Tell Us Everything, Travel Entrepreneur Katrina A. Garnett
Garnett's not intimidated by traveling with kids, instead she's passionate about the advantages of exposing children to world cultures. MyLittleSwans.com aims to cut out the travel agent by featuring itineraries from her many trips with restaurant, hotel, shopping and other suggestions of places she and her concierge partners have personally vetted. Plus, the site's selected list of tour operators in each of those destinations can arrange for custom adventures from a backstage tour of a Chinese opera to a hiking trip with the Maasai tribe in Tanzania.
Garnett – and by extension her site – is like that in-the-know friend always up on the newest, hottest and best. But she also shares the little-known, like her personal watchmaker in Switzerland and jeweler in Paris. She spent two years and more than $2 million of her own money developing the site and made sure it included a social media aspect, which she believes is essential for web 2.0 success. We chatted with this firecracker over drinks at New York's Gramercy Tavern and asked her to Tell Us Everything.
Why did you decide to go into travel?
I've been planning world adventures for my family for 15 years, from the time my firstborn was less than a year old. Over the years, numerous friends and acquaintances have sought me out for travel advice, so I've shared my itineraries and photos with them, and they've taken the same or similar trips and loved them.
But as the number of requests grew – and the Web became increasingly difficult to navigate from a discerning point of view – I saw there was need for a comprehensive trustworthy online resource that makes it easy for families to plan extraordinary journeys and to go straight to the source for the best guides and insider experiences.
My Little Swans is not just a bunch of pretty pictures and opinions. There are, of course, countless travel websites and online sources, but I think few that are developed with an eye to the future and a deep understanding of the tech underbelly; I'm a total tech nerd. And as most of my friends know, I'm also a bit of a perfectionist and can be a nut when it comes to research, so the MLS content reflects this 150 percent and always will – nothing is "pay for play" or ad-driven.
What are some of your travel essentials?
I have an "It List" of items I never travel without. Longer flights can wreak havoc on the skin, so I always bring Skinceuticals Hydrating B-5 Gel, Claudalie's Eau de Beaute elixir spray and Hydraflight cream. Closer to landing, I rely on Clarins Beauty Flash.
I always take a journal to jot down discoveries, and an iPad, so I have books to read without having to carry them – and it's of course directly compatible with MLS and so much lighter than a laptop. I also always bring both an iPhone and Blackberry, because you never know when a country will have trouble with a provider. An iTouch is another must-have – with games, music and video, it keeps us entertained without running down the phone battery. And I love the discreet Shure noise canceling headphones for their high quality, while my son Emerson, who's really into music, prefers Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones.
Apparel-wise, my Shanghai Tang pajamas are of the first things I unpack once I'm behind closed doors. My Lanvin ballet slippers are lifesavers when you're doing a lot of walking, and my three simple Hermes belts – white, blue and brown - add polish to any outfit. Jewelry is another sure way to dress up a casual ensemble, and I count on my Chanel pearls or good gold hoops. I also always bring a shawl of some sort for keeping warm on the plane and air-conditioned rooms, and as a cover-up in mosques and churches.
Why is it important for kids to travel?
Childhood is the best time to explore. Kids stretch themselves on trips in ways they will never do in a classroom. The world they are growing up in is so different. How will they know what is out there, what the world has to offer, if they don't experience it for themselves? Travel gives kids a much broader experience of the world, gets them out of their provincialism, which is really useful as they grow older.
As someone who travels regularly with her kids, what were your best and worst travel experiences with the family?
Some of the most wonderful times we've had as a family have been boating holidays. We've taken sailing trips to the Greek Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Turkish coast and Alaska. Far away from everything, sharing simple pleasures, our family really had a chance to bond. You explore somewhere new every day, but only have to unpack once. And boat trips offer something for everyone – kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, or just sitting on the deck with a good book.
My kids' two favorite destinations might be Argentina and Africa, largely because we were outdoors, experiencing such different things from our usual lives. In Africa, we got to see lions, giraffes and all kinds of other exotic animals in the wild, meet the Maasai, ride elephants (right). It was pretty incredible. And in Argentina, we got to hike glaciers, ride horses across the pampas, zipline through the rainforest and rappel down waterfalls. Lots of active, adventurous stuff that was also unique to the places we were visiting.
Our recent trip to Egypt over a Christmas holiday might be our worst experience, largely because it did not compare to the experience we had had on an earlier trip. You sometimes go to these places with a grand vision out of an Agatha Christie novel, but unfortunately, with the sand storms and various other unforeseen challenges, it did not meet expectations. While the history and the monuments are wonderful, traveling between locations makes it a tough trip. Going in winter has its drawbacks too – it's quite cold, and you are running out of daylight by 4 p.m., so you're racing to the monuments and then rushing through the sites. Not a lot of time to absorb or appreciate the history.
What do you see as some emerging family destinations that maybe parents wouldn't have thought of before?
Brazil keeps bubbling up as a South American destination – the country is getting ready for the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup. The state of Bahia in particular seems to be really heating up, with a number of new luxury resorts slated to open in the next year or two. We're planning our own trip to Brazil this September – the country is so large, you can plan almost any type of vacation there. I'm fascinated by the Amazon, and Brazil also has miles of fabulous beaches, which are always great for families. Brazil is very family-oriented in general – kids aren't excluded from gatherings and events.
