WOMEN IN TRAVEL
This women-owned guided tour company is modeling how travel can be a catalyst for change
Ashley Blake says she never intended to start a travel company. “I call myself an accidental entrepreneur,” she tells me. But watching the founder of Traverse Journeys host a group of travelers on a trip around Greece’s Saronic Gulf, while running her travel business from onboard a catamaran, this accident appears meant to be.
Ashley’s love of exploration started early and led her to far-flung places as a solo traveler and volunteer abroad. (Ashley is pictured above in Aegina, Greece at the Temple of Aphaia.) Early in her career she worked directing tours in Europe and took guests to the Olympics in Beijing and Vancouver.
When she returned to school for a master’s degree in Media Studies at the University of Texas, her thesis explored the use of music as an agent for change. That took her to Brazil, to study music for social change, a community-based movement especially prevalent in the Afro-Brazilian favelas of Salvador. “They were creating something beautiful, music, and receiving an education which then made them more likely, in the case of Brazil, to be admitted to a public university. From there they can become agents of change, in politics and business and other sectors where there is inequity.”
That experience taught her that the creative arts can be a vehicle for change, much like travel. Her passion for travel, social justice, and a growing interest in conscious capitalism coalesced into the launch of Traverse Journeys in 2017.
“I thought I could create a tour company that has a positive impact, doing what I love, traveling, and bringing other people into these experiences.” Soon after, Ashley joined forces with Laura Hamm, a travel entrepreneur with similar views on responsible travel. Laura was spearheading her own company which provided unique experiences abroad for groups, and Laura’s business merged with Traverse Journeys.
Traverse Journeys now leads trips in 25 countries
Meanwhile, small group tours have really gained popularity in the last decade (Covid aside), across all demographics. “A lot of the value of small group operators is that they find these hidden gems,” Ashley says. “They have weeded out the mediocre restaurants and the too touristy spots. They’ve found the off-the-beaten-path experiences. Another value piece is that a lot of our travelers are very busy. They have flourishing careers, maybe kids, and they don’t have the time to create the ‘perfect trip’. ”
Today, Traverse Journeys offers small group tours in more than 25 countries, across six continents. Many of them have an active theme. An adventure in Jordan includes 15+ miles of guided hiking. The 8-day Morocco tour includes daily yoga. And a Cambodia trip takes guests on a 230-mile exploration by bicycle. But the tours are also designed to be accessible to a broad range of guests; the most strenuous activities are often optional. What every Traverse Journeys trip has in common is a commitment to providing guests with authentic cultural experiences, and giving back to the communities they visit by working with small local businesses.
My Greece Sailing Adventure With Traverse Journeys
I joined Traverse Journeys on their inaugural trip to Greece in May 2022, a week of sailing in the country’s beautiful Saronic Gulf. If Ashley and this tour are on any sort of learning curve I’d never know. Everything has gone swimmingly… even the Aegean Sea, which I was told would still be chilly at the end of May, is refreshing but lovely. You can read about the Greece trip in: Sailing the Greek Islands Near Athens.
When our catamaran moored in a pretty cove on the island of Dokos, Ashley joined me for an excursion on a pair of stand-up paddle boards. We glided atop the sea, admiring a shade of turquoise that was hard to believe. Ashley is up for any adventure, but she tells me that she is more at home on land than at sea.
In fact, Ashley’s partner Laura was supposed to lead this trip; she loves the water. But with Ashley based in Copenhagen and Laura in Costa Rica (both are American) and the added complexities of running a travel business during a pandemic, they’ve divided tour hosting based on proximity.
Like Ashley, Laura is a lifelong adventurer. She has traveled in 50+ countries, and lived in seven of them. Laura designed Traverse Journeys’ Greece trip because it’s among her favorite places. She spent several months in Greece as a young woman working in theater, and fell in love with it.
“My lifelong love of travel truly began in Greece, and like a true novice explorer, my curiosity was insatiable,” Laura says. “Whether wandering the winding cobblestone streets of Spetses, taking in the jaw-dropping ancient sites of Athens and Delphi, or exploring unassuming ruins, secluded trails and hole-in-the-wall eateries, I was in a constant state of awe.”
Harnessing the Power of Travel
Laura recently completed an MSc in Sustainable Development from the University College of Dublin. That has given her additional insights into the ways a travel company can be a catalyst for change.
“Increasingly urgent issues loom,” says Laura, “and travelers have a crucial role in reshaping our world to align with a just future for all.” She says Traverse Journeys harnesses that power of travel by infusing its itineraries with sustainable values, and by spreading awareness about the pressing needs of our planet and people. “On our trips, guests enjoy special experiences that most tourists wouldn’t think to seek out. Learning about seed-saving in Ireland, marine conservation in New Zealand, refugee support in Greece or sustainable agriculture in Guatemala – each trip with Traverse is an opportunity to expand your mind.”
