Yūgen Earthside, Founder

Yūgen Earthside is a Social Purpose Corporation that helps travelers easily discover & book small-group, sustainable trips, and contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals by giving back to projects that support responsible tourism development.

Hilary caught my attention when she became a Tomorrow’s Air member, and then again when I noticed her funny TikTok videos promoting her travel company, which launched at the height of the pandemic in June 2020. She agreed to a short interview recently.  Read on to learn more about her company, and what she thinks it will take to make it a success. 

Your background was working at Amazon as a video game product and marketing manager. How is your experience there is influencing your approach to marketing at your travel company? 

There are so many lessons I learned at Amazon that help me today. Especially as a start-up with a small, scrappy team, efficiency, and automation where possible is everything. Focusing on the customer is critical. Using data to drive decisions is hugely important. With marketing, there are tons of analytics and strategy that goes into what to post, when, on what platform, in what tone, for what audience, etc. Data analysis was always part of my jobs at Amazon, so it’s nice to feel comfortable with all the metrics that go into marketing and running a business. 

At Amazon, I also learned about SEO, how important the quality of images and text is on a product listing, how necessary it is to constantly get feedback from customers, and more. These lessons have permeated the way we do marketing at Yūgen Earthside in a very meaningful way.  

You've created some fun TikToks sharing sustainable travel and climate content, share your perspective on the role of social media and TikTok in marketing your new venture.

Social media plays a big part in what we do.

  • First and foremost, it’s a great way to showcase our brand, values, trips, and resources. It’s pretty interesting, too, that there’s actually not a lot of overlap between our platforms. We attract really different people based on the platform. On Instagram, we mostly connect with millennials. Pinterest and TikTok have drawn the Gen Z crowd. LinkedIn is our more professional interface where we connect with a lot of others working in the tourism industry.
  • Second of all, every business these days is on social media, so we don’t really view our presence as optional. Our objective is to increase brand awareness and engagement of our followers – hoping, of course, that our followers will want to book a sustainable trip through our platform. We do some paid ads and email marketing as well, but the opportunity to reach a massive amount of people for free via social media posts still plays an important role in our overall marketing strategy.
  • Third of all, it’s fun! Some of our posts are goofy or just pure “trendy” and not necessarily about selling something. But, I think these days, people really want to know the humans behind a brand. We’re going for a down-to-earth, personable, approachable vibe – but we also want to be taken seriously for our level of research, quality of resources, and commitment to the ideals of sustainable tourism.
I noticed you also did Semester at Sea, will you incorporate destinations you were introduced to during that experience in Yugen Earthside's portfolio?

I’m so glad you caught that! Semester as Sea (SAS) was really formational for me as a traveler. That’s where I credit getting “the travel bug” and many of those experiences shaped different facets of who I am today – including planting the seed for what is now Yūgen Earthside. 

We do already have some trips in several of the countries I visited on my voyage (India, Turkey, Spain). But on SAS you visit 10 countries, so we have a lot more to go!

One thing I’d like to share is that, during SAS, I visited Thailand and rode an elephant. I honestly didn’t know any better at the time (this was in 2007). I remember sitting atop the elephant and watching the mahout (guide) poke and prod the elephant’s face with a metal rod, and he actually pierced the elephant’s skin to the point of bleeding. I remember feeling uncomfortable witnessing this while simultaneously holding conflicting feelings of, “I might never be in Thailand again. This is what you do in Thailand – ride elephants. All my friends are doing it. It’s a school organized excursion.”

It was years later that I learned how truly terrible it is for the elephants to be “broken” into submission for tourists to ride, and I felt horrible about what I had done during SAS. I returned to Thailand in 2014 with some friends and this time we volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai. It was an incredibly rewarding experience to walk, feed, and bathe the elephants instead of riding them.

I remember thinking: “If I had known that riding elephants was bad, and been presented with a different and better option, I would have chosen differently on Semester at Sea.” I reference this story a lot because it’s a huge part of my “why”: why I want it to be easier for travelers to understand what sustainable travel means in different destinations, and know how to find and book more responsible experiences. I have to believe that if people knew better, they would choose better.

Anything else you want to share with the global travel trade?

On a global level, I have been continuously impressed and inspired by my new colleagues and acquaintances all working to better the tourism industry around the world. It truly brings me joy to be tapped into such a cool community, and it gives me so much hope to know that there really are people all over the world trying to use tourism for good. Travel and tourism is nearly 10% of global GDP and also employs about 10% of people worldwide – more than half of which are women. 

Travel also contributes significantly to the carbon problem. Working together, alongside numerous people and companies each innovating to tackle different pieces of this giant puzzle, is the only way forward. We have to “build back better” with the tourism industry post-Covid if we want to retain the sheer joy humans feel while traveling without damaging beyond repair the environments, economies, and societies we’re visiting.