What I Learned About Marketing from Traveling Solo


Before I worked in marketing, I backpacked through Europe by myself. I wanted to learn more about the world, see new places and, of course, meet new people.

When you look at those experiences, they both require research, planning, budgets, and most importantly of all, the desire and ability to communicate with people I hadn’t met before, from all cultures and backgrounds, with all kinds of past experiences.

Today, I find myself following the same key lessons marketing brands as I did meeting people as I traveled. You’ll find a few of these lessons below.

Make People Notice You (A Little Weirdness is Okay).

In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, I fell in love with a stringed instrument – a bağlama – that I was told would cost $30 to ship to the United States. A note – I don’t actually play any instruments.

When trips to the Istanbul, Capadoccia and Ankara post offices, DHLs and FedEx’s informed me that my new purchase would actually cost a minimum of $650 to ship home, I ended up with a backpack and an instrument on my back for the next month (before I dropped the instrument on the Vienna train station platform and had to give it a proper “burial” dumping in Warsaw).

This bağlama I named Steve was the greatest conversation starter I could have ever accidentally created. Despite the language barriers I faced throughout Eastern Europe, everyone seemed to know how to say, “Do you play?” In Romania, my hostel roommates expressed disappointment I was not the traveling folk singer the possessions on my bed suggested.

Stand out from the crowd. Find your ice-breaker, because it makes the introduction to new people immensely easier when you have something interesting to talk about, from the start.

While at the breakfast table of a hostel in Spain, the ice was broken when I asked this girl what she was drawing. Her journal turned out to be full of maps of everywhere she traveled.

A Story Keeps People’s Attention.

One of the great parts of backpacking? NO MAKE-UP! There’s just no time to be bothered with it. There are places to see, people to meet, so much to learn. And with money going toward travel, wardrobe additions came from 2nd-hand shops – poorly fitting, sometimes discolored, but they did the trick.

And you know what? People cared more about what I was doing and how I had gotten to where I was. Sure, make-up, hair dryers and new clothes might allow me to introduce myself with a little more confidence, but they don’t change who I am.

Your design is going to make sure your brand looks good. But you better have a story AND be able to communicate it if you want people to keep engaging with you.

People Want to Know That You Care.

My favorite hostel ($12 per night) made apple pancakes every morning – not a stack sitting on the table, but pancakes specifically made for me when I woke up.

My Lisbon breakfast, 7 days in a row.

My hosts asked about my day – where I’d been, what I’d done – and they asked what my interests were, so they could guide how I should spend my next day. I loved this hostel, and on Day 7, they laughed when I asked to extend my stay another night – they thought that surely there must be some other city in Portugal I should see.

Your marketing should show you care about your customers. What do they want? What do they need?

What is in your customer’s best interest – whether it brings your company another sale or not?

Reviews Matter. A Lot.

I was an avid reader of hostel reviews, because I saw too many cases of people dealing with the aftermath of bad bed bug attacks. When I didn’t take the time to read reviews, I usually regretted it later. While on the way to Serbia, had I read a review that said, “Your hostel owner who looks like Fabio will open beers with his teeth and generally say creepy things until you excuse yourself from your otherwise pleasant game of chess,” I would have gone elsewhere.

Reviews matter. People ARE reading them, and more importantly, they’re basing decisions off them.

Pay attention and develop a review strategy for your business. Even if you don’t think you need it, you do.

Prepare for Sleepless Nights.

You’re just so excited for what is to come tomorrow. Or you’re awake because you still don’t know where you’re going tomorrow, and you have a 10 a.m. check-out deadline to figure it out.

There are sleepless nights in travel and marketing – hopefully, not too often. But whether you’re fleshing out The Big Idea or making the final touches on event plans, or you’re begging the person on the train next to you who speaks English and Russian to tell the train conductor you honestly meant to purchase the correct ticket, sleepless nights are to be expected on the journey.

Luckily, these sleepless nights are exhilarating, and they can lead to great experiences – and great memories.

Don’t Just Stick to the 9 to 5.

Your best ideas might not come between 9 and 5. But you know what else doesn’t usually appear between 9 and 5? Sunrises. Sunsets. Don’t let yourself be bound by traditional hours if better, more inspiring times fall outside the typical workday hours.

Marketing requires creativity. Creativity requires inspiration. You can’t schedule inspiration (but you can help prod it along).

Cappadocia, Turkey. 6:45 a.m.

Be Prepared for Stumbles.

I walked to the peak of a fortress in Bulgaria, loved the view at the top, and then on my first step back down from the top, I slipped and fell. It really hurt. No one saw. I wish someone had, because then they might have helped me.

You’re not going to be perfect. But it doesn’t mean you can’t recover, and learn from it. I made the mistake of walking up a steep, slippery stone hill with no water or walking buddy (both needed after my fall). You might have made other mistakes that would have been prevented had you asked for a teammate’s involvement or input. Sometimes these poor decisions cause plenty of negative feedback, while other times you might get lucky thanks to help from others.

Luckily, you can learn from your mistakes, and be prepared for the next time.

Have fun. Stay eager to learn.

How cliché  is that? But you could tell when backpackers didn’t really care about any more castles, museums or new foods and just wanted to get back to what’s comfortable, even if that was sitting on their couch at home watching TV in pajamas.

You can tell when brands are posting to Twitter and Facebook just to hit a daily quota, just so they’ve “shared enough.”That’s not the point. That’s not social, it’s not interesting… It’s not good marketing.

Stay fresh. Stay excited – and if you’re not excited, figure out how you’ll find new stories to share.