When Samantha Patil left her marketing job in late 2019 with the dream of starting a travel company, there’s no way she could’ve predicted just how much that industry would be impacted in the next few months. As an avid traveler herself, both personally and for professional reasons, Patil zeroed in on her concerns with booking and planning trips, the sometimes-convoluted recommendation process, and how to surface the best rates. Born from her frustration was the idea for a members-only community and booking platform that would solve them — and Well Traveled Club was born.
“I was traveling so much and felt like the process was so frustrating,” Patil remembered when we spoke over the phone for an interview in late 2020. “Figuring out how to find the best recommendations that are relevant for me was always such a piecemeal process, and then taking it a step further, once I was ready to book, how could I know if I was getting the best deals? There was so much uncertainty in the planning and booking process that I hadn’t really seen anybody get it right.”
Along with her co-founder Casi Hough, who has a background in membership strategy and community-building (formerly of social clubs like The Britely), Patil began to concept out the idea in earnest, and after a few months of brainstorming, meeting with designers, and hammering out the details, their platform was ready for an early 2020 launch. Except, then the world shut down due to the pandemic, traveling ground to a halt, and the idea of leaving the house at all was put on hold.
“Our initial plan was to do this big splashy launch in April or May of 2020… and then it was like, well that doesn’t feel right,” she said. “Then we were like ‘wait, do we even launch this still? Are we insane?’ But the feedback we heard was that travel was still really important to people, that it even means so much more now, and the memories from the trip are still something that brings people a lot of joy. Plus, rolling out in beta as a soft launch, getting that feedback and still allowing people to check out the platform and leave reviews was really helpful for us.”
Switching gears to a soft launch instead, as they waited for updates on what travel would look like in a post-COVID world, Patil and Hough began to populate their new platform with reviews, beautiful photos, and get feedback from a much slower, closer-knit group of peers and friends. This was about the time I stumbled upon their project, after a mutual connection of former membership at another social club, The Wing, prompted Samantha to reach out.
Instantly drawn to the club’s format of positive reviews organized by region, city, and even category (Eat, Sleep, Play), the site functions like a Yelp, but only for people with good taste in food and hotels who aren’t randomly intent on executing a personal grudge (my experience with most public review sites). The emphasis is always on local, and you can even search solely based on price ranges so you’re only exploring what feels comfortable for your budget. I quickly sent beta invites around to a few other friends who were also missing travel, and living vicariously through the site itself was a good reminder that quarantine would, someday, end. In the initial startup phase, Well Traveled was free to join for early users or founding members, but they’ve now shifted to include a $150 annual membership fee.
That may be off-putting for some, but the truth is, after booking even one trip most members will get their money’s worth. Since the club operates like a travel agency, they’re able to access rates for hotels that aren’t available for individuals booking on their own, and the majority of Well Traveled bookings come standard with at least a $100 food and beverage credit. Which means, by the time you’ve booked even two trips, that $150 has come back to you along with a little extra. And that’s not even counting the cheaper rates on lodging that you’re likely to receive, along with welcome gifts, early check-in and late check out, complimentary breakfast, and even free upgrades.
While the site isn’t built exclusively for women — people of all genders, ages, backgrounds and orientations are welcome — their member base so far is predominantly female. And as most women know, traveling while female, or queer, or as a minority, is a much different experience that plenty of mainstream travel outlets tend to gloss over. Furthermore, plenty of women travelers want to vote with their dollar, and stay or eat or support women and minority-owned businesses on their trips, too.
“We heard a lot of feedback from women in the community, especially, who want to know places that are female-owned, or POC- and minority-owned, or places that are LGBTQ+ friendly,” Patil said. “That’s the kind of information that people actually really care about, especially this newer generation of traveler, which I don’t really think was a priority for our parents’ generation. And that’s something we’re focused on doing and elevating on the platform.”
Plus, solo traveling as a woman comes with its own special kind of frustrations and risks, so getting feedback from a whole community of members who have visited specific places within the region you might want to visit is an added bonus. By focusing site reviews on what people loved, and places they’re thrilled to share with others, Well Traveled avoids the victim-y, extremely negative manifestos that Yelp and other public recommendation sites have been bogged down with.
“When traveling by myself, I always wanted to feel safe,” Patil said. “But I also wanted to feel empowered to go and do things on my own. So if I got recommendations from a bunch of different women who traveled by themselves to a destination, or went there with friends, and getting that feedback from a community that I trusted was more reliable – versus something that’s so open platform like a Tripadvisor. This community has chosen to prioritize travel and is looking for local experiences. So we’re focused on elevating the good and sharing positive experiences instead of creating an echo chamber for complaints.”
And even if most travel agencies tend toward the brick and mortar, brochure and phone call style of booking that feels completely foreign to millennials and Gen Z, it isn’t just the digital aspect of Well Traveled that makes it valuable. Their emphasis on building a like minded community of people who can make recommendations to each other goes far beyond the bounds of most agencies. And along with those recommendations and reviews comes the potential of meeting new people, forging relationships, and maybe even finding new travel buddies.
“For us, the goal isn’t to be a travel agency,” Patil noted. “We want to be a platform and a community that’s able to help support its members. What’s most important is the member experience and ways that we can make that better. So we’re investing in ways that we can make that better on the platform, where you’re able to find recommendations easier, share them with your friends easier, and meet other people that are like you, want to travel, share those experiences, and help you book the places you want to go with ease and make you feel like you have someone who has your back.”
She’s also wary of the 2010s startup culture model that prioritizes growth at all cost without any temperature checks on quality and investment of its users. The main reason Well Traveled has adopted the membership component and application system is simply to help them monitor and track their member growth, not to keep anyone out or make it feel too exclusive. Additionally, all approved members get several referrals for friends who are considered vetted through their invite, and won’t need to apply if referred.
“We want to be really intentional about how we grow it out,” she noted. “I think startups can get caught up in the ‘growth at all costs mindset.’ And then you end up with thousands of users who maybe aren’t as invested in what you’re doing as you’d hope. That’s why there is a membership and application component. We also utilize our referral program — every member gets five invitations to invite other people. If you invite someone to join the site, they don’t actually have to apply. So we’re kind of using our members as a way to vet other members.”
As the world moves back into a place where traveling is safe, and possibly even a priority due to the lack of it in 2020, Well Traveled Club offers a great way to dip your toes back into the water. Especially if you’re looking for lots of detailed information on where people felt safest and happiest on their first trips back out into the world, and advice on how to make 2021’s trips feel like they’re making up for lost time.
We’re already starting to see people are traveling more,” Patil said. “It’s different — it looks really different, right? And the uncertainty is still there, but it’s heightened and there’s some different stuff going on for people emotionally right now. ‘Revenge travel’ is the phrase I keep hearing thrown around a lot. It’s this concept that 2020 sucked, so in 2021 I’m going to travel everywhere and all the places I didn’t get to go to.”
Learn more about Well Traveled Club and apply for membership here.