Lebanon has also been in the news a lot. Like Croatia in the late '90s, Lebanon is politically calm now and beginning to thrive again. The new Beirut Art Center is already a cultural icon, and Beirut's central district is undergoing a huge renovation, with lots of upscale hotels, boutiques and restaurants. The country itself is small but incredibly varied, with an amazing history. Lebanon is a really interesting mix of landscapes and cultures; it's like the French Riviera plus the allure of the Middle East. You have a balmy climate and great beaches, then mountains for skiing and hiking just two hours from Beirut. Plus the souks, Bedouin camps, incredible food, wonderful hospitality. Family is very important to the Lebanese, which is always a plus when traveling with kids.
What are some exciting trends happening in luxury travel?
Tech devices such as the iPhone and iPad are revolutionizing travel – not just for luxury travelers, but for everyone. With all the new travel apps that are being created, and the ability to access the Internet and GPS wherever you go, travelers are empowered like never before. And it makes a resource like My Little Swans even more valuable, because members can utilize us on the road.
There are some extraordinary hotels opening up in Asia and the Middle East, a number of which are destinations in themselves, bringing together the best and most innovative architects, interior designers and chefs to create truly unique and beautiful experiences. Part of this trend are the new "fashion" hotels, like the Armani hotel in Dubai that just opened, and the two Louis Vuitton hotels currently being built.
What are three great luxury destinations on your radar where you get great value for your money? And what makes them so appealing?
Three places where the exchange rate is especially favorable right now are Argentina, Turkey and many parts of Asia.
Argentina is wonderful for its variety – our 17-day trip (left) included a cosmopolitan city, a glacier hike, fishing in mountain lakes, a rainforest excursion. And there are plenty of exceptional luxury accommodations ranging from elegant hotels in Buenos Aires to big estancias in the countryside.
As for Turkey, because they aren't yet on the Euro, prices are still relatively low and it's just a terrific destination – mosques, churches, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, ancient cities, beautiful coastline, beaches, islands – something for everyone to enjoy. There's a new "seven-star" Shangri-La hotel opening in Istanbul in 2012 too. Very curious about that.
Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia have long been renowned for their relatively affordable luxurious hotels and resorts with impeccable service, and that thankfully doesn't look like it will change in the foreseeable future! The appeal here is a remarkable landscape, exotic wildlife, great cuisine and a fascinating range of cultures – Hindu and Buddhist temples, floating villages, colorful festivals and traditions. Our partner in Indochina puts together incredible family trips filled with activities like kayaking and hiking that are perfect for active kids. The landscapes are unspoiled and remote, the culture is rich, the people are friendly. You can really immerse yourself. It's definitely high on our list for 2011.
Why should someone get their travel advice from My Little Swans rather than a more established source like Fodors?
Most of the world is literally being trampled by tourists, so getting a really unique or unspoiled experience requires a lot of planning. My Little Swans does that work for you, because you don't have to sift through an avalanche of information. We've consolidated a wealth of expertise into streamlined, easy-to-use resources that put it all at your fingertips.
Everything you find on our site, from travel tips to our global calendar, has been personally vetted. Our 30-plus featured destinations are based on trips that I took myself (usually with my children in tow). So our pages are filled with first-hand information and advice about where to go, what to see, where to stay, and where to eat. And we offer direct access – free of charge – to an elite Partner Network, who can introduce members to a whole new world of possibilities. All of our partners are companies we've either worked with directly or had personally recommended to us. They are regionally based, with long-established local relationships and connections you won't get from a wholesaler. And because of their connections, they can customize each trip to meet the exact needs and interests of the party, filled with special access and unique experiences.
It seems like some of your strength lies in your contacts with guides on the ground in different destinations. What are some hidden gems or invaluable tips you've learned from those sources?
In China, our guide took us to the oldest calligraphy school in the country, which my kids found just fascinating. They also took us backstage at the Chinese opera, where the kids spent hours getting into makeup and costumes – really memorable, and not something most operators would think to arrange.
In Tanzania, we got special access to a chimpanzee safari in Mahale Mountains National Park. Usually the safaris are limited to ages 12 and older, but our partner arranged for my 7 and 9-year-old boys to go.
At Iguazu Falls in Argentina, our partner arranged zip-lining and rappelling adventures, which were enormous fun. Most people just fly over in a helicopter, but we experienced the place in a really personal and unforgettable way.
As an experienced Silicon Valley entrepreneur, why was it important for you to have a social networking aspect to the site? And what else makes the site technically advanced?
Social networking is a revolution – you have to participate or you will miss out on so many opportunities. And travel is the fourth largest category in terms of social networking activity – it's an integral part of the travel-planning process. We think of our site as having three "legs" of information, each equally important: my experiences and itineraries, our partners' expertise and exclusive offerings, and the information and experiences our members share.
Our site is technically advanced because we were designed from the ground up to support the sharing of videos and photos, whereas sites designed before the phenomena of Facebook and YouTube have had to restructure in order to participate. Since I have lived and worked in tech for years, I knew My Little Swans needed a robust platform, built to embrace a content-rich Web experience and to take advantage of search and social aspects of Internet behavior...and to be able to support (and easily transition to) whatever comes next!
What trip are you planning next?
There are always a few on our horizon. While our daughter is in China this June, my husband, the boys and I are going on a wilderness adventure with our Alaska partner. We went to Alaska a few years ago, and loved it so much we're going again. We'll stay at their gorgeous riverside lodge, visit their bear-viewing camp, take a glacier cruise and do lots of fishing. We're also taking the Rocky Mountaineer train from Vancouver to Banff. In July, we'll spend a few days in Berlin before heading to Greece for a private charter through the Cyclades. In the fall, my husband – who's an avid art collector – and I are going with a few other friends on an art-themed trip to Argentina and Brazil. 2011 is still evolving...we usually start discussing ideas for the next adventure as a family on the flight home from the last.
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