- Sarah Zimmerman
The entrepreneur behind Indagare: Melissa Biggs-Bradley
If you don't know it already, Indagare is a members-only, boutique travel-planning company, offering curated content, customized trip-planning, and group trips around passion points. Founded by former journalist, Melissa Biggs-Bradley, Indagare was one of the first "disruptors" to combine trusted travel advice and booking in the online luxury space.
Since creating the company in 2007, Melissa has been recognized as a pioneering entrepreneur in luxury travel, and Indagare has been named to Inc.’s "Fastest Growing Companies" in the US and to Crain’s 50 fastest growing companies in New York. Her first book Safari Style: Exceptional African Camps and Lodges was published by Vendome Press in September 2021. We caught up with Melissa to learn more about her personal career journey and her professional mission to inspire and empower people to change their lives through travel.
Tell us about your first job, how did you get started?
I consider myself an accidental entrepreneur. At heart I’m a journalist – I was the features editor at Town & Country and then launched their wedding and travel editions. I was there for 12 years. During that time I became fascinated by the internet’s ability to create a dialogue with our audience instead of one-way communication. I found myself thinking about how much better our travel experiences could be if we could crowd-source our discoveries. So really, I wanted to open up a forum of exchange.
And that was the genesis for Indagare?
I always knew that passionate travelers were going to be my audience, so I started with the idea of an online magazine that would give us the space to have more of a conversation. I also knew that I wanted it to be a subscription model because we wanted people to be invested in the community and content. In other travel forums, you never knew whether the information was rigged because it was always anonymous. I knew I didn’t want anything anonymous.
So how did Indagare change from an online magazine to a subscription travel service?
Within months of launching, we got feedback from members who told us the information was great, but could we help them plan their trip? Just as I had found in the magazine, people were still bumping up against the information not being enough.
But weren’t there a lot of travel agents at that time? Why go into that market?
We realized people wanted a one-stop solution that gave them community and content, and a knowledgeable travel advisor who really knew them, a person who understood all the options they were looking for and could actually book the trip for them. That didn’t exist at that time.
How did the group trips come about?
About 11 years ago, someone asked whether we would ever start taking clients with us on the scouting trips. And that’s how we started doing small group trips, mostly to places like India, Turkey, Myanmar, or Cuba. From there we started specializing. We now have partnerships. We do fashion trips for Vogue, for example, and food and wine and style and design trips for The Wall Street Journal magazine. We also lead design-focused trips in partnership with the Institute for Classical Art and Architecture (ICAA). It’s really about bringing the pages of the magazines and institutions, in the case of the ICAA, to life.
Can you give me an example of what someone on the fashion trip would get to do or see?
On the Vogue trip, we will take fashion lovers to Paris where they’ll get to go behind the scenes to visit the archives at Dior and Lanvin, visit the workrooms of famed couturiers like Schiaparelli and meet working designers and artisans. And we’ll do the same thing in Milan in the fall. To meet the actual people making these incredible creations is super exciting, but also to understand the history of fashion. One Vogue editor told me that the trip is like an interactive crash course in the history of fashion.
What are the core aspects of your business?
Trustworthy content is core to our community, and we now have this virtuous cycle of content that feeds commerce and community. Our stories inspire commerce, in terms of people booking individual and now group trips. And then, of course, there is the community that interacts and shares their discoveries and this is all published online. It’s this crowd-sourced knowledge that really helps people.
What’s one of the surprising things you have learned?
One of the great discoveries for me is how alive Indagare’s community is. Tons of people meet and become friends. I’ve done dozens of these trips now, and I was once the last person who would have traveled in a group, but what I’ve found is that the type of person who comes on these trips is very curious, very optimistic, and they tend to believe in the good of other people. They’re confident and like to put themselves out there. A big part of the magic of these trips is our community and meeting other passionate travelers.
What type of people go on an Indagare trip?
It’s really hard to describe a typical client. We have people ranging in age from their 20’s to their 80’s. We have business titans and government figures and multi-generational families. But what they all share is serious curiosity and passion. A lot of them meet, develop close friendships, and travel together again.
I’ve met some of the most impactful people of my entire life on these trips, some have become my very best friends.
What have been the biggest struggles?
Obviously, the biggest struggle was COVID. We had a fantastic 2019 and 2020 was going to be our biggest year ever. I was actually in Paris on a Vogue trip when President Trump closed the borders. We had a staff of 85, and we were renting two floors in midtown Manhattan. And what I had to do was lay people off very quickly. And when travel didn’t rebound, we had to do a second round of layoffs. These were really hardworking wonderful people who had done nothing wrong. We had virtually no revenue coming in. It was incredibly difficult.
