For Wild Women Expeditions owner and director Jennifer Haddow, community-building doesn’t need to involve flashy content or a big budget. As the entrepreneur has discovered over the past year, it can be as simple as connecting meaningfully with clients.
“It’s about taking the time to engage with clients, and really listening to them,” she explains. “Then, adapt to what they’re asking for. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are. Being small can be a strength.”
One stark example of this took place in June, 2020, three months after Covid-19 put the world’s travel industry on halt. Haddow was out walking, facing the same challenge as every travel business owner at the time: how to navigate the global pandemic. Then, she received a call from a client.
“This woman had been on many of our trips, and was booked to travel with us that summer,” Haddow recalls. “She reached out to tell me that her husband had suddenly passed away. We talked about postponing her trip, but then she wanted to talk about what she was going through. We talked for more than an hour, about Covid-19, travel, family—all of it. It was an emotional conversation.”
For Haddow, it was also a much-needed change of perspective.
“Having the opportunity to connect with her in that way—it reminded me how much power there is in sharing intimacy and trust with your clients,” she says.
Wild Women Expeditions (WWE), which launched in 1991, offers active, nature-based women-only adventures connecting women of all ages, backgrounds, sexual orientations and identities. It boasts more international departures than other mid-sized companies in the women-only sector, and promotes women's leadership, environmental stewardship, social responsibility and animal welfare in an inclusive setting.
It also has a private Facebook group where nearly 14,000 women gather to discuss travel, health and wellness, nature, the patriarchy, and everything in-between. According to Haddow, it was WWE’s community that got both the company and its clients through those hard first months.
“In a crisis, we go to people we trust, those we’ve already been in communication with,” she explains. “We saw very early on that “Wild Women” clients wanted to stay in contact with our team throughout Covid-19, even and especially if we couldn’t be together.”
Throughout the spring 2020, the comments section of the “Wild Women” Facebook group didn’t talk much about travel. Conversations included members’ forays into their own backyards, the healing power of nature, and shared memories of adventures past. According to Haddow, the fact that the online group has been building momentum since 2013 meant the brand-to-client connections sought after by other businesses in the absence of travel promotion already existed for WWE.
As such, when the brand began offering domestic tours in Canada and the U.S. that summer, Haddow turned to the group to promote the new trips first, encouraging the members to travel locally. The buy-in was immediate. As the year wore on, she did the same with 2021 trips, posting them on the Facebook group instead of buying ad space. The majority of the new itineraries sold out before they were uploaded to WWE’s website.
Today, although Covid-19 continues to make the future of travel uncertain, Wild Women Expeditions’ sales for 2021 are almost back to 2019 levels—despite a minuscule marketing spend.
“I’ve never seen such an expression of loyalty and trust, and Covid-19 brought that out,” Haddow says. “We’ve seen a 50% increase in engagement across our social media platforms and on our website—current clients who are bringing in their friends, but it’s also women who haven’t traveled with us before, who have been on our mailing list for 5 years, and are being drawn in by the community.”
Haddow attributes this unexpected success to WWE’s 30-year commitment to making space for women in traditionally male-dominated spaces. And as with any kind of community, the needs of people must be front-and-centre, so Haddow cautions against anyone looking to merely benefit from the “women’s-only travel trend.”
“I see a lot of travel brands pink-washing with women-focused itineraries and not showing up for the issues,” she explains. “Are these trips working with women-owned hotels, restaurants? Do they empower communities of women in-destination in a measurable way? That’s what I always want to know—and so do the women who are doing the booking.”
For Haddow, the rising popularity of women-only trips in mainstream tourism represents a larger movement—one that shouldn’t be underestimated in the midst of evolving conversations about a tourism industry “restart.” Indeed, with the world being forced to re-examine everything from office culture to systemic racism, the role of women in tourism is ripe for disruption.
“It’s great that more trips are being made available exclusively for women travelers, but how many women tourism professionals are getting viable, sustainable career opportunities as a result?” she asks. “More importantly, how many women are determining the direction of the industry as a whole?”
Haddow maintains it’s a question that should be asked continuously, and not just within the scope of women porters and guides—particularly as governments continue to distribute funding to business owners in the interest of the survival of the travel industry.
“Follow the money— who has the power at the top in adventure tourism to make the big decisions about employment, about sustainable operations, about community engagement in-destination?” she points out. “The answer is predominantly men, so how can women hope to be leaders in the restart of our industry if they’re not even at the table at the highest level?”
The value of a restart, Haddow maintains, is that it presents the chance to leverage a greater impact for women tourism professionals everywhere. It’s an opportunity she believes will be crucial for tourism’s future success.
“Think about it: women’s adventure travel is not a fad—it’s been building steadily for decades and Wild Women has been there since the beginning,” she states. “It’s about more than female guides or women being with other women, it reflects a huge source of untapped talent, demand and potential for growth in our industry. To regenerate adventure travel, we need to ensure more women are running this industry—not just working in it.”