Laura says that by bringing their companies together, she and Ashley been able to accomplish more than they might have separately. “Much like Traverse Journeys’ core mission to create positive impacts in the world, the leadership of Traverse thrives on collaboration,” Laura says. “And we recognize that working together over the years has catapulted our impact far beyond what either of us could have achieved alone.”
What is Transformative Travel
One of the guests on our Greece trip is a repeat guest. Cory Henry, a business executive from Austin, previously toured Machu Picchu with Ashley as host, and is planning to visit India on their 10-day tour in February 2023. When I ask Cory why he travels with Traverse Journeys, he mentions a few things: the convenience of having an itinerary arranged for you, the chance to travel with like-minded people and having a dedicated guide.
But one thing stands out as being especially important to him; he says that Traverse Journeys trips give him an authentic experience of a destination which creates a much more meaningful trip. “It is really about being open to that kind of experience,” he says, contrasting it with a trip that simply ticks off a list of sights. “When I travel I want to know what it’s like to be a Greek in Greece, or a Peruvian in Peru.”
He adds that there is a misconception that a group tour means a rigid itinerary. “Today is a perfect example,” he says. “We had an itinerary and we changed it.”
It’s true that “today” didn’t exactly go as planned, in the best possible way. Cory, Ashley and I are chatting in a taxi which is winding its way along the stunning coastline of Greece’s Pelopennese peninsula. We’ve just visited the family-owned Andreou Winery and enjoyed a tasting and tour with Nectarios Andreou, the third generation of his family to own the property.
This excursion wasn’t on the itinerary. When Ashley heard good things about it, she made an impromptu decision to offer a winery visit as an option to our group. Cory and I jumped at the chance to learn about, and taste, Greek wine. The other guests stayed behind to explore the port of Epidaurus where our boat was moored that day. Some tours would not stray from the itinerary in this way but having a small group enables Ashley to be flexible. For her, the visit to Andreou was more than an additional outing. It was an opportunity to make the trip better. She is always looking for ways to create meaningful experiences for the guests.
“I love getting out and meeting people and making new connections.” Developing relationships with local businesses is a very intentional part of Traverse, she adds. “If we as a company want to have a positive impact, dropping in and leaving doesn’t have as much of an impact as creating a relationship over the long term.”
I can see how energized she is by “exploring” alongside us. Running a small business requires that she and Laura wear many hats and Ashley tells me that trip development is the most fun part of the job for her.
Traverse Journeys & People Planet Purpose
Traverse Journeys motto is “People, Planet, Purpose“, and all tours adhere to their “Responsible Travel” guidelines which are rooted in the idea that both the traveler and the communities they visit can be catalysts for change. I ask Ashley what else defines a Traverse Journey. “The outdoors and nature are a huge part of it. It will vary, but every trip is going to have something nature-related to it. There is so much appreciation we can have for diverse landscapes and different geographies.”
She also mentions agriculture. “Sustainable agriculture is one of the things we look for in every tour. Can we find an organic farm or farm-to-table restaurant, somewhere that uses unique cooking techniques for example.”
Traverse Journeys’ ethos aligns with the travel experiences I personally enjoy. Food is such a wonderful portal into a culture, and sailing to a different island each day allowed us to experience a tremendous variety. Even the simplest Taverna offered delicious, seasonal dishes served by people who seemed happy to share their culture through food.
When we returned to Athens at the end of the trip we visited Lighthouse Relief, a non-profit organization which provides immediate and long-term support to people experiencing displacement, especially in the Ritsona refugee camp outside Athens. Supporting large numbers of refugees is an ongoing reality for Greece and the need is greater than the available support. Learning about Lighthouse Relief’s important work was meaningful and inspiring.
Every Traverse Journey includes an opportunity for guests to learn through this sort of engagement with a non-profit or NGO. Traverse has a community partner in each place their travel, and every trip generates a donation of 3% of the trip revenue.
On our final evening we enjoyed a farewell dinner in the charming Plaka neighborhood of Athens. Ashley chose the restaurant, Cafe Avissinia, because it has an excellent reputation for serving authentic local dishes and has been in the same family for generations. The moussaka in particular was outstanding. As we enjoyed our dessert, a milk pudding with rose sauce that was a secret family recipe from Cyprus, Ashley asked us to share a favorite experience from the trip. We went around the table, each sharing the things that we’ll especially remember. When it was her turn, Ashley said she most appreciated the chance to get to know each of us over the course of our time sailing the Saronic Gulf. I noticed her often in lengthy conversations with the guests on the trip.
I feel the same way. No matter how scenic a hike or how delicious a meal, it is the people we meet on our travels who often form our most cherished memories. Sailing Greece with Traverse Journeys was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed getting to know Ashley and my fellow travelers. (A sailboat is conducive to becoming well acquainted.) And I have to say that the Greek people are among the warmest and most welcoming that I have experienced anywhere.
I think I come home from every trip somehow changed. Ashley articulated it beautifully when she said: “Travel is a medium for opening your mind and asking questions, for being exposed to new things and challenging yourself. It’s a constant process of learning and growth”.
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