In 2008, Beth Santos was traveling in São Tomé and Príncipe off the coast of Africa following her Wellesley graduation.
“It was the time when I came to understand what it means to be a woman who travels and what it means to be treated as a woman in a different place,” she remembered. “It made me think about how safety and your biology affects things when you travel.”
She started a blog called Wanderful, documenting her experiences abroad, and upon her return home, opened the editorial operation to outside contributors. By 2010, she had 30 freelance women-identifying writers who had responded to a Craigslist post. Santos didn’t have a budget, but she built a following, while working two internships and waiting tables.
“[Each] writer wrote their own column, and we published every day,” she said. “It was a ton of work, but I am a woman and women are badass. I knew this was my calling and what I was looking for.”
Santos went on to pursue her MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Envisioning the opportunity to connect her women travelers offline, she began to host Wanderful meetups in Chicago, expanding to other cities with 28 active global chapters today. Seeing the potential for further expansion, she was accepted into Babson’s WIN Lab, a startup accelerator for women entrepreneurs, and launched the next phase of Wanderful in 2017: Homesharing.
In the community-sourced housing likeness of Couchsurfing and Airbnb, Wanderful’s program offers rooms and full units for women travelers provided by women hosts. Santos’s team does preliminary vetting of each host — verifying their photo and location against a video conference interview (they are currently considering adding background and government checks for the process) — and most fares are set for under $50/night at the discretion of the owner. One room is free to a female traveler who needs it.
“It’s not a new concept,” Santos said. “I’m a huge user of Airbnb myself; I prefer it over hotels. But I only ever use it when I’m with my husband or a group of friends. But if I’m by myself, I completely opt out.”
Santos turned her thoughts over to her community. Finding similar safety concerns and mentalities, she saw the market for a women-to-women network. (In regard to the gender discrimination complications previously faced by Airbnb, she added via e-mail: “Our organization is definitely committed to empowering women and connecting them with each other. That being said, just because we are about empowering women doesn’t mean that we are excluding men.”)
While the beta group is currently small — about 30 hosts have signed on to the launch — Santos, who works from her home in Jamaica Plain, and her team (one full-time member, five part-time, with she estimates, 30 global chapter organizers, who are paid on commission) are optimistic about growth areas. Wanderful currently has 6,500 registered users, but across the summits, online activities, and other events, Santos estimates the Wanderful community is 25,000 strong.
The operation is currently primarily funded by Wanderful’s flagship B2B Women in Travel Summit, which is in its fifth year and connects industry professionals with influencers and writers. The 2018 edition is set for May 4-6 in Quebec City. However, as her technology and business needs grow, Santos looks to enter her first round of funding.
“The summit has allowed for us to grow and evolve, and helped us try new risks in a time when most people would have to raise funding,” Santos explained. “But now we’re in year five. We have technology and marketing needs to fill.”
Maria Annala, a member of the Boston chapter of Wanderful, found the group through Meetup after she moved to the States in 2015. The 37-year-old journalist had come to Boston to cover the US election for a newspaper in her native Finland and she was eager to make a new network of friends.
“Most Meetup groups that were just social events for twenty- to thirty-somethings were just like, ‘the only thing you have in common is that you’re standing in the same bar,’” she joked. “Travel was such a big part of my identity — especially solo travel, I had done big trips on my own for the past 10 years — and I felt like the description [of Wanderful] fit me.”
Annala became involved with the local chapter, gaining close friends and attending the coffee shop and brunch events around the city. She attended the Women in Travel Summit in 2016 and 2017, and plans to join the group in Quebec City this year. She’s also been able to get to know Santos, who she says regularly attends the Boston events like an “active member.”
“There’s no hierarchy; you can get to know her easily,” she adds.
While she’s quick to encourage any female traveler who is interested in other cultures and countries to join, Annala also wants wanderlusting women to explore the world on their own.
“I’d love for more women to have the opportunity and courage to take the leap and travel by yourself,” she said. “You learn so much about yourself when you travel alone. You learn about being good to yourself. There’s no one else there you have to make compromises for. You don’t have to worry about whether your partner or your friend is having a good time. You can take the opportunity to make your vacation the best for you. It’s learning to love and treat yourself. It’s something everyone can benefit from, because after you learn to make yourself feel good, you can help other people feel good, too.”