by Michaela Guzy, Founder + Chief Storyteller, OhThePeopleYouMeet
In 2012, I departed my job as the VP Global Travel and Strategic Development for American Express Publishing to navigate into uncharted waters, start my own content house OhThePeopleYouMeet (OTPYM) and head to Africa on a one way ticket, solo.
It was a HUGE RISK. People often ask me why I continue to hustle so hard. Truthfully, I soul searched for years trying to figure it out. I work tirelessly because I know I am living my purpose. I am passionate about sharing the inspiring stories of the people I meet, which allows me to surrender to the chaos because I know this is my calling.
There were two major reasons for starting my company that remain true today:
1) no one, not the company I worked for, nor the one that was about to acquire us, or our competition had a digital, social or video solution I believed in…they still don’t.
2) no one editorially covered what inspires me …people. If you are traveling or visiting the neighborhood restaurant, it’s the people that give you the sense of place. It’s connecting with another that fosters compassion + understanding…something we all need more than ever.
Which brings me back full circle to Africa. As we all make our way to International Luxury Travel Market Africa in Cape Town you can relate when I say, you leave a piece of your heart here every time you visit. You get this dopamine hit that makes you feel alive, curious and inspired. Travel transforms and the people I meet all across Africa continue to shift my perspective for the better.
Since 2012, OPTYM have activated our unparalleled access to collaborate with and feature people you should know, including celebrities like Christie Brinkley; celebrity chefs, such as Chef Nobu; our award winning episode featuring the iconic changemaker, Dr. Jane Goodall who I met while filming in Sierra Leone; President Paul Kagame (Rwanda) as well as Ministers of Tourism, international media, CEOs of airlines and global hotel groups to help shift perception, drive awareness and ultimately inspire global thought leaders (both consumers and trade) to engage with the real PEOPLE, PLACES + PURPOSES that our content house OTPYM feature editorially.
Let’s talk about trends that travelers won’t compromise on. Consumers can see through green washing. Being a sustainable travel company isn’t good enough on its own. It’s a two way street. Travelers need to be educated and empowered to be responsible. We should all adopt the term “regenerative travel,” meaning we are giving back to the people and places we are visiting. We need to rely on our travel partners, the hotels, airlines, destinations and tour operators we are using to help us navigate to projects and initiatives that develop sustainable jobs, protect wildlife and the environment when we travel.
I commend the work that companies like Singita and Wilderness are doing across Africa. They are both competitors and partners, true role models of sustainable travel companies working cross borders to protect this very delicate ecosystem. When I interviewed Dr. Jane Goodall at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, she described sustainability as a stool with three legs. You can protect the environment and the endangered wildlife, but if the local people don’t feel the positive impact of the inbound tourism dollars, the stool won’t be able to stand on its own. Don’t you want to leave a place better than you found it?
Living “well” took on a whole new meaning during the pandemic. Globally we were unified in fighting something that had the potential to physically kill us, but mentally and emotionally COVID 19 took a different toll. Before the pandemic, wellness was a 4.2 Trillion+ global economy (with Wellness Tourism at $639 billion USD). The Global Wellness Institute predicted that Wellness Tourism would be a $1 Trillion market by end of 2022 – the pandemic only sped up this trend. Eating healthy and exercise are key, but getting into nature, like going on a safari or climbing the red sands of Sossusvlei in Namibia are transformative experiences travelers now see as necessary escapes from everyday life.
At OhThePeopleYouMeet we’ve always been about authentically immersing yourself in a destination and meeting local people. It’s the people you meet that give a traveler a sense of place. On my first trip to sub Saharan Africa, on my first night alone, a Kenyan designer, Anna Trzbenski, poured a delicious glass of African wine, looked up at the African sky covered in stars and shared with my younger, eager, greener self, “Michaela, travelers first come to Africa for the animals, they fall in love with the landscape but they return for the people.” I fell in love with all of it and keep coming back to dig deeper.
While I will often joke about being a jetset gypsy who is “SLEEPING AROUND SAFELY” (one of the names of the shows I create), it’s a lifestyle choice that keeps evolving since departing corporate America. I thought “all the things” would make me happy – the corner apartment in the posh part of town, the nice clothes and yet, felt unfulfilled. I continue to discover it’s not material items that put a smile on my face or move me to take action. I’ll never forget my first safari when three male lions came roaring across the Kalama Conservancy in Kenya louder than the thunder in the sky. My guide from Saruni Samburu urgently ushered me to sit still as the cast of Noah’s Ark ran for their lives.
The hair on my arms stood like razor blades, tears came streaming out of my eyes and I felt overwhelmed with love. In this moment I realized, my entire lifetime is just but a blink of an eye in the universe, that I am just one little piece of this reality. I recall feeling overcome with a sense of duty and obligation. It was as if the universe sent me a sign, to stop worrying and trust that I am on my path. That day I understood at a cellular level that we are all connected, that we share a common home, planet earth and we must protect it. These powerful emotions are ones that can’t be bought, they can only be experienced and lived.