How long did it take to rebound?
We were very lucky because I’ve run the business in a very conservative way, always saving for a rainy day. A lot of other travel agencies were not as lucky. But truly, we were in the red for over a year. Even taking down all of our expenses and getting out of our rent, we still had to lay off 2/3 of our workforce. And then there was the challenge of sustaining the morale of our staff and relevance with our customers.
What we did immediately: we said, “If we can’t empower our customers to travel, then we can inspire them.” As soon as we went into lockdown we started our Global Classrooms series, connecting with partners all over the world via Zoom. This was my attempt to answer my own question to myself: how, as someone enriched by meeting people all over the world, was I going to survive lockdown in my house?
So that program helped sustain us until people started coming back and traveling. And we continue to do that program for individuals and corporations.
How long did it take to get that up and running?
We were lucky in that we were able to do it really quickly. Our programming was up by the first of April.
I imagine the series is also a lifesaver for people who aren’t able to travel––the elderly, for example?
In our Club Series, experts do virtual tours on everything from art and art history to French gardens, and cooking and cocktail classes. And we found that some of our clients attended virtually every program. What was really gratifying was getting emails from them saying “you have changed my life,”, especially from older people who love global exchange and couldn’t travel anymore.
Seems like that pivot benefited the company in the long run.
Yes. We bounded back quickly and were able to hire back a lot of the people we had to lay off. We are back to over 70 employees and our business came out of it very strong. But the thing is, we didn’t know that was going to be the case. Living with uncertainty was a challenge. I had not faced that before personally and professionally. I had to get accustomed to the notion that you really can’t plan and really aren’t in control. Survival depends on adaptability.
Living with uncertainty was a challenge. I had not faced that before personally and professionally. I had to get accustomed to the notion that you really can’t plan and really aren’t in control. Survival depends on adaptability.
I read that you meditate? Did that help you with stress during the pandemic?
I have been meditating for the past 12 years and it’s been incredibly helpful. The science is clear. When your blood flow is concentrated in the reptilian part of your brain, you are more reactive. It’s where panic and anxiety live. By practicing meditation, you can truly change the structure of your brain to move blood flow to your pre-frontal cortex and shift your responses away from that fight-or-flight response. I’m a huge advocate of meditation.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned?
A lot of what we do right we learned through trial and error. The most critical thing I’ve learned is to hire people who share our values. Early on, I made the mistake of thinking you had to hire the best and the brightest. But that was wrong. What you want is to hire people who share core values: optimism, compassion, resilience, and flexibility. You want to hire those people who have a genuine care for mankind. Somebody who is not genuinely compassionate or collaborative can be toxic in your environment.
We are reading and hearing more about abuse in the workplace. How would you handle that?
Obviously, amazing service is the key to our business and to any hospitality business. And that starts with employees who feel valued and empowered. When I founded Indagare, I believed that the customer was always right. But Danny Meyer––a hero of mine––said any customer who is abusive to my staff is not a customer of mine anymore. We didn’t always apply that rule, because I didn’t always understand that. But today we know that our employees, every single one of them, is our brand and its soul. We lead with our employees, and they make us shine every day.
What is your hiring process like?
We hire for personality and a growth mindset. Some roles require particular skills, of course, but if you are not kind, compassionate, resilient, and a team player, then none of that matters.
We actually have done cultural assessments of our existing staff and we have all our potential employees take similar tests. We have a very careful vetting process. At our monthly brown bag lunch last month, every single new employee said “well, on my eighth interview here…”. They all say they’ve never had such a rigorous interview process, but it is one of the ways that we protect our team and ensure we have great people.
If you hire people who believe in the mission and are givers and carers, and who believe that travel makes a difference in people’s lives, everything starts from there.
What do you do to keep employee morale high?
We ask about their career goals – where do you see yourself, and here’s what you have to do to get there. We invest a lot in their personal and professional development. We have programs for every single level – basically, curriculums to train them to reach the next level in their trajectory.
We really believe we have to be partners in people’s long-term development and if you do that, they know this is a long-term relationship. Of course, you also have to offer support when times are tough and have full transparency around company missions and goals.
In the moment of the "Great Resignation," we’ve had amazing retention and attracted a lot of fantastic people who have decided to leave jobs that weren’t personally fulfilling.
What does your work process look like now? Did you return to the office?
In the middle of COVID, many of our team had left New York. We all went remote on March 16 of 2020 and when we were considering how to proceed, we polled our team and asked how many would like to go back to the office full time. It turns out 25% wanted to go back to the office, 50% wanted to be hybrid, and 25% wanted to be remote forever.
