Now that the 'urban travel' movement has grown, the industry is finally paying attention.
Evita Robinson is the founder of the Nomadness Travel Tribe, a network for (primarily) urban travelers of color. A pioneer of the “urban travel” movement, Nomadness has grown since its launch in 2010 from a DIY travel webseries into a network that now counts more than 15,000 members worldwide. Below, Robinson discusses innovation, passion, and how the travel industry can connect with a more diverse range of consumers.
Can you tell us your background and how you started Nomadness?
The story really starts with me being a three-time expat. By the time I was 25, I had lived in Paris, France; Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Niigata, Japan. So it was a lot of me gallivanting around the planet on my own as this 20-something black girl, which you don’t really see represented in mass media when it comes to travel. I needed to find a community and a home of people I could identify with and talk to: people who don’t just vacation, but also make travel a central part of their lives and respect it as such.
I’ve been traveling for a decade. In some of that time it wasn’t travel; I was living abroad. But at 32 years old right now I can say that I’ve been traveling for a decade. That’s pretty badass.
That’s amazing. You started by filming your experiences, correct?
I did. At that time, my network was not made up of travelers really at all. It was essentially just these crappy blogs that had good content that was authentic. It was my life, and what I was going through in Japan. And that was something that people had never seen before.
Luckily, with social media, we’ve been able to own our own narrative and create platforms where we can showcase ourselves. So now you start to see the tide changing, and everything from visibility to the marketing dollars that companies are putting into it. It’s been a long process.
Whether you call it the “urban travel” movement or the “black travel” movement, Nomadness spearheaded this movement. For years, we were ahead of our time. I think the industry thought it was a fad or something that was going to subside with time. But we’re still here and kicking, and now that the movement itself has grown, they’re finally paying attention.
How would you describe the demographics of the Nomadness community?
We’re millennial women—that’s our highest saturation. But we range from senior year of college all the way up to people in their 60s. It’s really about the energy that you bring to the community; age is just a number. But as far as our target demographic and who we attract naturally, it’s millennial black women.
What are the biggest areas where the hospitality and travel is lacking for these women, and what do they find in Nomadness that’s the most valuable?
I mean, it starts with representation. Like, you don’t see us represented, even in marketing. Whatever images are being projected out, whatever copy is being projected out to the masses, it’s got to be something that we can latch on to and relate to. And that just doesn’t happen.
It’s not even realistic and indicative of our culture, to be honest with you. We are a diverse country in the US, and a lot of times advertising and marketing does not reflect that. I think being true to who we are is really where to start.
In our Future 100 trend report, we wrote about Nomadness members who were interested in planning trips based on the results of their DNA ancestry tests. Is that still a project that you see gaining traction?
For us, it wasn’t so much a project that we took on. It was one of those things that was organic. I pitched Ancestry after I went and did my own ancestry and was like “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Somebody lied to my mother, but it’s all right.” I took a screen shot of my results and put it in the tribe. All of a sudden a bunch of people were like, I’m going to do this, I should order it. The next thing you know, as people start getting their results back, they start posting it in Nomadness.
And they’re starting to travel now to trace their roots, based off what the Ancestry DNA results are bringing in. Do I see that as something that is picking up? Yeah. That became a “trend” for us last year, and the people that were talking about it, I don’t even think they’ve gone on their trips yet. I think they’re probably traveling more for that purpose in 2017, but they started planning after they got their results in 2016.
You have a lot of experienced travelers, but also new travelers. How do you make Nomadness inclusive? Are there any challenges to doing that?
Last year we got a bad rep for, “Oh, you’re elitist.” And we’re not—that misconception infuriates me. People say we’re elitist because you have to have at least one passport stamp to get into Nomadness. You could go across the border in a bus to Canada, I don’t care. Just one.
The reasoning behind that was about being in a group and fostering a community of like-minded travelers who understood the importance of travel. I didn’t want us to have to vouch for travel all the time; I didn’t want to have to defend it or spend our days coercing people into it. And that’s the reason why we have the one passport stamp requirement. Outside of that it’s pretty inclusive.
