An Indian American settled in California with 25+ years of experience in the tourism industry, 15 of which as an entrepreneur of a boutique travel company, Usha’s emphasis is on offering customized worldwide vacations for FIT and FIT groups. When she is not planning/curating trips for clients, she enjoys getting a good workout by going on walks with her family and when they don’t accompany her, she loves listening to music, or a podcast on varied topics.
How did you fall in love with travelling or start working within the industry as a career?
I believe “the world of travel” found me instead of the other way around. As a very young person my “make believe play” always involved offering airline tickets to various members of my family to go on a trip of their dreams. J Clearly I came wired to be involved with travel and tourism in some manner.
While growing up in India, my family always travelled right from when I was very young. Initially, this was due to the fact that we lived away in a Central Indian state while most of our extended family were living in Southern India. This involved a trek by train every couple of years to go visit them. This was always exciting and most anticipated holidays as we would traverse through the country while seeing the landscape change dramatically through the course of our trip. Aside from that through my growing years, I was fortunate that my family got more opportunities to explore various parts of the country. Additionally, my father’s work and responsibilities made us relocate to new cities which in itself presented opportunities that comes with starting anew every time as we were exposed to new cultures, people, religion and language. Broadened our horizons.
Once in college I studied hospitality management, soon after graduating I transitioned into travel and tourism. Over the course of my years in the industry I have had the pleasure of wearing many hats, outside sales, on-call reservations with a tour operator, operations managing hotel inventory, vendor relations managing contracting and finally setting up my own company.
What kind of traveller are you?
I consider myself as a traveller who likes some portion of comfort when traveling. I am not sure if this classifies me as a “luxury” traveller, but I know I am not a backpacker. I love to plan ahead as I find the anticipation and planning process as exciting as the trip itself. Once at the destination, I enjoy having a mix of experiences that expose me to the local culture. I like delving a little deeper into the city or country I am visiting. I find I am able to do this with the help of local guides who really help bring a perspective that I find most enriching. My favourite way of exploring urban settings is to go walking in neighbourhoods with my guide. I feel travel is really all about the stories one hears. These could be about that special store that has been around for 100 years or how a neighbourhood convent makes and sells the most delicious cookies or a stop at a street food vendor or baker who is carrying on a tradition for generations. I even found myself climbing to the top of a windmill from its inside with my guide in Netherlands which was very unique and memorable.
Tell us about one of your most memorable trips/travel moments. Where and why?
I have had quite a few wonderful trips with each bringing me great memories. A couple that stand out is my trip to “Leh/Ladakh/Kashmir” in India. This region is called the “rooftop of the world” due to its location in the Himalayan range and its elevation. The city of Leh is situated at over 11500 feet above sea level and any other mountain pass or the very many Buddhist monasteries are only higher. We dialed up an already intrepid journey by choosing a road trip from Leh to Srinagar, Kashmir. This trip is 450+ km journey taking you over nail biting mountain passes with extreme fog cover allowing no more than 10-15 feet visibility. (I won’t be doing this drive again!) I also remember a “glamping experience” in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert where I experienced a night of extreme rain with loud thunder and lightning all the while secure in our lovely tent. The morning after brought us an amazing sunrise and we also found out that the rain with thunder and lightning was a once-in-a-10-year experience! (I would go back for the desert experience in a heartbeat.) I have also had many of my clients return with memorable visits to this desert camp over the years. These are just a few anecdotes, there are many others through my travels in Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey to name a few.
Despite meticulous planning, many a time travelling the world throws us curveballs which when handled with the right attitude only teaches us how to navigate through unchartered territory, which always makes for great storytelling.
What lessons have you learnt from your experience during COVID – both personally and in your business?
Covid has brought into plain view the impact tourism has on people and communities across the world. Many of us in the Industry already knew it, but now the industry seems to be ready to drive this home for the travellers, so they have a better understanding on their contributions towards these communities. I would personally like to promote destinations and products that are more committed to creating a sustainable lifestyle through tourism.
How confident are you that the travel and tourism industry in Africa (especially South Africa) will survive & prosper over the next 2-3 years?
I believe South Africa was pre-disposed to offering “slow travel” and/or “socially distanced” holidays due to its boutique lodges and the distances between parks. So, going forward with the new safety protocols in place and the adherence to masks and other guidelines defined by WHO/WTTC can only enhance consumer confidence to come out to this destination.
What do we need to do to make sure that happens?
I believe media coverage on the most current situation on the ground would be helpful for the public. In addition, an honest and transparent partnership with travel advisors with regard to various situations on the ground will empower the advisor to educate their clients and also help set the right expectations once travel begins. Creating flexible booking conditions that are mutually beneficial would be another factor that could build the confidence of travelers as well.
Based on the five senses and thinking about travelling what do you…
Like to see: Landing at an international airport and finding someone waiting for me with a placard to take me to my accommodations.
Like to taste: First cup of tea or coffee in the morning.
Like to feel: Returning to a cleaned room after a long day of exploration.
Like to hear: The sound of different languages being spoken around me during my travels. (I am people centric; I love interacting with new people)
Like to smell: Local food as I explore the city/town I am visiting.
Suggestions on resources for other travel and tourism stakeholders. Any websites, publications, podcasts, thought leaders you can recommend or newsletters we should sign up to?
I love to read articles on travel in publications like Afar, SmartTravelAsia, Forbes, Luxury Travel Advisor, TravelMole. Podcast I have enjoyed is offered by PATA “Travel to Tomorrow”, get to hear interesting folks from within the industry as well as outside. Spotify offers a wide variety of international music to suit one’s mood of the moment.
Lastly, what do you love about Africa Travel Week (WTM Africa) and do you think live trade shows will still be important going forward (why)?
WTM Africa has been on my list of trade shows to attend for some time now. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to thus far. 2020 could have been the year but due to the pandemic, needless to say, everything has been upended. I think live shows will continue to bring value to travel advisors as nothing can really replace “one-on-one in-person meetings”. Also, by going to the destination it allows us to get familiar with the lay of the land, which makes us that much more knowledgeable when designing vacations for our clients.