So now no one is required to go into the office, but because some people do want an office environment, we have WeWork options all over the world. We found that employees feel really valued when you bring them into the conversation and ask what they want.
What do you predict in terms of online travel purchasing moving forward?
It’s interesting because what COVID actually taught businesses and consumers is that there are real limitations to online travel transactions. In the heat of the moment, when cancellations and refunds and credits had to be negotiated, the online travel agencies offered nothing, not even a human being at the end of a phone line.
Similarly, when you had to start navigating PCR tests, vaccination status, and forms that differed country by country, we found that people didn’t want to book online. They wanted someone who would hold their hand and be their advocate.
In the heat of the moment, when cancellations and refunds and credits had to be negotiated, the online travel agencies offered nothing, not even a human being at the end of a phone line.
We have experienced a huge boom in membership, so COVID actually demonstrated what we had been telling people for years – having a partner who is an expert in travel involved in your arrangements saves you a huge amount of time and ensures a better experience.
The average traveler in America spent 30 hours researching a trip (pre-COVID). Post-COVID, I guarantee it is 50% more than that. And people don’t have 45 hours to devote to planning a trip. Not only is the research more difficult now but insurance, entry requirements, and hotel protocols are all in flux. To have one person who can tell you what it’s like to be in Italy at this moment, and if something goes wrong will help you figure it out, is very valuable. COVID was the best marketing demonstration for the need for a real person and a travel expert.
That being said, convenience is really important. People still want to receive information online and book things online, and so we are adding a lot of functionality to enable people to do that.
There are more and more companies coming out now with a human behind the tech. They have realized that they’ve lost so much credibility in a tech-only solution. No one thinks that works in a post-COVID world.
How do you work with hotels and how can hoteliers work better with Indagare?
Our best hotel partners are those that we have built relationships with. They get to know us and our members and what matters to them and we do the same. We understand what makes their property special, who it's right for, and how to set guests up for the best possible experience at the hotel. When we partner on producing amazing experiences by sharing information and feedback, we all win. So we really focus on open communication and building long-term understanding.
How do you come up with the Top Ten lists?
We run a variety of lists. Some are purely based on which hotels we book the most member nights at and we clarify that they are Most Booked Hotels Lists; Others are not based only on popularity but on overall ratings and reviews from our staff and our members. We think it is important to do both because some properties are in popular locations and are crowd-pleasers but others are spectacular, lesser-known properties that deserve recognition and are worth making a special trip.
What trends are you seeing in the industry?
Sustainability is huge. Many years ago, I was on an eco-luxury panel and someone else on the panel said high-end travelers don’t care about sustainability. I told her I thought she was completely wrong. If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the higher up you are on that pyramid, or the more your basic needs have been met, the more you have the ability to care about being a steward.
The biggest silver lining to Covid is that it made the whole world realize we have to be more considered in our approach to travel. And it’s not just in terms of being aware of our carbon footprint. It’s being really aware that it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. If people don’t come to New York and go to those restaurants, we won’t have those restaurants. If we don’t support the conservationists in Africa by going on safaris, we will lose those species. It’s knowing that if I don’t invest in that opportunity, there will be no lions for my grandchildren to see. If you go to Africa, you will see the impact of the shrinkage of tourism, and it’s heart-rending and dire.
We as a company are being much more vocal about sustainability with our members. We have an Impact Commitment donating a percentage of profits to conservation and community empowerment, and we have a goal of becoming 100% carbon neutral by 2024; already we are offsetting more than 10% of the carbon emissions of our entire membership. That’s a commitment we made because we believe we have to be stewards of the places we are visiting. Numerous recent hires said that our sustainability commitment was one of the reasons they came to work for us. It’s not just the right thing to do but also a smart business decision.
Why did you write your book Safari Style?
I wanted to celebrate the positive power of tourism and there was no better example I’d found than what has happened in eastern and southern Africa in the last 20 years.
The book showcases a group of visionary hoteliers who have been able to make sure that every single visitor has a positive impact on the environment, the surrounding communities, and conservation.
Through smart design and the right initiatives, they have harnessed safari dollars to have an incredible impact on conservation and community empowerment. Together they are demonstrating that every time someone travels they can have a meaningful impact for the better. This was inconceivable 20 years ago. It is the good news in tourism that I hope others will be inspired by.
In an alternate life, what would you be doing?
I would definitely be living part of the time in France. I would probably be writing more. During COVID I started Indagare’s Global Conversations podcast, and I met such amazing people. Their lives are really instructive in terms of the chances that they took and the twists and turns that led them to where they are. I think it could be really interesting to highlight some of these lives in a book. Getting more stories of amazing resilience, fortitude, and optimism out in the world––we could all use more of that.
Amen! Thank you, Melissa.