In 2012, on that first trip to Sub Saharan Africa, a chance encounter paved the way to my climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – an experience I’d dreamt of since my childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. Years later and thousands of miles from anything that felt familiar, I found myself gearing up for this last minute expedition with Adventure International at the Johannesburg airport. The woman behind the register asked what my motivation was to climb. I shared my story about departing my job, traveling solo to Africa on a one way ticket and starting OhThePeopleYouMeet to document the stories of real change makers across those first seven counties I visited. I shared how it saddened me that scientists predict that the glacier at the top has shrunk by 80% in the 20th century. That I wanted to see this natural wonder before it was gone. She jumped up and embraced me, a perfect stranger, and said, “No one can ever take this from you.” Just wow.
How profound. Another joyful tear ran down my cheek as a lifetime realization took seed…anything of real value, can’t be taken from you if you live for experiences not stuff. Summit Africa’s Rooftop I did. In fact I was the only one from my group to make it to the top with my guide… just in time to watch a sunrise that forever stole my heart. I didn’t know if the rainbows I was seeing were real or if I was so delirious from a lack of sleep that I was hallucinating. The only thing I could think of to do was drop into the snow and make snow angels. I fondly recall this as one of the happiest, fulfilling and liberating moments in my life.
A final trend that has so many practical applications…what’s old is new again. It’s about vintage, upcycling and bringing things back. Clothes, cocktails, cultures, cars + hotels. This illustrative story begins with taking my mom to Africa…where Crafted Africa takes us to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Before entering we stop at this little hut where we meet the vibrant Kate. I immediately fell in love with her story. Kate and her team take ugly things like snare wire used to illegally poach wildlife and hand craft them into beautiful pieces of jewelry. What’s more is the story of the women who proved to her they were every bit as strong as the men to bend and shape the wire. From brutality to beauty. I proudly wear my Mulberry Mongoose pieces because they remind me of a special experience with my mom, of a land that I love, knowing that it’s helping protect wildlife and sustainably employing women.
Think of how this could apply to a hotel…isn’t it all about the history OR the story behind where you stayed that brings about social currency at the dinner party you attend post trip that makes you more interesting? There’s street cred when you mention you checked into the fabulously pink Belmond Mount Nelson in tribute to one of arguably the best humans that ever lived or the boutique Sanctuary Mandela hotel in Johannesburg which is inside of one of President Mandela’s former homes. Their restaurant pays further tribute by serving Mandela’s favorite dishes as previously prepared by his long-time personal chef, Xoliswa Ndoyiya.
A train, Kruger Shalati, has been restored on a bridge in Kruger National Park where guests can sleep in carriage houses over the bush and is named after Shalati, an African warrior queen. After ILTM I am heading to the Northern Cape of South Africa with the Travel Designer to stay in restored shepherd huts (Bakkrans). We will be meeting with star gazing experts, local conservationists, plus paleontologists and archeologists to explore the ancient rock paintings to be discovered in these mountains. What’s old, is new again! These are stories that will surely trend in your next Instagram post.
When we travel it’s about respecting the people who are opening their homes to us (PEOPLE), it’s remembering where we’ve come from (PLACE) and it’s celebrating these transformative moments that only travel can provide (PURPOSE). That’s what we do at OhThePeopleYouMeet, we shine a light on and help tell the stories of the PEOPLE, PLACES + PURPOSES that need to be told. During a conversation about inclusive travel in Africa with Sherwin Banda, the President of Africa Travel Inc, he shared how his company was working from the inside out to make everyone feel welcome.
We shared the sentiment that travel opens our eyes, minds and hearts to the world around us. To quote Sherwin, “Travel just makes people smarter.” I agree. Most travelers have some sense of genuine curiosity. Once you open Pandora’s Box, be warned you can’t unlearn what you see. So let it be a beautiful lesson. Afterall, the definition of hospitality is: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
So please, if you don’t have a map, chart your own course. I’ve learned a lot during the global pandemic… now is the time to try new things, that we have more access than ever before because of our social connectivity to people across the planet.
To the sellers of travel whose job it is to make people’s dream trips of a lifetime come true – YOU are an expert who provides a valuable service that can help every traveler navigate the globe, no matter how seasoned. Plus you have an epic book of connections for that special access + if something were to go wrong (from missed connections to an emergency medical situation), you are their lifeline to getting them back to safety. So be confident in the service you are providing and the connections you are tapping into. Travelers need you now more than ever.
The pandemic may have delayed us in many regards, but as travel returns with a vengeance and exceeding record 2019 tourism levels in certain sectors, like luxury, we know, we are just getting started. Episodes from season one and two of “OH THE PEOPLE YOU MEET with Michaela Guzy” featuring Rwanda, South Africa and Sierra Leone were all considered at the International Tourism Film Festival Africa (ITFFA) in Cape Town in May 2023, and Sierra Leone is a finalist! In season three we have already filmed in Kenya and Botswana. I am humbled and honored to have been able to document the conservation work being done in both destinations to protect wildlife, those rugged landscapes and preserve these precious indigenous cultures like the Samburu, Masai, Nama and San for future generations.
I hope to have inspired you to meet me at the intersection where sustainable travel companies meet responsible travelers.
Pack a bag + journey on with me,