We were the first in the urban travel movement. To be honest, we coined the term the “urban travel” movement; it wasn’t a thing until we put it on our site. And I was just trying to define, okay, what is this really? I did not want it to be just a group of just black people, because I felt like it was pigeonholed. I wanted it to be about the culture. And for me, I was like, you’re talking to a chick that lived in Japan for a year. Like, I can show you urban that is not black. And it’s not appropriation, it’s admiration and appreciation for the culture as it is.
So for me, it was about creating a safe space that allowed everyone to be a part of it. But either you’re going to get us and our style, or you’re not, and in that case it’s just not the place for you. And that’s cool, too. So, that’s really what it is about—always having an open door in that respect. And literally the only thing you need is one passport stamp.
Can you talk about what’s changing in the hospitality and travel industries, and what’s driving the changes?
Yeah, they’re finally starting to give us money! That’s what’s changing. I think they’re starting to take us seriously. And I think that’s equal parts because of the growth of our communities and because of the powerhouse women who are behind this, like myself. We’re fierce women—it takes one conversation for you to understand that. When you hear the passion and the stories and our plans for where we’re going, people realize there’s something really tangible here.
We’ve become influencers who have real power in our communities. For a long time, we were either ignored or not taken seriously. But just let me in the door. Let me show you who I am, the passion behind this, why I do what I do. And let me introduce you to this community of 15,000+ travelers that I have standing right behind me when I walk into every single room. Let me show you that. And that’s when they get it. But as with most things, that’s the hardest part, just getting through the door. And I think getting into the room has become a little bit easier.
You’ve clearly had huge success creating and growing this community. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you would share with travel or hospitality brands?
It’s not about me as an influencer as much as it is about the community. For hospitality brands, you can’t fake it and think that it’s going to work. You need to really take the time, make the investment, and even just have the conversation with the influencers in this space. Because it’s about the community. That’s where you’re going to get the traction, and whatever return you may be looking for, that’s where you’re going to find it.
Sometimes the answer isn’t in house. Sometimes you need to experiment and go to where people are, instead of assuming that you can create something out of thin air that will bring them to you.
I always meet people where they are. When we did the RV tour, to reach college students, I didn’t assume social media would be enough, and I didn’t assume that I was going to be able to pull these college kids in from HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. What did we do? We literally rented an RV. That shows not just a level of relatability but it shows a level of respect.
I think that’s the factor that is missing with a lot of hospitality brands. It’s not just about things not clicking with people when it’s inauthentic. People aren’t stupid, and in some cases they’re offended. They know people, or they are people who are completely capable of representing it for real. And so that would be the biggest lesson or advice that I could give to hospitality brands, when it comes to them needing to work on this space and diversity—it’s about the community.
What’s next for Nomadness?
In 2016, we decided that we were officially going to stop doing international group trips. Our last one was to Panama, in December. As of next month, we are pivoting to international popup events. So we have an event in Johannesburg in February, we have a Holi event in India in March. We’re also doing an adult prom at the Museum of Aviation in Georgia in June. Those are the ones that we’ve announced.
We wanted to be able to be able to create a bigger splash wherever we traveled. It’s one thing to bring 15-30 people on a group trip, do your thing and leave. Now, maximum capacity is whatever the venue is. So instead of it being 15-30 of us, it can be like 100 to 200 of us, which is what we’re doing already. As soon as a flight glitch drops, there could be hundreds of people anywhere. They just did Dubai Blackout for Halloween weekend, and one of my ambassadors had 250 people in Dubai on one weekend. We took over an entire brunch and everything.
It’s only going to get better with the release of the app, and opening up the floodgates in that way. It allows us to be really creative again. Now, we can go to Johannesburg, take over an art gallery, and do an open mic that bridges cultures between the people that live there and the members that we’ve had fly in. It’s a real cultural immersion for that evening.
Even from the marketing/sponsorship end, now we have opportunities for activations. Unless it’s a press trip, nobody’s interested in sponsoring a trip of 15 people to randomly go somewhere. That’s not how this works. But if it’s an actual event that brings people in, then there can be an activation and we can also talk marketing and sponsorship dollars, as well.